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Looking at the murky world of journalistic ethics.
on June 30, 2003
In 1970, a respected army physician named Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald claimed that four strangers broke into his home in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and killed his wife and two daughters. Although an army tribunal tried Dr. MacDonald and cleared him, years later the case was reopened. This time, MacDonald was convicted and sent to prison. Janet Malcolm does not retry the MacDonald case in her book, "The Journalist and the Murderer." Rather, she examines the issues behind a lawsuit that MacDonald brought in 1984 against his supposed friend, Joe McGinnis, author of "Fatal Vision." Joe McGinniss posed as an ally of Jeffrey MacDonald for years. McGinnis lived with MacDonald for a while and even joined his defense team. McGinniss sent MacDonald sympathetic letters in support of his cause. In these letters, he frequently expressed his support for MacDonald.
It was only after "Fatal Vision" was published that MacDonald discovered the truth. McGinniss did not believe in MacDonald's innocence; on the contrary, he portrays MacDonald as a psychopathic murderer. The author posed as a friend for the sole purpose of keeping MacDonald in the dark so that McGinniss would continue to have access to his subject. "Fatal Vision" became a huge bestseller and eventually became a miniseries. Malcolm's book, written in 1990, takes on added significance in 2003, when the ethics of journalists are under fire. Some have been accused of plagiarizing and fabricating stories. The public is beginning to recongnize that reporters are fallible and suffer from the same pressures, ambitions, and psychological disorders as other ordinary mortals.
This is not merely a condemnation of McGinniss's behavior towards MacDonald. Malcolm's premise is that the journalist's relationship to his subject is, in its very essence, a perilous one. The gullible subject babbles away to his "sympathetic" listener, revealing more of himself than he realizes. When all is said and done, only the journalist and his editors have control over the final product. They are sometimes tempted to distort the facts to make the piece more interesting. Malcolm asserts that certain journalists are con men who prey on people's loneliness, credibility, and narcissism to get a good story. Journalists have their own agendas and the "truth," which is elusive at best, is not always their top priority. Malcolm's book is a warning not to believe everything that is printed in a newspaper or a magazine, since each story is only one version of reality.