Book Review: The Journalist and the Murderer

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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. 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–his hard lesson.

The Journalist and the Murderer, by Janet Malcolm

A few months ago, I became entirely absorbed in a new Netflix series, as I am bound to do. This time, it was Making a Murderer, the story of Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, who were convicted for the murder of Teresa Halbach, a local photographer. While watching Making a Murderer, which portrays Avery and Dassey in an unmistakably sympathetic light, I was skeptical. There was simply something about Avery that I didn’t like. I felt more sympathetic towards Dassey because he was younger and inexperienced, but I remained aware of the bias of the directors – as much as the series covered a real trial about a real crime, it is crafted to be entertainment.

When discussing Making a Murderer, it is often grouped with the first season of Sarah Koenig’s Serial and HBO’s The Jinx as part of a larger cultural phenomenon, the rise of interest in true crime, specifically murder. I don’t believe this interest is recent. There’s something about murder that fascinates us and that has fascinated us for a long time. Consider Capote’s In Cold Bloodwhich brilliantly illustrates the murders of the Clutter family, familiarizing readers with the family, their community, and the murderers.

In Cold Blood is often described as the first nonfiction novel. What does this mean? It means, “take this with a grain of salt”. Although it details a real crime, In Cold Blood is by no means a faithful representation of what happened. There is dialogue that is obviously invented and details that are obviously embellished, for the sake of the story. As the reader, we suspend disbelief and accept these untruths, again, for the sake of the story.

The Journalist and the Murderer discusses two men: Jeffrey MacDonald, a doctor convicted of murdering his pregnant wife Colette and their two daughters, and Joe McGinness, a journalist hired by MacDonald to write about his case. During the course of the trial, McGinness befriended MacDonald and corresponded with him even after his conviction. McGinness refused to allow MacDonald to see a draft of the book before publication, while asserting him that he still believed in his innocence. When McGinness’s novel, Fatal Vision, was finally published, it painted a picture of MacDonald as a brutal, cold, unfeeling psychopath, definitely guilty of the murders. MacDonald sued McGinness for fraud.

What’s interesting about this book is its discussion of the ethics of journalism. To what degree does a journalist have to be honest? McGinness’s argument for his dishonesty was that his final loyalty was to his novel, and ultimately, to his audience. Like a secret agent, he was willing to court dishonesty in order to worm his way into a friendship with MacDonald and obtain the truth about the murders. Is it immoral to lie to a subject one believes is guilty of an even greater crime: murder? In a way, the book argues, this is one of the unspoken rules of journalism: to manipulate the subject to gain the necessary information.

I enjoyed this book, even though I generally don’t read nonfiction (although, as this book proves, the line between fiction and nonfiction can be fairly arbitrary). It got me thinking not only about the ethics of journalism but about the act of writing in general. By definition, I realized, writing is a powerfully manipulative act in itself. Any good piece of writing is carefully crafted to elicit certain reactions from the reader.

YES OR NO?: YES. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in journalism or true crime. After bingeing on Making a Murderer and the first season of Sarah Koenig’s Serial, this book provided an interesting perspective on the journalists behind the stories. Although a little repetitive in structure, this book is a short but thought-provoking read.

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