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by Janet Malcolm

Pub Date: Feb. 28th, 1990
ISBN: 0679731830
Publisher: Knopf

The journalist is Joe McGinniss. The murderer is Jeffrey MacDonald, subject of McGinniss' best-selling Fatal Vision, The relationship between the two is the paradigm for Malcolm's stinging indictment of all journalists' relationships to their subjects—an indictment that created a furor when published last year in the New Yorker, and which is here reprinted in full, with a new, slippery afterword by Malcolm. Malcolm flings the gauntlet: "Every journalist. . .knows that what he does is morally indefensible." Why? Because "he is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." Case in point: McGinniss' alleged con of MacDonald. MacDonald claimed in a 1984 lawsuit that McGinniss had committed fraud and breach of contract by leading him to believe, through letters of support and years of friendship, that Fatal Vision would proclaim MacDonald's innocence, while instead the book portrayed him as a guilty psychopath. Malcolm diligently sifts through the lawsuit—including trial testimony by Joseph Wambaugh and William Buckley that defended a journalist's right to mislead a subject in order to get a story—and follows up with interviews with the lawyers, with expert witnesses, and with MacDonald (after initial contact, McGinniss broke off all ties to Malcolm). The jury favored MacDonald 5-1; McGinniss finally paid a six-figure out-of-court settlement to him. Malcolm sides with the jury, finding in her own relationships with her subjects, particularly MacDonald, reflections of the case's moral conundrums; in her afterword, she comments bitingly on criticisms of that finding, but glibly sidesteps charges that she had been inspired, at least in part, by her own—conveniently unmentioned—suffering by lawsuits directed at her by psychologist Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, subject of her book In the Freud Archives (1984). Strident in tone, overbearing in conclusion; but of major interest and importance for exposing profound ethical questions that before now have festered behind the stony shield of journalistic privilege.