THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER by Janet Malcolm (A Book Review)
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.