Journalist murders blog with post on ‘The Journalist and the Murderer’

Inaugural posts are for the blogger what first impressions are for the social climber. There’s the anxiety of the need to be memorable, the uncertainty of how best to present oneself, the knowledge that the spontaneity of the medium, like the moment, which can seem liberating, invites infelicities that, once committed to the web or the cloud or whatever metaphor best describes the Internet, are hard to erase from the elephant memory of the search engine. Mercifully, Brian already took care of the inaugural post on this blog. Still, there’s the matter of my first entry, and it’s the above thinking that’s kept me from pushing the button on that entry.

Then, on Sunday, on a flight from DC to Providence, where I live, it occurred to me that I had been wrong to think the first blog post matters. It’s the last post–or, more precisely, the most recent post–that counts. Readers of blogs don’t, as a rule, start at the beginning. Which post they start with is a factor of when they first encounter the blog. All the anxiety and uncertainty and apprehension of the first post seizes the blogger as he prepares every later post. That’s not exactly comforting. But it won’t get any easier, so I might as well dive in.

Also on the plane on Sunday, I read Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer.” Here’s the first paragraph:

“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 making a living.”

And here is the last paragraph:

“There is an infinite variety of ways in which journalists struggle with the moral impasse that is the subject of this book. The wisest know that the best they can do…is still not good enough. The not so wise, in their accustomed manner, choose to believe this is no problem and that they have solved it.”

“The subject of this book” is, in particular, the question of ethics and liability in a lawsuit brought by Jeffrey MacDonald, the convicted murderer, by knife, of his pregnant wife and two young daughters, against Joe McGinnis, who wrote a pretty damning book about MacDonald while assuring MacDonald–then reassuring him and reassuring him again–that he believed in the convict’s innocence. Malcolm at once calls into question MacDonald’s guilt and, in her book’s title, affirms it, though possibly with her tongue pressed firmly against the inside of her cheek. In the end, though, whether MacDonald is guilty or not isn’t important to the book’s argument.

That’s because “the subject of this book” is, in general, a deconstruction of the relationship between the journalist and the human subject of the journalist’s reportage. As a young reporter–I’ll omit “grumpy” as a redundancy because, after all, what journalist isn’t grumpy?–the book, which is the first of Malcolm’s I’ve read, seems instructive, if not entirely useful.

Malcolm’s conclusion, apart from that McGinnis is slimy and unethical, is an extended analytical take on a thought put more succinctly by Joan Didion at the end of the introduction to her essay collection “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.” Didion writes that her slightness of presence, of stature and temperament, have saved her as a reporter.

“People tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests,” Didion writes. “And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”

I’ve always found that Didion passage unsettling, and Malcolm’s version doesn’t settle anything. It’s a difficulty I’ve encountered in my few years working in journalism–a reporter is torn between the often contradictory commitments to story and source. But while Malcolm’s book doesn’t assuage my misgivings, it does bring me some measure of relief. If a reporter of Malcolm’s stature and experience believes “the wisest know that the best they can do” “is still not good enough,” then at least I know I’m in good company.

Brian–since we thought we’d let this blog be, in part, a forum for discussion, I’d be curious to get your take on the journalist-subject problem. And after that, I promise to turn to a subject that’s less inside baseball and more cricket. Malcolm’s book just happens to be the one I last finished and, well, I had to start somewhere…

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