AN AMERICAN VIEW

Are journalists basically liars?

FRED BRUNING April 24 1989
AN AMERICAN VIEW

Are journalists basically liars?

FRED BRUNING April 24 1989

The New Yorker magazine recently published a two-part article by Janet Malcolm in which the writer excoriates a brother scribe, Joe McGinniss, for what Malcolm views as base literary acts—specifically, doublecrossing the lead character in McGinniss’s 1983 nonfiction bestseller, Fatal Vision. Not content only to denounce McGinniss and his methods, Malcolm, in her piece, files a sort of ethical class-action suit against all reporters—incorrigible bullies, she argues, who would dump their mothers for a decent story.

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” Malcolm begins. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

She compares the innocent subject of journalistic interrogation to a widow undone by a falsehearted lover and says reporters have an only feeble rationale for their debauchery. “Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

Bringing Malcolm’s indignation to such a robust boil was the treatment of one Jeffrey MacDonald by the scoundrel McGinniss. MacDonald is the former U.S. army doctor convicted of murdering his wife and two daughters in a spectacular case that became the focus of Fatal Vision. McGinniss hooked up with MacDonald in 1979 when the accused, once cleared by an army tribunal but subsequently charged by civilian authorities, was about to go on trial in North Carolina.

The two—the defendant and the author—formed a partnership of sorts. MacDonald, stoutly claiming his innocence, expected a sympathetic rendering by a well-known writer. McGinniss figured the story was a natural and sure to make him a bundle. The defendant co-operated fully with McGinniss. The author took full advantage of his opportunity.

For MacDonald, it was terrible luck to discover that the book he wanted—one portraying him as a decent man snared by nightmarish circumstances—proved instead to be a merciless and persuasive indictment of his actions and character. Like the jury, Joe McGinniss came to believe that Jeffrey MacDonald was guilty, and it didn’t make any difference to McGinniss that MacDonald considered him a friend.

Malcolm argues that McGinniss allowed, indeed, encouraged, MacDonald to go on thinking they were as close as a couple of frat brothers even as the author was preparing to rebuke the unwitting fellow in print. Surely, anyone reading the New Yorker instalments is apt to agree that MacDonald was hoping for the services of a collaborator more than those of a journalist and that McGinniss was determined to nourish his career at all costs.

Was McGinniss manipulative and disingenuous? It would appear so. Was he justified in stringing MacDonald along? Given the circumstances, he may not have had a choice. The project had gone too far by then. McGinniss had invested a great deal of time and could not afford to lose the co-operation of his primary source. It was a nasty state of affairs, but McGinniss was trapped, and, although he didn’t know it, so was MacDonald. Ultimately, MacDonald sued McGinniss, and the two settled out of court for $383,500, thus ending their common enterprise.

Here, then, we have the art of the deal, not the art of journalism, if such a thing can be said to exist. What the wrathful Malcolm seems not to understand is that most reporters—those harried slobs who cover fires and hound politicians and, yes, who may pound on your door at 11 p.m. and ask how you intend to spend that million in lottery money—operate far differently than the celebrity writers. Those less exalted chumps do not enter elaborate contracts with their subjects. They do not play such a high-stakes game. They spend a few hours, or a few days, on their stories and hurry back to their word processors. They pound the keys. They endure the tyranny of their editors. They grab a fresh notebook and dash to the next assignment.

Big money and big problems? Leave that to hot shots like McGinniss, who is currently on the best-seller charts with another controversial crime book, called Blind Faith, and to Malcolm of The New Yorker. Ironically, Malcolm was once sued by a psychoanalyst, Jeffery Masson, who says she wrecked his career by wantonly misrepresenting his views in an earlier story for the magazine. The suit was dismissed in 1987 but continues on appeal. In her lengthy McGinniss diatribe, Malcolm neglects to mention her own legal adventures. Odd.

Let’s be frank. Do reporters have their tricks? They do indeed. Are those manoeuvres the moral equivalent of felonious assault? Maybe for writers of Important Works, but not on the level of everyday journalism. Reporters may try to charm a subject in order to pry loose a fact. In the pursuit of information, they may be persistent and, in some cases, overbearing. They may laugh at jokes they find distinctly lacking in humor so as to keep the conversation going. They may nod in agreement when, within, they couldn’t disagree more. They may stop taking notes at one point so as to put a subject at ease and then, when the source is answering another question, quickly jot down that juicy quote uttered a moment before. And they may smile and shake hands at the end of a chat and then go back to the office and describe the subject as a rascal, should the term be appropriate.

But if there is some doubt as to the rules of ethics and civility in the weightless atmosphere of hardback publishing and influential periodicals, there is little confusion among those who practise their trade here on Mother Earth. You don’t lie to a source. You don’t pretend you’re writing one kind of story and then produce another. You don’t invent quotes. And you don’t accuse honest practitioners of treachery without knowing how they work. In journalism, at least, there is no such thing as shared guilt. You acquire it on your own.