June 18, 2021

"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."

So begins the great New Yorker essay, "The Journalist and the Murderer," quoted in "Janet Malcolm, Provocative Journalist With a Piercing Eye, Dies at 86/Her subjects ranged widely, but she took special aim at journalism itself, writing that every journalist 'knows that what he does is morally indefensible'" (NYT). 

Goodbye to Janet Malcolm! 

The essay is available in book form, and you really must read it. If you've read it, reread it!

In fact, “The Journalist and the Murderer” has become something of a classic and was ranked No. 97 on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century. “It is now taught to nearly every undergraduate studying journalism,” Katie Roiphe wrote in a 2011 profile of Ms. Malcolm for The Paris Review
“Today, my critique seems obvious,” Ms. Malcolm told Ms. Roiphe, “even banal.”

The book version has an important afterward, about Malcolm's own fight to defend herself against a defamation lawsuit. She'd written an article — a fantastic article — where she put quotation marks around things that were not verbatim transcriptions of speech. "This thing called speech is sloppy, redundant, repetitious, full of uhs and ahs... I needed to present it in logical, rational order so he would sound like a logical, rational person" — she said at trial. 

The Paris Review interview is great. Roiphe has the wit to start off by asking Malcolm, "So how would you describe your apartment if you were the journalist walking into your living room?"

Malcolm answers: "My living room has an oak-wood floor, Persian carpets, floor-to-ceiling bookcases, a large ficus and large fern, a fireplace with a group of photographs and drawings over it, a glass-top coffee table with a bowl of dried pomegranates on it, and sofas and chairs covered in off-white linen. If I were a journalist walking into the room, I would immediately start composing a satiric portrait of the New York writer’s apartment with its standard tasteful objects (cat included) and general air of unrelenting Culture."

Ha ha. Perfect. Exactly! 

1 comment:

Ann Althouse said...

K writes:

"I read the book and then, about 20 pages from the end, I read an account of MacDonald's trial, before I finished the book. What you notice right away is that The Journalist and the Murderer does not discuss the physical evidence at all. This evidence led the police to suspect MacDonald at once. Instead, the book is about three ways to get to the truth about Jeffrey MacDonald - or at least to write about him - The three ways acceptable in modern life are as a juror, as a journalist (who is seen as an artist manque), as as a psychiatrist. And the main thrust of the article centers on the relationship of the journalist who offers "to tell your side of the story" and the person to whom this offer is made. Malcolm argues that a journalist has no intention of telling the subject's "side of the story" but always intends to write the journalist's own ideas on the story. McGinniss and MacDonald are vivid examples of the problem. Their encounter leads to a long discussion of the need to practice "ambush" journalism. a discussion which meanders into the financial rewards attending upon journalistic deceptions. The whole is interesting because in this day and age assertions about "fake news" are common and subjects are quite wary of journalists while journalists of today like to assume an artless, child-like innocence about their professional shenanigans. This reverses the situation existing in Malcolm's day. Is today's situation the natural outcome of the situation Malcolm was reporting on? Have things gotten worse or have people become more aware? I would say that ignoring the facts, composing a narrative with an eye to professional and financial success, and being a hypocrite about the whole process has become a distortion as common in journalism as in Picasso. Journalism isn't struggling with truth; it's battling on behalf of lies. That wasn't a necessary development but it is a factual one."