In 1989, journalist Janet Malcolm published two-part series of articles in The New Yorker under the headline “The Journalist and the Murderer.” (It has since then been published as a slim book.) In what would come to be one of the most famous paragraphs of journalistic criticism ever, Malcolm wrote:
“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.
“The catastrophe suffered by the subject is no simple matter of an unflattering likeness or a misrepresentation of his views; what pains him, what rankles and sometimes drives him to extremes of vengefulness, is the deception that has been practiced on him. On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist – who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully so remarkably attuned to his vision of things – never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own. The disparity between what seems to be the intention of an interview as it is taking place and what it actually turns out to have been in aid of always comes as a shock to the subject”
The source of this scathing view of journalism was a book written by journalist Joe McGinniss about the murder of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald’s family. MacDonald was accused of murdering his wife and children, and he was eventually convicted of it. MacDonald contracted with McGinniss to tell his story prior to the trial, presumably to present him as being innocent. But while McGinniss was working on the book, he came to believe that MacDonald was guilty. He did not, of course, inform MacDonald of this fact.
McGinniss’s book came out in 1983, and in 1989, an updated edition of the book contained an epilogue in which McGinniss responds to Malcolm’s articles. Not surprisingly, McGinniss is not fan. In the epilogue, he essentially argues that he was never anything but straight with MacDonald, or at the very least didn’t betray him anymore than he had to.
I’m posting this in part because I find Malcolm’s book fascinating, but also because I’m having my feature writing students read it as part of their work on source relations. But I would also suggest that if you have read The Journalist and the Murderer, you should also read McGinniss’s response.