(Photo by Victor Nuno)
Strange bonds of trust and self-deception tend to grow between journalists and their subjects. Janet Malcolm examines these fraught encounters in a fascinating book, The Journalist and the Murderer, which focuses on the relationship between Joe McGinniss, the best-selling author of Fatal Vision, and Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret physician convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two young daughters.
Malcolm’s book is especially interesting for its diagnosis of the ethical problems posed by the standard print interview:
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. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.
Malcolm is probably being too hard on herself and her fellow journalists here—and in this way hoping to appear unsullied. Nevertheless, these are remarkable disclosures. As someone who has sat for his fair share of print interviews, I can attest to the insidious way that one’s vanity and trust can work to one’s disadvantage. Malcolm captures the resulting derangement perfectly: