"What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subjects’ blind self-absorption and the journalist’s skepticism. Journalists who swallow the subject’s account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists…Like the young Aztec men and women selected for sacrifice, who lived in delightful ease and luxury until the appointed day when their hearts were to be carved from their chests, journalistic subjects know all too well what awaits them when the days of wine and roses - the days of the interviews - are over. And still they say yes when a journalist calls, and still they are astonished when they see the flash of the knife." -Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer
I don't even know where to begin. The Journalist and the Murderer tells the story behind Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss. McGinniss befriended the accused murderer, Jeff MacDonald, and agreed to write a book about him. There was a contract. There was the promise of money. MacDonald essentially hired McGinniss to be his publicist, to write a book proclaiming the innocence of a wrongly-accused man (MacDonald was convicted of the crime though), but instead, Fatal Vision tells the story of a cold-blooded, psychopathic killer. McGinniss manipulated MacDonald into trusting him and then turned around and betrayed him - for a profit, too.
MacDonald sued McGinniss, and a whirlwind of criticisms ensued. Their complicated relationship is the story of The Journalist and the Murderer. It begs the question: What is the true nature of the relationship between a journalist and his or her subject?
I’ve always considered the journalist/subject relationship to be the most complicated aspect of the field. Where does a person draw the line between professional and personal? What does that say about journalists who choose to write about their friends (for example, Lillian Ross’s profile of Hemingway)? I once read somewhere that “journalists don’t have friends, only sources”…True or false?
As for Malcolm’s book: The Journalist and the Murderer led me through a rollercoaster of emotions while I read (seriously, there are post-its with sad faces and smiley faces all over my copy of the book), but I really, really loved it. Not because I closed the book thinking, “Oh my God, this is the most wonderful piece of writing in the world!” but because it has made me seriously think and, thus, re-examine almost everything I’ve learned since entering the LJ major…and just when I thought I was getting better acquainted with the field. I do love having my comfortable little bubble of a world shook up from time to time, though.
I began reading the book and thinking, “So MacDonald wants to sue for having his feelings hurt? He should’ve hired a publicist if he wanted a positive book written about him.” But then as I read I became angry at McGinniss for being such a manipulative jerk. I kept trying to make excuses for McGinniss, in hopes of finding some redemption for him. “He’s a journalist,” I kept thinking to myself. “The writer is credible. He must know better.” (It was my own bias, really. I mean, MacDonald was “convicted of murder,” right?) But like Barry says to us from time to time, “These writers didn’t have a class on the evolution of ethics in literary journalism.” (Not that that should be a free pass for McGinniss though.)
So then I started getting angry with McGinniss for lying to get his story, for pretending to be his friend when really he only cared about making himself look good. McGinniss wanted a big story to push him into the spotlight, one that wouldn’t be written off like his past works had been. I think he knew that writing the story of a cold killer would be more alluring to the public, especially since he could boast that he knew MacDonald so well. Here he was, writing from the “mind of a killer” and telling his readers what they could only dream of knowing. McGinniss manipulated MacDonald into trusting him, and then betrayed him – and profited off of it as well. McGinniss also used his friendship with MacDonald to convince him not to talk to other journalists or reporters because he was trying to protect his own story. He didn’t want MacDonald to change his mind and choose another writer; he wanted the exclusive rights to MacDonald’s words.
But the thing is...Haven't I done that? I went into writing about sabers with the knowledge that it would get me attention. I wanted a spotlight on me for just a brief moment. It was the article, after all, that got me started writing for the New U. It got me what I wanted. I couldn't have written it if I hadn't pretended to be so invested in all of their personal lives; otherwise, they wouldn't have let me into their circle. I couldn't have gotten the scenes and information that I wanted.
It's been a year since I finished the article and I wish I could have just closed the book. Why did I sustain those false friendships? Was it because I felt guilty, because I didn't want to admit that I had used a group of people and no longer had need for them? Or because a genuine friendship evolved? I think I was looking for someone to listen to me too. I spent so long listening to others, I wanted someone to hear me out for once. In retrospect, I should've looked elsewhere. This is not the way to do it.
So then is the journalist/subject relationship really that perverse? People who just use one another for attention, and then cast one another aside once the job is done? Feelings are bound to get involved and then things get messy. Where (and how) do we draw the line?