The Journalist and the Murderer – Book Review

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The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm - Book Review
The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm – Book Review

The Journalist and The Murderer is a nonfiction book by Janet Malcolm, published in 1990. The book examines the slippery relationship between the journalist and his subject, which, Malcolm explains, is necessary to create a piece of journalism.

On page three she writes, “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.”

She argues–if both parties in the subject/journalist relationship wore their motivations on their sleeves, and the journalist wrote what the subject wanted, the final piece wouldn’t be called journalism. It would be called publicity.

There are two court cases represented in The Journalist and The Murderer. The first case is a murder trial between the government and the accused murderer, Jeff McDonald, a retired Army physician convicted of killing his pregnant wife and two children in 1970. McDonald offered Joe McGinnis, a nonfiction novelist, an insider’s view of the defense team and access to his life story, in exchange for writing a book from the perspective of the defense. He also asked for a percentage of the book’s revenue to help cover legal expenses. McGinnis agreed to the conditions and embedded himself with McDonald’s defense team during the murder trial. Soon, the journalist and murderer became friends.

Deep into the trial proceedings, however, McGinnis drew the conclusion that McDonald was guilty of murder, but continued to lead McDonald to believe that he was writing a book from the perspective of McDonald and the defense. After McDonald’s conviction, McGinnis and the imprisoned McDonald exchanged letters for several years as McGinnis finished his book. McGinnis advised McDonald to not talk to other journalists until his book was published. He didn’t want other journalists to have access to McDonald and a competitive book on the market at the same time.

After McGinnis’ book, Fatal Vision, was written and copies were first distributed to media outlets for publicity purposes, a television reporter interviewed McDonald in prison. McDonald hadn’t seen a copy of the book yet. The reporter asked McDonald a question that led him to realize McGinnis had betrayed him.

McDonald took McGinnis, and, one could argue, the first amendment of the constitution, to court, accusing McGinnis of lying to him during the murder trial, not declaring his true intentions, and writing a book through the lens of a skeptic, not the defense. Thus begins the second court case represented in The Journalist and the Murderer– the court case that author and journalist, Janet Malcolm, analyzes.

Through the process of researching and reporting for The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm admitted to falling prey to some of the slipperiness that she herself was analyzing. She did that intentionally, I believe, to show that the behavior is true of all journalists, even her own.  She developed a relationship with murderer Jeff McDonald while he was in prison and exchanged letters with him. Later, she looked back at her letters and noticed similarities between her conversational style with McDonald and that of McGinnis’ conversational style with McDonald.

She interviewed other journalists who attempted to cover the two cases and tried to understand how they handled the journalist/subject relationship differently. She seeks to determine – did other journalists try to get emotionally close to the subject, or did they maintain a more professional distance? Did they utilize a certain method of interviewing to try to make their subject more likely to share new information? Did differing techniques matter? Would a subject say the same thing to a journalist irregardless of who interviewed him? In the writing stage, she wondered, how would different journalists take the same transcripts and use them to construct a different narrative? Did some use what she describes in the book as “new journalism” and “rearrange the furniture” or the order in which plot points were told, to make their book more  suspenseful for a reader, or did they employ a more chronological account of events? The question was raised, does the journalist have an obligation to “rearrange the furniture” and do the work to emotionally engage a reader? If the writer doesn’t, “Is the book worth reading?” In other words, does the journalist have an obligation to take otherwise boring real life events and create art through the use of storytelling tools? Malcolm concludes that ‘every work of fiction draws from real life and every work of nonfiction draws from art’.

My takeaway from this book is that a journalist can be both honest with her subject and write a book that is truthful, while at the same time rearranging the furniture in such a way that a reader remains curious and emotionally invested in the story.

Directory of similar names:

Janet Malcolmjournalist and author of The Journalist and The Murderer

Joe McGinnis journalist and author of narrative nonfiction book Fatal Vision

Jeff McDonald  retired Army physician convicted of killing his wife and children