Flipping through my Amazon wish list I stumbled upon a book I wanted to read ever since I was a reporter. The Journalist and the Murderer is a 1990 study by Janet Malcolm on the ethics of journalism. It describes at length the tricky dynamics between a reporter and a source during their interaction. And it draws a startling conclusion: no one sane can believe that journalism is a moral process.
The book attracted heavy criticism upon first publication. When you read the first paragraph, you can grasp why. “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.”
Janet Malcolm continues by noting: “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 man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns – when the article or book appears – his hard lesson.”
What is the book about? Malcolm, a journalist and non-fiction book writer herself, takes on a journey to study the dynamics between a journalist, Joe McGinniss, and a convicted murderer — former Special Forces Captain Jeffrey MacDonald, who became the subject of McGinniss’ 1983 book Fatal Vision. According to Wikipedia, McGinniss had become a best-selling author with his 1969 work The Selling of the President.
After an interview with the accused murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, MacDonald proposed that McGinniss write a book of his story, and asked for a share of the revenue from the book as a way to fund his legal battle. McGinniss agreed. He struck up a close friendship with MacDonald, an Army physician charged with the 1970 murders of his twenty-six year-old pregnant wife and their two young daughters.
The agreement was that the journalist would report from both the court room and from within MacDonald’s team. McGinniss shared housing with his book’s subject, exercised with him, and sat beside him at the defense table during his trial. Within a month of MacDonald’s conviction, the journalist began a series of letters expressing sympathy and support. However, as later revealed, McGinniss had become easily convinced of MacDonald’s guilt during the trial.
Yet, he continued showing support to MacDonald for years in order to basically keep his subject talking. For four years, MacDonald imagines he is “helping” McGinniss write a book exonerating him of his crime. What Malcolm describes as MacDonald’s “dehoaxing” takes place in “a particularly dramatic and cruel manner” — a 1983 taping of the CBS news program 60 Minutes. As host Mike Wallace read aloud portions of the now-completed Fatal Vision, the cameras broadcast MacDonald’s look of “shock and utter discomposure.”
Morally indefensible narcissism
MacDonald goes to sue McGinniss for his approach. Malcolm, who had gone through a similar legal hassle herself, a $10 million legal challenge by psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson following the publication of her book In the Freud Archives, starts covering the case after the trial, and draws conclusions that take many aback.
While in his book McGinniss portrays MacDonald as a “womanizer” and “narcissist,” Malcolm draws the conclusion that narcissism is precisely the “social disease” behind McGinniss’s behavior of encouraging his subject to believe otherwise long after he had been convinced of his subject’s guilt.
In Malcolm’s eyes McGinnis’ moral sin — and the basis for her broader journalistic critique — was to pretend to believe in MacDonald’s innocence. In Malcolm’s opinion he does this long after he’d become convinced of the man’s guilt. This is the “morally indefensible” position she speaks of on the book’s first page.
The reality check
In an era where the fundamentals of the media world as we know it are falling apart, is further criticism necessary? Malcolm’s book, that went on to be regarded as a “seminal” work and ranks ninety-seventh on The Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Non-Fiction works of the 20th century, seems more painfully up-to-date today than ever before.
Indeed, the media industry is suffering all across the globe under the disruption caused by new technologies. Indeed, media is more vulnerable in fresh democracies such as the post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Maybe the fact that Janet Malcolm was born in 1934 in Prague is not a coincidence. The media industry is going through a fundamental disruption.
Yet people’s yearning for stories to learn from and information to guide their lives accurately, responsibly, morally is still alive. In an era where 20-years old reporters can be assigned to cover parliaments — I was one of them — where the media market is dangerously concentrating and where the gap between the media reps and the real needs of the public is constantly increasing, a narcissism check is utterly appropriate.
No room for illusions
What does this all mean for individuals and companies who still consider media relations as one of the most relevant parts of their public communication? Regardless of the shape, the fundamentals of the media game have not changed: reporters will always cultivate the narcissistic tendencies of their sources to keep them talking, and the dehoaxing upon article publication will be as painful as the length you went in the illusion that the reporter is on your side.
It is up to each of us to watch our borders and give ourselves a regular narcissism check. After all, no one in this process is innocent. Being aware, however, reduces the chances of too big a shock. It’s the best your media relations can get.