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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.
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on December 9, 2014
An interesting essay on journalistic ethics. However, reading the rebuttal that McGinniss has appended to the newest edition of "Fatal Vision" the argument could be made that Janet Malcolm also played fast and loose with her reporting of the MacDonald v. McGuiniss lawsuit. Given her scant attention to the facts of the MacDonald murder case, you could get the impression from this book that MacDonald is innocent of the murder of his wife and daughters when in fact the evidence is overwhelmingly against MacDonald. A good read, but you need to read McGinniss' rebuttal to make a fair assessment.
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on June 2, 2003
In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm examines the transactional relationship between a journalist and her subject, especially the dynamic of what happens during an interview. (Why do so many people repeatedly and voluntarily blabber stupidly to the media? Why is it so difficult to refuse a microphone?) And what moral obligation does a journalist have to her subject?
Malcolm answers these questions (as much as she's able to) in the context of a murder trail that journalist Joe McGinniss wrote about, after being given unlimited access to accused murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and his defense team. McGinniss, originally sympathetic to MacDonald, comes to believe that he is guilty of the murder (the jury agreed), but does not reveal his change of heart to MacDonald, in order to maintain access to him. Once McGinniss's book, Fatal Vision, is published, MacDonald is horrified by the portrait presented to him and sues McGinniss for fraud.
Malcolm raises issues that I, a constant reader of journalism, had never considered. Her book gave me insight into what a writer must do to get the story. She's made me a less naïve reader. Those long articles in The New Yorker will never seem the same.
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VINE VOICEon May 29, 2007
Joe McGinniss put himself on the map writing the classic 1969 book, THE SELLING OF A PRESIDENT. That book detailed how Richard Nixon was sold to the public like any other consumer product. It's worth reading if you can find a copy. The Nixon book was such a hit and McGinniss was so young he couldn't find material good enough to follow it up and his next few books were mediocre.

Determined to find another worthy subject, he tackled the case of Dr. Jeffrey McDonald, a man accused of killing his wife and children. That story became the bestselling FATAL VISION and this book, THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER, chronicles the techniques that McGinniss used to get close to McDonald, and how he pretended to support McDonald through the years of legal proceedings although he always thought him to be guilty and wanted a guilty verdict for a better book. McGinniss' technique led to unfettered access to legal files, evidence, but most importantly access to McDonald. They'd drink together, strategize together and were pals during the experience.

The central question is how far can a journalist go to get the story? Although a jury found McDonald guilty of murder, a later jury found in favor of McDonald in his suit against McGuinniss because they felt that his techniques were so underhanded and self-serving that even a murderer deserved better. The book shows the divide between the win-at-any-cost media and the public that grows weary of the techniques used against people to create news. Does the public have the right to know enough that journalists can lie to subjects to bring the story to press?

This short book makes you question a number of journalistic techniques and it doesn't hurt either that McDonald has strong supporters and could possibly be innocent of the murders, at least in the context of this book.
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on October 11, 2013
Malcolm is at her best when she gets under the surface of her subject, and she her writing, insight and perceptions are brilliant in this particular arena. She brings light to often neglected issues of honesty, intent and outcome in reporting.

Joe McGinniss fell into that murky area of journalism while deceiving Jeffrey McDonald because he needed to quarantee a financial success for his publisher and himself. This ruse may have cost him his integrity and literary career. I purchased his book immediately after reading Malcolm's criticism, needing to see the book myself before reaching a final conclusion.This is not an easy subject, nor is McDonald a sympathetic character. Janet Malcolm exposes the amazing and elaborate deception used by McGinniss to trap and crucify his subject. Her investigation into this relationship is so brilliant that you're hooked from the beginning!
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on February 4, 2015
This was a somewhat interesting piece, but was clearly just a glorified magazine article. It was not well organized, and was some of the slightest journalistic effort I've seen. Take a pass, and Google the old article. You won't be missing anything.
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on July 25, 2013
The Journalist and the Murderer is really a must-read for aspiring journalists, and writers, and anyone interested in what goes into postmodern character development. Malcom - with whom I disagree, as a human - asserts that there is a cynical and manipulative relationship that governs all interactions between interviewer and interviewed, and to ignore this is to either be disingenuous or naive. The story follows how she came to conclude that journalist and author Joe MacGuinness was a jerk, and the subject of a book of his, a convicted mass murderer, was innocent.

The book makes for compelling reading. It's well written. It examines terrifically interesting topics from an interesting perspective. Paradoxically, it espouses and falls victim to many of the very biases and assertions that Malcom herself describes as bad, or in poor taste, and, ultimately, one is left with the sense that she doesn't like herself very much.
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on April 5, 2015
Amazing book. The author explores the behaviour of a journalist who ingratiated himself into the life of a man (a doctor) on trial (and convicted) for murdering his wife. The journalist misrepresented himself to the doctor as being a supporter of his innocence; but actually fossicked and exploited what he learned to write a book completely crucifying the doctor. Malcolm’s book looks at the ethics of what the journalist did. This book is incredibly compelling and fascinating. Highly recommend!
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on July 10, 2014
Written in the style of a journalist, it's an interesting "meta" journalistic style of novel. She has a refreshing writing style that is precise and thoughtful , every word exactly where it should be. And, did I mention that her subject matter is fascinating too?
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on November 1, 2013
I found this to book by Janet Malcolm to be a fascinating read, especially for anyone interested in journalism and the relationship between journalist and subject. Using the murder case of Jeffrey MacDonald as a backdrop, Malcolm looks at the unethical deal Joe McGinniss made for exclusive access to MacDonald to write his book. The initial murder case is overshadowed by a case of fraud and Malcolm suggests that McGinniss is guilty of misleading MacDonald. How do we make sure journalists remain ethical in their reporting. Does Malcolm give us all the facts? Is she herself participating in the very thing she accuses McGinniss of? This book left me with many questions.
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