The Journalist and the Murderer, Paperback

The Journalist and the Murderer Paperback

4 out of 5 (1 rating)


"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." Janet Malcolm begins this book with the words above, which have become famous (and infamous), and then sets out to demonstrate the charge with the story of the lawsuit between Jeffrey MacDonald, a convicted murderer, and Joe McGinniss, the author of a book about the crime.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 163 pages
  • Publisher: Granta Books
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: True stories
  • ISBN: 9781862076372



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If you were a journalist interviewing an alleged murderer for your story (that you've already spent many years working on), would you say things like "I believe you are innocent" (even though you didn't really believe so) in order to get him to continue talking to you? That is what Joe McGinnis did, and now the murderer is suing him. But McGinnis didn't just tell one lie, he became really good friends with his subject, even becoming part of the defense team during the trial, and continued to send the murderer effusively friendly and encouraging letters in jail. Time and again he sided with the defense in letters and personal communications, while behind their backs he was convinced that the subject was guilty, and writing a book about it.<br/><br/>Janet Malcolm does a good job of bringing out the gray areas in this case. Malcolm clearly sides with MacDonald (the alleged/convicted murderer), but was still able to write intelligently about the opposite argument. I found myself siding with the journalist (McGinnis) at first. My belief was that the journalist owes his subject nothing, but he owes his readers the truth. That was his first job: to get at the truth, and how he got there may not be pretty, but is in service of something greater. Also, we don't like people who betray us, but betrayal in itself isn't a crime! Even though cheating on your girlfriend might be wrong, one shouldn't be able to sue for it. Perhaps McGinnis was a bad friend, even a bad person, but he shouldn't have answer for it in court because what it comes down to is whether or not his book qualified as libel, not whether or not he was a good friend!<br/><br/>But I also began to see the other side more as I read the book. One of the things that worried me was that even though McGinnis went to all the trouble of lying to his subject in order to get him to speak freely, it doesn't seem like he ended up with that much more proof than he started with. His case sounded weak (diet pills? ONE incidence of MacDonald losing his anger/using violence in his whole lifetime?). I felt that if he was gonna lie in order to prove this man guilty, then he should at least find something to justify such means. And if he didn't, he should man up and admit that he didn't. Instead, it seems he might have at one point decided that MacDonald was guilty (perhaps because it would make a more interesting book) and went on a witch hunt to find reasons to justify that decision.<br/><br/>As with the best nonfiction, I'm left thinking more than before, though not sure what to think.

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