The Journalist and the Murderer

Also by Janet Malcolm





Copyright © 1990 by Janet Malcolm

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published, in different form, in
The New Yorker
. This edition was originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., in 1990.

           Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Malcolm, Janet.
   The journalist and the murderer / Janet Malcolm.
     p.     cm.
   eISBN: 978-0-307-79787-2
   1. Journalistic ethics—United States. 2. Investigative reporting—United States. 3. Journalism—United States—Objectivity. 4. Journalism—Social aspects—United States.
I. Title.
[PN4888.E8 1990b]
174’.9097—dc20             90-50156

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:

Newsday, Inc.:
Excerpts from transcript of Bob Keeler’s interview with Joe McGinniss,
The Newsday Magazine
, July 1983. Copyright © 1983 by Newsday, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

Princeton Alumni Weekly:
Excerpts from Michael Malley’s review of
Fatal Vision
by Joe McGinniss,
Princeton Alumni Weekly
, 1984. Reprinted by permission.

South Carolina Educational Television:
Excerpts from transcript of filmed interview of William F. Buckley with Joe McGinniss, “Firing Line,” September 18, 1987. Reprinted by permission.

Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.:
Excerpts from
by Joe McGinniss. Copyright © 1976 by Joe McGinniss. Reprinted by permission of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.


To Andulka

So a novelist is the same as a journalist, then. Is that what you’re saying?

—Question asked by Judge William J. Rea during the MacDonald-McGinniss trial, July 7, 1987


VERY 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. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns—when the article or book appears—
hard lesson. 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.

The catastrophe suffered by the subject is no simple matter of an unflattering likeness or a misrepresentation of his views; what pains him, what rankles and sometimes drives him to extremes of vengefulness, is the deception that has been practiced on him. On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist—who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things—never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own. The disparity between what seems to be the intention of an interview as it is taking
place and what it actually turns out to have been in aid of always comes as a shock to the subject. His situation resembles that of the subject of Stanley Milgram’s famous psychological experiment (conducted at Yale in the early sixties), who was tricked into believing that he was participating in a study of the effect of punishment on learning and memory when in fact what was being studied was his own capacity for cruelty under the pressure of authority. In an ingenious fake laboratory setup, the “naïve subject”—a volunteer who had answered an advertisement in a New Haven newspaper—was told to give an increasingly painful electric shock to a person, presumably another volunteer, in response to every wrong answer to a test question. In
Obedience to Authority
, his book about the experiment, Milgram writes of his surprise at the large number of subjects who obeyed the experimenter, and kept on pulling the lever even though the receiver of the shocks was screaming with pain—or, rather, with simulated pain, since the whole thing was rigged: the electrical apparatus to which the victim was strapped was a stage prop, and the victim himself was an actor. Milgram’s idea had been to see how ordinary Americans would behave when put in a situation roughly comparable to that of the ordinary Germans who were ordered to participate actively in the destruction of the Jews of Europe. The results were not encouraging. Although a few subjects refused to go on with the experiment at the first sign of distress from the victim, most subjects docilely continued giving shock after shock. However, Milgram’s chilling findings are not the point. The point lies in the
of the situation: the deliberately induced delusion, followed by a moment of shattering revelation. The dizzying shift of perspective
experienced by the subject of the Milgram experiment when he was “debriefed,” or “dehoaxed,” as Milgram calls it, is comparable to the dislocation felt by the subject of a book or article when he first reads it. The subject of the piece of writing has not suffered the tension and anxiety endured by the subject of the “Eichmann experiment” (as it has been called)—on the contrary, he has been on a sort of narcissist’s holiday during the period of interviews—but when the moment of peripeteia comes, he is confronted with the same mortifying spectacle of himself flunking a test of character he did not know he was taking.

However, unlike the reader of
Obedience to Authority
, with whom Milgram shares the technical details of the deception, the reader of a work of journalism can only imagine how the writer got the subject to make such a spectacle of himself. The subject, for his part, is not likely to supply the answer. After his dehoaxing, he tends to pick himself up and walk away from the debacle, relegating his relationship with the journalist to the rubbish heap of love affairs that ended badly and are best pushed out of consciousness. Occasionally, a subject will have become so enmeshed with the journalist that he cannot let go of him, and long after the galling book has been remaindered the relationship is maintained through the interminable lawsuit that the subject launches to keep the writer bound to him. Yet even here the journalist’s perfidy is not exposed, for the lawyer who takes the subject’s case translates his story of seduction and betrayal into one or several of the conventional narratives of libel law, such as defamation of character or false statement of facts or reckless disregard of the truth.

•   •   •

summer of 1984, a lawsuit was filed by a subject against a writer in which, remarkably, the underlying narrative of betrayed love was not translated into any of those conventional narratives but, rather, was told straight—and, moreover, told so compellingly that at trial five of the six jurors were persuaded that a man who was serving three consecutive life sentences for the murder of his wife and two small children was deserving of more sympathy than the writer who had deceived him.

I learned of the case only after the trial had ended, when I received a letter, dated September 1, 1987, from a certain Daniel Kornstein. The letter—which had been sent to some thirty-odd journalists throughout the country—began:

I am the lawyer who defended Joe McGinniss, author of
Fatal Vision
, in a six-week jury trial recently concluded in Los Angeles. As you may know, the suit was filed by convicted triple murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, the subject of McGinniss’s book.

The trial ended in a hung jury. Although the plaintiff recovered nothing, the possibility of a retrial means that in a very real sense the issues raised by the trial are still alive, open, and undecided. Indeed, one of the jurors—who admitted she had not read a book since high school—was reported to have said afterwards that she would have awarded “millions and millions of dollars to set an example for all authors to show they can’t tell an untruth” to their subjects.

Kornstein went on to characterize the suit—which was for fraud and breach of contract—as an attempt “to set a new precedent whereby a reporter or author would be
legally obligated to disclose his state of mind and attitude toward his subject during the process of writing and research,” and to speak of the “grave threat to established journalistic freedoms” that such a precedent would pose:

For the first time, a disgruntled subject has been permitted to sue a writer on grounds that render irrelevant the truth or falsity of what was published.… Now, for the first time, a journalist’s demeanor and point of view throughout the entire creative process have become an issue to be resolved by jury trial.… The MacDonald claim suggests that newspaper and magazine reporters, as well as authors, can and will be sued for writing truthful but unflattering articles should they ever have acted in a fashion that indicated a sympathetic attitude toward their interview subject.

With his letter Kornstein enclosed transcripts of the testimony of William F. Buckley, Jr., and Joseph Wambaugh, who had appeared as expert witnesses for the defense, and excerpts from his own closing statement, “in which I tried to stress the gravity and scope of this new threat to freedom of expression.” He concluded, “Joe McGinniss and I both feel that the danger is sufficiently clear and present as to warrant your close attention and concern.”

I took Kornstein’s bait—I don’t know if any of the other journalists he wrote to did—and a few days later I was driving up to Williamstown, Massachusetts, to talk to Joe McGinniss at his house there. I looked forward to the interview, which would be the first of a series of tape-recorded conversations that McGinniss and I had arranged to have over the next few weeks. I had never interviewed a journalist before, and was curious about what would
develop between me and a journalistically knowledgeable, rather than naïve, subject. Here, clearly, there would be none of the moral uneasiness that the naïve subject all but forces the journalist to endure as the price of his opportunity to once again point out the frailty of human nature. McGinniss and I would be less like experimenter and subject than like two experimenters strolling home from the lab together after the day’s work, companionably thrashing out the problems of the profession. The tape recorder would preserve the trenchant things we would say; nobody would “do” anything to anyone. The conversation would be serious, on a high level, maybe even lively and witty.

It did not work out that way. McGinniss refused the role of co-experimenter, preferring to play the role of subject. After the first hour of the five hours we spent together, I stopped struggling to preserve my scenario of elevated talk between confrères and gave in to McGinniss’s imperative that we play the old game of Confession, by which journalists earn their bread and subjects indulge their masochism. For, of course, at bottom, no subject is naïve. Every hoodwinked widow, every deceived lover, every betrayed friend, every subject of writing knows on some level what is in store for him, and remains in the relationship anyway, impelled by something stronger than his reason. That McGinniss, who had interviewed hundreds of people and knew the game backward and forward, should nevertheless exhibit himself to me as a defensive, self-righteous, scared man only demonstrates the strength of this force. Near the end of the day, he told me of a dream he had had the night before: “I was back in the courthouse in L.A. There was a second trial. I said, ‘No, this can’t be happening. I’m not ready for this yet,
it’s too soon, I haven’t recovered from the first trial yet.’ When I woke up this morning, my amateur analysis of the dream was that it was about my talking to you today. This would be the new trial. It didn’t seem very subtle. The message was right on the surface.” At six o’clock, the tape recorder clicked, and though McGinniss sat waiting for me to put in a new tape, I decided to bring the interview to an end. When, two days later, he called to cancel our future interviews and to say “I want to put all this behind me,” I was not surprised, and rather relieved: I had begun to sense that McGinniss’s confession to me was not a new one. Someone had been there before me, and something was being repeated with me. A few weeks later, upon reading the transcript of the MacDonald-McGinniss trial, I knew who and what it was. What McGinniss had not yet recovered from—what he had no doubt been helplessly reliving in his imagination during his meeting with me—was a four-and-a-half-day interrogation by Gary Bostwick, the plaintiff’s lawyer. Bostwick had mauled McGinniss until there was little left of him. What McGinniss had gone through at the trial was what one goes through in those nightmares of being found out, from which one awakens with tears of gratitude that it is just a dream. Only the most hardhearted person could read the transcript of Bostwick’s examination without feeling pity for McGinniss. But even the staunchest defender of a journalist’s right to do his work in whatever unpleasant way he chooses cannot but wonder how McGinniss could have been so imprudent as to leave behind—in the form of some forty letters to MacDonald—a written record of his bad faith.

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