Saturday, May 21, 2011

McGinnis vs. Malcolm

I've long been fascinated by Janet Malcolm's 1990 book The Journalist and the Murderer, about the lawsuit filed by convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald against journalist Joe McGinnis over McGinnis' representation of MacDonald in his 1983 book Fatal Vision. "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on," Malcolm famously begins, "knows 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." McGinnis, as one might guess, does not come off well in what follows, though the most powerful passages of the book, like that opening salvo, don't deal with him in particular. Still, he apparently felt compelled to publish an epilogue addressing her charges in the 1989 edition of Fatal Vision. Now, prompted by some sharp words in a NYT review of Malcolm's newest book, he's posted it online. I find Malcolm's diagnosis of journalism persuasive, but admirers of her work -- especially those of us who include her on our syllabi -- will nonetheless want to read McGinnis' response, the better to "teach the controversy," as advocates of creationism like to say.