Book introduction: Janet Malcolm examines the psychopathology of journalism using the example of the lawsuit of Jefferey MacDonald against Joe McGinniss, who published a book about the crime that MacDonald convicted although he was deceived in the entire interview process. The book examines the universal journalist-subject relationship and argues that journalists are treacherous and selfish figures who justify their actions with the freedom of speech, the importance of their work, or even by monetary benefits.
An examination of the human morals, journalism, human nature, and the psychology behind the actions, the book is engaging and thrilling to read, and it starts a conversation that will last along with journalism.
Journalists, the real murderers?
In the classic The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm argues that in the encounter between the journalists and their subjects, the relationship dynamic is always dominated by the journalists, who end up betraying the interviewees no matter how they behave in the actual interview process. Malcolm looked into the McDonald v. McGinniss case and bases her argument on the disappointment and rage that typical journalism subjects experience. Although Malcolm’s argument is overly pessimistic, the book presents an interesting point of view of the journalism-subject dynamic: journalists hold more power than the generally ignorant and innocent subjects.
The book, a reflection on the classic case of betrayal, starts with the line that echoes with many journalism subjects: “every journalist who is not too stupid or 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.” The statement seems out of place, but its essence does hold water. Many journalists misquote their interviewees to fit their own purposes and presentation of an issue or opinion, and many even engage in the treacherous process of deceiving and misleading their subjects in the interview process to grasp the information they need—similar to the case in The Journalist and the Murderer where McGinniss gains McDonald’s trust by relating to his own personal experiences but always believed the interviewee guilty from the very beginning.
In Becoming the News by Ruth Palmer, the researcher has interviewed more than eighty previous news subjects—many of whom have similar experiences of being betrayed by the journalists whose intentions did not align with those of the subjects. The seemingly overstatement, as a result, becomes a relatively accurate snapshot of the journalist-subject encounter where the journalist gains their trust and betray them “without remorse”.
Even in her own process as a journalist when crafting the book, Malcolm testifies the vicious relationship by possibly betraying her subjects, including both McDonald and McGinniss. In the last section of the book, she becomes the journalist again in the interaction with McDonald, and she ends the book with betrayal (which also supports her argument) as she refuses to answer the long letters from the pathetic subject who still held hope in the journalist. The book itself, a process of a journalist reporting different stories that target various subjects to fit her own purposes, is the evidence for the argument that the journalist is the actual murderer of truth.
Even in the trial of McDonald v. McGinniss, the distinction between “untruth” and “lies” become an important clash point. While the lawyer of the plaintiff argue that even a criminal deserves the protection from fraud and intended harm, the lawyer on the other side used the First Amendment to defend the freedom of speech, which becomes a common defense of authors and journalists, who even testified in court against McDonald. “Untruth”, according to Krostein, the lawyer of McGinniss, is unlike “lies” that are of bad intentions and ill purposes.
Whether it is a lie or an untruth, the case (the focus of the book) reminds people of the power journalists have and the dangerous relationships. “Something seems to happen to people when they meet a journalist,” writes Malcolm, “What happens is exactly the opposite of what one would expect. One would think that extreme wariness and caution would be the order of the day, but in fact childish trust and impetuosity are far more common…The subject becomes a kind of child of the writer, regarding him as a permissive, all-accepting, all-forgiving mother, and expecting that the book will be written by her. Of course, the book is written by the strict, all-noticing, unforgiving father.”
Malcolm perfectly characterizes the relationship and the contrast between expectations and reality and the psychology behind them: the attention-craving subjects become incredulous and powerless in the face of journalists as they have the optimistic tendency of trusting someone who promises to act in their favor. On the other hand, the cruel reality is that journalists have their own biases and perspectives, and their stories were formed even before the interview, as the quotes and information only serve to strengthen the journalists’ biases. In such a process, the truth is murdered by the journalists with the so-called “untruth”.
The “blind self absorption” and “journalist’s skepticism” result in the universal relationship dynamic and even the common distrust of the media industry in general by the public. Because of the betrayals and corresponding shocks, people no longer trust the journalists.
Malcolm ignored the one important aspect: the merits of journalism. Despite Malcolm’s mockery, journalists hold important responsibilities in society. During the time of global dilemmas, it is especially important that people are consuming the right information. Misinformation and fake news would lead to public anxiety—they would permeate a common sense of distrust and fear in society, which only worsens the situation. The fake news also serves to mislead and confuse the audiences. Thus, it is the responsibilities of the journalists to fact check and present ethical journalism to the news consumers who rely on the sources to obtain information and form their understanding of the event. And public needs to trust journalists in order to consume the information.
Journalists need to make the ethical choices to preserve the trust, the correct image of their own integrity, and most importantly, the value of journalism in society. Journalists have to stop the murder of truth and give voices to more representations, whether the murder can be justified as manslaughter or not.
Information: Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer.