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The Journalist and the Murderer Paperback – October 31, 1990

3.8 out of 5 stars 44 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In a work that sparked controversy when it first appeared in the New Yorker, Malcolm suggests that journalist Joe McGinniss may have betrayed convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald in McGinniss's bestselling book Fatal Vision.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Every journalist is "a kind of confidence man . . . gaining . . . trust and betraying . . . without remorse," says Malcolm. This is an expanded and reworked version of Malcom's New Yorker essay on the "pscyhopathology" of the journalist/subject relationship, sparked by Jeffrey MacDonald's libel suit against Fatal Vision author Joe McGinniss. Even nonjournalists will be fascinated by Malcolm's discussion of the still puzzling MacDonald case; McGinnis's rather two-faced missives to the imprisoned MacDonald; and Joseph Wambaugh's libel trial testimony about journalistic "untruths." In an afterword, Malcolm comments on the heated debate her essay invoked in the journalism community, and concludes that, like it or not, every journalist must, to some degree, tussle with this ethical dilemma. An elegantly written, thought-provoking, and sometimes outrageous essay that should be in every media collection.
-Judy Quinn, "Library Journal"
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (October 31, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780679731832
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679731832
  • ASIN: 0679731830
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #20,522 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By E. Bukowsky HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 30, 2003
Format: Paperback
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.
Read more ›
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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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By A Customer on June 2, 2003
Format: Paperback
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.
2 Comments 37 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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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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