My Thoughts on “The Journalist and the Murderer” by Janet Malcolm

In The Journalist and the Murderer, author Janet Malcolm covers the story of a case between a journalist, McGinniss, and a murderer, MacDonald. McGinniss befriends MacDonald, gains his trust, then betrays MacDonald by publishing the book Fatal Vision which exposed MacDonald as guilty of murdering his pregnant wife and their two children.

In Malcolm’s book, she is very critical of journalists during the era of New Journalism. As an author, I view her as more of a hypocrite because some of her opinions are actions she voluntarily acts on herself. For example, this is a quote from her book, presented in first-person: “The rare, succulent crabmeat, picked out of the shell, packed, sealed, refrigerated, jealously hoarded, is like the fragile essence of a person’s being, which the journalist makes away with and turns into some horrid mess of his own while the subject speaks” (p. 14). Here, she is explaining the delicacy of a journalist’s subject by comparing it to the delicate crab meat. Then, she explains how a journalist manipulates his subject and makes him look worse than he actually is. I say this is hypocritical because Malcolm makes more of a horrid mess in her own work. Within her book, she is selling author McGinniss out by critiquing his untrustworthiness that he presented to his subject, MacDonald. I do not like that Malcolm is writing a book about another book. This book appears to be one long critique of McGinniss’ book, also known as “Metajournalism” rather than investigative journalism (which was usually seen during the New Journalism era). Malcolm’s work is not investigative compared to other authors during the New Journalism era such as Capote, rather, I think it presents itself as “gossip” (“A Life in Writing: Janet Malcolm by The Guardian).

If Malcolm is always “getting the story” (“A Life in Writing: Janet Malcom” by The Guardian), then I believe that she is a narcissist herself. In this book, she presents MacDonald as a “pathological narcissist,” but I think she does this because she can relate to narcissism. She is so consumed with McGinniss’ motives in this book that her desires become selfish, and therefore narcissistic. She openly inserts her views on MacDonald’s status as a murderer. She says that she agrees with the public defense attorney, Bostwick, that MacDonald is innocent. She actually does not agree with McGinniss at all (p. 95). She then goes on to explain that McGinniss made MacDonald into a boring character because he did not add any literary context to MacDonald’s character as Truman Capote added texture to Perry Smith, another murderer.

Malcolm explains nonfiction as if it is the worst thing to write about because of its limits. This is because as McGinniss was writing about MacDonald, he had to stick to his limits that MacDonald gave him to work with. She explains how MacDonald cannot be compared to any other literary character because he is that boring. She references how in In Cold Blood, Perry Smith would be a typical, boring loser if Truman Capote had not made him into something. She compares McGinniss’ work to Capote’s work and is saying that McGinniss could have really made MacDonald into something, had he tried. This brings a question to mind… if Malcolm explains nonfiction as the worst thing to write about because of its limits, then why does she go on to write this book about a nonfiction case between a journalist and murder? This is where I find Malcolm’s selfish motives to be apparent. In this book, I find her main point-of-view to point out gossip and sell out another journalist’s work.

In the beginning of Malcolm’s book, she quotes: “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.” This quote is pointed out in The New York Times’ article “Was Trust Betrayed?”, which I agree with the fact that this quote that Malcolm writes is pinpointed toward McGinniss, because she finds it wrong that he betrayed his subject MacDonald. This is another reason I find Malcolm to be hypocritical because she is selling out McGinniss, just as McGinniss sold out MacDonald.

Another component to Malcolm’s writing in this book that I do not agree with is her references, also known as allusions, to other nonfiction books. A similarity to Didion’s essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem is her use of California as a way to escape to freedom. She explained how MacDonald moved to California with no remorse after losing his wife and children, as if to start life with a clean slate. This goes against Didion’s traditional wishes of what California should be. I see this as Malcolm’s opportunity to betray another journalist’s wishes, just as she has done with McGinniss’ views. And as we know, Didion has made it clear that journalists sell each other out all of the time, which is exactly what Malcolm is doing in her book. Another example in Malcolm’s work is Dr. MacDonald’s use of the diet pill Eskatrol, which induces psychosis. I see this as a parallel to the LSD used in Didion’s book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, or Tom Wolfe’s book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

I disagree with The New York Times’ article that “her critique, no matter if exaggerated, should force all of us in the news business to re-examine our methods and manners” because Malcolm has no place to critique another journalist, because she is also one herself. Had she been the editor of McGinniss’ book, then I would say she has a place to critique his morality with his subject.

Because Malcolm not only critiques McGinniss, but also Truman Capote and other authors within this one book, I do not agree with her purpose as a journalist. As a journalist, she should report on things her subjects need to know rather than being hypocritical of things other journalists do, that she also does herself.


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