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The Journalist and the Murderer Paperback – October 31, 1990
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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The most regrettable part of the book is that the subject matter is fascinating. The story is lost in dense prose and overly long (yet remarkably bland) quotes and excerpts from transcripts. For all of her research, the author failed to construct a compelling narrative, despite what should have been a slam-dunk for riveting plot and conflict. What a terrible waste of potential.
The author's sentences are needlessly complex, and she seems to choose words based on how exotic or esoteric they are, not whether or not they properly convey any real meaning. There's a sprinkling of references to Russian and French literature to drive home the point that the author is smart, much smarter than you. In her 15-page afterword, she speaks at length about her lawsuit with bitter defensiveness. The entire work is sophomoric in its delivery. I hope that one of her neighbors reports the abuse of her thesaurus and that the proper authorities step in to ensure it goes to a good home where it can recover and live out the rest of its days in peace.
I read this piece when it first came out in two parts in the New Yorker in the March 13 and March 20 issues of 1987. It was fascinating then, and it has not become less so, in the intervening years, when I bought the book (again) for our daughter's college course in journalism.
Politeness with one's sources is always a good idea. But is it okay to lie, and to repeatedly lie outright to get a story as did Joe McGinniss. while he interviewed the military doctor accused of killing his wife?
In this case, the lies went beyond politeness, beyond simply allowing the source to think that the journalist was on his side, without saying as much.
And thus it was that McGinniss ended paying a large settlement to Jeffrey MacDonald, the convicted killer.
This story is not the be all and end all of journalists reporting on the press. But in its time, it was an excellent look at the lengths to which some go to get the story.
And since then, the lines have simply blurred and journalists become far more sloppy.
But that's a story for another book, another day.
Top international reviews
I was recommended this book in one of my journalism classes and it's a great read so far! Definitely makes you think about the media, crime and the fascination with it all! Must-read!
Janet Malcolm's kind of essay, besides recalling all the facts about that strange affair, is a reflection about what is the work of a journalist and what should be his line of conduct about telling or not the truth of his intents to his subject. She met numerous participants of the affair, save the journalist who refused to get involved, and brought back many interesting materials. All the arguments for and against are given, the interesting fact is that the book shows perfectly in what paradoxical a situation a journalist may fall.
Her book begins with these clear and puzzling sentences: "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."
Although the topic and the material of the book are of much interest, although the writing is pleasant to read, still the reader is not entirely satisfied. The problem comes from the way the book is built; it is sometimes difficult to decipher what the writer's intentions are. I would have preferred that the book had followed a more straight orientation and that the chapters had been more clearly organised. A clue of the problem is given by the fact that there is no table of contents. Maybe one could think that it is not necessary for a 163 pages book, but given the subtle and complex subject matter it would have proven quite useful.
Passionnante problématique !