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The journalist: a source's captive or betrayer?

The Journalist: A Source's Captive or Betrayer?

Every reader of this magazine who isn't a moron or a pompous ass knows that his literary taste is utterly depraved.

There. Have I got your attention?

A year ago, writing in The New Yorker, Janet Malcolm fashioned a lead of comparable authority: "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."

The ensuing articles were particularly arresting because they purported to be not just another haymaker thrown from the disaffected ranks of Middle America but sophisticated critiques by a practitioner of the very craft under attack.

But a rereading of these articles and a new "afterword," now collected between hard covers,(*) convinces me that Malcolm is writing from well outside the journalistic tradition - which accounts for both the strengths and weaknesses of this book.

The outsider's perspective enables Malcolm to plumb ironies that might be missed by workaday reporters. And there are some fine glancing insights: "The subject is Scheherazade. He lives in fear of being found uninteresting, and many of the strange things that subjects say to writers - things of almost suicidal rashness - they say out of their desperate need to keep the writer's attention riveted."

But Malcolm is rather like a clever chiropractor examining the practice of medicine. Finally, The Journalist and the Murderer is a work of inspired quackery.

Now a disclaimer. Since Malcolm has been widely accused of disguising a secret agenda, let me concede that I have long been a friend of Joe McGinniss, the target of her attack. On the other hand, for nearly 10 years, until he became editor of The New Yorker, my book editor was Robert Gottlieb, who is Malcolm's greatest patron and defender. With a foot in each camp, I'll try to walk a straight line.

Just who is this person who claims to have unveiled the dirty little secret of American journalism? She presents herself here as a reporter, explaining, "I have been writing long pieces of reportage for a little over a decade." But there is reason to suspect this appellation. For, as Malcolm herself warns us, "the 'I' character in journalism is almost pure invention." In her case, I think it is.

Malcolm has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1965, exploring a limited range of subjects - food, Shaker furniture, photography, and psychoanalysis among them. So far as I can determine, she has never been on the staff of another publication - since the days that she reviewed for the student paper and helped edit the humor magazine at the University of Michigan. She never went through the apprenticeship - general assignments off a city desk - that has shaped the work habits of so many American reporters of my generation.

To be sure, her work bristles with acute intelligence and a certain showy erudition: Proust and Chekhov, Kokoshka and Gurdjiev, Grandcourt and Osmond, Beethoven bagatelles and Cellini bronzes, Raymond de Saussure and Frieda Fromm-Reichman. But her learning smells of the lamp, of long hours in a mittel-Europa study, abstracted from the street and the workplace.

No, it seems to me that the woman who lurks behind the "I" in The Journalist and the Murderer is less reporter than analysand.

Seasoned professional

We all know the professional student, the fellow with the green book bag over his shoulder who hangs around a university year after year, accumulating credits and even degrees, unwilling to let go of the academic experience. There is also the professional analysand, the patient who has gone through years of psychotherapy, but who, even after the analysis has been "terminated," can't quite bring himself to let it go. Over and over, in his friendships, his marriage, his professional encounters, he goes on playing out the unresolved themes of his analysis.

Janet Malcolm is the daughter of a psychiatrist. She has undergone analysis. Two of her four books deal with psychoanalysis, and, as I reread them, it struck me that, for her, the relationship between reporter and subject is another version of therapist and patient.

If Malcolm is a professional analysand, she is one who seems to fantasize about reversing roles, about becoming the therapist. In Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, she drew a portrait of a pseudonymous analyst she calls "Aaron Green." In her first interview/session with Green, Malcolm detects a curious phenomenon. "He subtly deferred to me, he tried to impress me. He was the patient and I was the doctor; he was the student and I was the teacher. To put it in psychoanalytic language, the transference valence of the journalist was here greater than that of the analyst."

Over and over in The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm sounds the same equation between subject and patient, e.g.: "The journalistic encounter seems to have the same regressive effect on a subject as the psychoanalytic encounter."

If Malcolm dreams about playing therapist, she often seems to drift into what analysts call "counter-transference," the projection onto the patient of characteristics of significant people from the therapist's own past.

Thus, Malcolm's assault on Joe McGinniss for the seduction and betrayal of his subject, Jeffrey MacDonald, struck many people as a reflection of her own concern about similar accusations leveled against her by Jeffrey Masson, the subject of her third book, In the Freud Archives. Both Jeffreys sued, claiming that they had been betrayed by the author in question, in MacDonald's case because McGinniss had allegedly misled him about his view of MacDonald's guilt in the murder of his wife and two daughters; in Masson's, because Malcolm allegedly misquoted and doctored material to show Masson, the onetime projects director of the Freud Archives, in a bad light.

What strikes me on this rereading is how Malcolm seems determined to universalize her own shortcomings, turning each into the journalistic equivalent of original sin. The first two McGinniss pieces seemed to be saying something like this: Look, if Masson accuses me of seduction and betrayal, doesn't he realize that's what all reporters do, and here's case far more egregious than mine to illustrate the point.

Then when commentators - notably John Taylor in New York magazine - pointed out the parallels of the Masson case (she hadn't mentioned it), Malcolm fired back in the afterword, first published in The New York Review of Books.

Although she denied that her McGinniss pieces were merely a "thinly veiled account of my own experiences," she also wrote: "The characters of nonfiction, no less than those of fiction, derive from the writer's most idiosyncratic desires and deepest anxieties; they are what the writer wishes he was and worries that he is. Masson, c'est moi."

One waits in vain for the corollary: McGinniss, c'est moi. But Malcolm goes on to ridicule her journalistic critics for their thunderous discovery "that I had not 'made up' my story - that is, had not acted in good faith in presenting it as a new story..."

Fools, she seems to be saying, are you so psychonalytically illiterate that you don't see that all nonfiction writers project their desires and anxieties on their subjects just as we all carry around with us for life the emotional luggage of our infancy?

Malcolm is surely no fool; she knows the weakness of this argument. Indeed, in the first McGinniss piece, she ridiculed the testimony of William Buckley and Joseph Wambaugh about the legitimacy of telling "untruths" to a source. The "debacle" of their testimony, she wrote, "illustrates a truth that many of us learn as children: the invariable inefficacy of the 'Don't blame me - everybody does it' defense." It doesn't work for Malcolm any better than it did for Buckley and Wambaugh.

Even if her famous lead sentence is premeditated hyperbole, it represents a profound misunderstanding of American journalism. The principal failings of the craft are not seduction and betrayal, but laziness and coziness.

Straight from the source's mouth

In the early sixties, when I was the city hall reporter for the Sun in Baltimore, all local news ran on the back page. Each morning as assistant city editor would scrawl "city" on column one of the back page dummy and "state" on column eight, signifying that, absent some typhoon or tidal wave, the state house reporter and I were responsible for supplying the day's two major stories.

This meant that, at all costs, we had to cultivate our sources in hopes that a steady stream of zoning board appointments and updates on the tax rate would feed that voracious back page. And that meant that betrayal was the very last impulse we could afford to indulge. For in the rococo corridors of city hall a reputation for betrayal was a sure guarantee that the supply of news would dry up - and with it our professional aspirations.

No, the premium was on keeping those channels of information open, even at the risk of unseemly coziness with our sources. And, notwithstanding the pyrotechnics of Vietnam and Watergate, that, I fear, is still the priority of most American journalism.

If Malcolm's sweeping generalization usually misses the target, it may have a limited application to a tiny swatch of the journalistic battleground: investigative magazine pieces and books, one-time ventures in which the reporter knows he will never have to deal with his source or subject again.

In a fit of frankness, Drew Pearson once commented, "We will give immunity to a very good source as long as the information he offers us is better than what we have on him." If a source is himself so deeply implicated in the story that he threatens to become the story, he may be in jeopardy. For some reporters, it comes down to a calculus of whether they have more to gain by cultivating the source or "burning" him. Critics will charge that the reporter has betrayed his source in pursuit of self-interest; the reporter will say he has gone after the more important story. Often the reporter does both.

But in a journalistic sea awash with mindless puffery and boundless gullibility, sharks like these, prowling a roiled but tiny pool, are scarcely representative of the species.

Moving to Malcolm's second universal rule, the tendency of all nonfiction writers to imbue their subjects with their own desires and anxieties, I would concede that some reporters may be inclined to play out their own preoccupations in the dramas they cover. But reporters raised in the discipline of the city desk learn rather early to struggle against that temptation, and they usually prevail.

With the writers of long nonfiction books, the struggle is a bit harder. The process of writing a Best and the Brightest or a Bright Shining Lie is so consuming that, not suprisingly, the author is tempted to color his protagonists with some of his own obsessions. But, again, the best of our non- fiction writers struggle to separate the interior and exterior worlds.

Not only does Malcolm almost willfully refuse to distinguish these realms, but she displays a lofty, indeed elitist, disdain for the plodding reporters who do. Joe Keeler, a reporter for Newsday who covered the MacDonald case, is characterized as "the unsubtle Keeler," with his "prepared questions and his newspaper-reporter's directness," and Malcolm doubts that his straightforward approach would draw from his subjects "the kind of authentic responses that I try to elicit from mine with a more Japanese technique."

Keeler is treated kindly in comparison to Joseph Wambaugh, the kind of blunt nonfiction writer Malcolm clearly regards as a vulgarian ("I'm not an intellectual," she elicits from him with her sushi-slicing technique, "I write from the guts"). His prose style is described as "like that of the charmless writing in small print on a baggage-claim check."

Malcolm's distance from the constraints of normal journalistic practice is most evident in her statement that McGinniss's decision to halt their projected series of interviews "freed me from the guilt" she might have felt for what she was about to do to him.

Step into my parlor...

Most reporters know the hot pulse of anger when somebody refuses to talk with you. Don't they know who I am, you say? I'll show them. You go to bed determined to wreak vengeance. But, most of the time, you wake the next morning and say: Nah, it's not worth it. If the impulse survives the night, then your editor is bound to remind you that people have a right not to talk with you and a professional doesn't punish them for it. Indeed, at every journalistic institution where I have worked, the tradition - not always lived up to - was that you leaned over backwards to be fair to the people who wouldn't talk to you, for fear that you could be accused of exactly what Malcolm now proudly admits. Since she was published by one of her best friends and edited by her husband, she wasn't restrained as she might have been by a less collaborative hand.

(Malcolm's pique at McGinniss's failure to continue their talks is all the more peculiar because she is not renowned for openness herself. By all reports, she does not give interviews. And when a fact-checker from this magazine called to ask whether her father was an "analyst," she said, "That's not true," neglecting to add that his job description, "psychiatrist," was one that most laymen would be hard-pressed to distinguish from "analyst," and one indeed that many analysts share.)

For just one moment, let us consider the McGinniss matter drained of the punitive spirit Malcolm brings to her task.

At Jeffrey MacDonald's explicit invitation, McGinniss entered into a contract to tell the truth about the case and to divide the proceeds of the resulting book, with MacDonald's share earmarked to pay his huge defense costs. McGinniss has been criticized for so-called "checkbook journalism," but I'm not sure that I find anything inherently wrong with such a deal.

Imagine if you will the hypothetical, but not unrealistic, case of a reporter who writes a book about a black man accused of raping a white woman during the civil rights struggle. If the reporter believed the man was unjustly accused, how many of us would condemn him for sharing the book's proceeds with the defendant in order to pay court costs? If one believed that Jeffrey MacDonald was innocent - as Joe McGinniss plainly did when he entered into the deal - is this instance so terribly different?

But if McGinniss subsequently discovered that, despite his contract to tell the truth, MacDonald had systematically lied to him and indeed cynically used him to spread a false version of the events, then who has seduced and betrayed whom?

The answer, I suggest, hinges on whether you think MacDonald lied to McGinniss and thus on whether you believe that he was guilty of murdering his wife and children or not. But curiously, although she slyly hints that she has doubts about his guilt, Malcolm explicitly refuses to make the hard march through the evidence in which the answer ultimately may lie.

MacDonald sends her mounds of such material - "trial transcripts, motions, declarations, affidavits, reports." Malcolm can't read such stuff. She sees words like "'bloody syringe,' 'blue threads,' 'left chest puncture,' 'unidentified fingerprints,' 'Kimberly's urine,'" and she adds the document to the unread pile. "I know I cannot learn anything about MacDonald's guilt or innocense from this material."

Slogging through this gritty minutiae is all right for cloddish reporters like Keeler and McGinniss - and the judge, attorneys and jurors in the trial that found MacDonald guilty - but not for a woman of letters like Malcolm, adept at intuiting the inner life of her subjects.

Once McGinniss became convinced that MacDonald had both murdered his wife and children and lied to him about it, he confronted a difficult dilemma: how to hold his subject's confidence long enough for him to complete the research.

Some have argued with Malcolm that McGinniss simply made a self-interested calculation that he had more to gain by deceiving MacDonald than by "keeping faith" with him (which, in this case, I suppose would have meant informing him rather early on that he believed him to be guilty).

Knowing, liking, and respecting Joe McGinniss as I do, I regard his quandary as much more complicated: Whether MacDonald's betrayal in effect abrogated the spirit of their agreement, or whether he was still bound by some sort of obligation to his faithless "partner," and if so, what it was. Each of us would parse that problem differently.

I don't always recognize my friend in some of the supportive letters he wrote MacDonald, even as his views were shifting. I don't believe he had an obligation to inform MacDonald that he believed him guilty, but he might have been less ebullient in his letters of reassurance. McGinniss's mistake, I think, was in ever allowing himself to be drawn into a "friendship" with his subject, even when he still believed MacDonald to be innocent and saw him as under siege. Had he established a more detached stance from the beginning, he would never have had to worry about MacDonald discerning a shift in tone.

But what we are talking about here, I think, is not a defect in character but a matter of judgment. Whatever you believe McGinniss's mistakes to be, can they possibly justify Malcolm's scorched-earth expedition?

If she often reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the reporter's craft, Malcolm has nonetheless written a quirky, provocative outsider's book. Even when her grandiloquent airs drive one to distraction, Malcolm's sheer intelligence makes her worth attending to. Her ruminations about the reporter-subject relationship are well-timed, because they coincide with some self-criticism from within the craft about the reigning orthodoxy of nonfiction, the third-person narrative in vogue ever since John Hersey's Hiroshima and Capote's In Cold Blood.

We are witnessing an interesting return to the first person - in autobiography, memoir, travel writing, and much other nonfiction. This reflects, in part, a suspicion that the third person disguises too many hidden sources and secret agendas. The first person appeals to some because it seems to promise greater frankness and authenticity. But, bearing in mind the memoirs of certain generals and politicians, a friend of mine warns, "The greatest lies are told in the confessional." Malcolm's book may be another case in point. (*) The Journalist and the Murderer. Janet Malcolm. Knopf, $18.95.

J. Anthony Lukas is the author of Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize in 1988.
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Author:Lukas, J. Anthony
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:May 1, 1990
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