Following the Trail of Literary Breadcrumbs

Cover from THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER by Janet MalcolmIf something I’ve read or seen sparks my interest, I often go on reading and/or viewing excursions to follow up on whatever caught my attention. This time around, the catalyst is the film “The End of the Tour” (about which I wrote a review). I’ve so far read two books referenced by the movie and in reviews of it. The obvious one is David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (2010), of which the movie’s screenplay is an adaptation. The second is Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer (1990).

Malcolm’s book is apparently a classic read for journalists. In it, she explores the ethics of the relationship between journalist and interviewee through an examination of an unusual lawsuit brought by the subject of a book against its author. The author in question is Joe McGinniss, whose Fatal Vision (1984) is about Jeffrey MacDonald, a physician who was convicted of murdering his wife and children. MacDonald sued McGinniss not for slander, but for breach of contract. The ethical question involves McGinniss’ leading on of MacDonald while researching and writing the book after the guilty verdict. Having decided during MacDonald’s trial that he was guilty as charged, McGinniss continued to communicate with MacDonald after he went to prison. In order not to lose access to MacDonald, which would have effectively killed the book project, McGinniss pretended to be MacDonald’s friend and ally until the release of Fatal Vision made it obvious that he was neither. A clause in a legal agreement with McGinniss provided the basis of MacDonald’s lawsuit.

As a journalist, Malcolm ran up against the same questions in the interviews for her book. As a result, there is a fascinating interplay between her examination of the journalist-interviewee relationship in the McGinniss-MacDonald case and her reflections upon her own professional relationships with the two men and others involved in the case. The objective and subjective collide, providing Malcolm with many opportunities for insightful analysis. There is also a revealing afterword about Malcolm’s own legal troubles with the subject of one of her previous books.

Although I am not a journalist, I have done work in the past that involved interviewing people with whom I had to establish trust, but then sometimes had to take actions, based on the information they provided, with which they did not agree. As a result, I found Malcolm’s exploration of this moral dilemma, which often involves more subtle betrayals than in the McGinniss-MacDonald case, personally valuable. While it is directly applicable to journalistic relationships, it is also thought-provoking to apply to other relationships in which there is an unavoidable power imbalance between those involved. Malcolm’s style is a bit caustic and her subject matter controversial, but the questions she raises are worth considering by anyone who finds him- or herself on either side of such a relationship. There are, unfortunately, no easy answers to the question of how to avoid the inherent ethical perils.

In the near future, I plan to write a post about Lipsky’s book. I’m also starting to read David Foster Wallace — first his debut novel, The Broom of the System, then on to Infinite Jest. That’s where the trail of literary breadcrumbs seems to lead, for me at least.