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Murdering Journalism

Published on 24th September 2019

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or 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. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and 'the public's right to know'; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

“Something seems to happen to people when they meet a journalist, and what happens is exactly the opposite of what one would expect. One would think that extreme wariness and caution would be the order of the day, but in fact childish trust and impetuosity are far more common. The journalistic encounter seems to have the same regressive effect on a subject as the psychoanalytic encounter. The subject becomes a kind of child of the writer, regarding him as a permissive, all-accepting, all-forgiving mother, and expecting that the book will be written by her. Of course, the book is written by the strict, all-noticing, unforgiving father.”

“What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject's blind self absorption and the journalist's skepticism. Journalists who swallow the subject's account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists.” 

“The writer ultimately tires of the subject's self-serving story, and substitutes a story of his own.”

I still think about "The Journalist and the Murderer." It's been two years since I last read it, but I still think about it. Janet Malcolm's extended article for The New Yorker--eventually published as a single book--is absolutely brilliant. It's also absolutely detestable. 

Just look at the passages quoted above. Aside from their imminent readability, they're packed with penetrating insights into the absurdity of the journalist-subject relationship, deftly exposing the hazy morality underlying the whole enterprise. I sympathize with Malcolm's suspicion of journalistic ethics, or the lack thereof. I've grappled with many of the same questions myself, especially when writing profiles or obituaries. I suspect most reporters, experienced and inexperienced alike, would feel the same.

At her best, Malcolm is offensive, entertaining, and agreeable all at once. Again, her insights into the “fundamental falseness” of the writer-subject relationship are numerous, from the conflicting agendas embodied by the “self-serving” story spun by the subject and the alternate one “substituted” by the journalist, to the “suicidal rashness” of naïve subjects and the “moral uneasiness” such openness induces in the reporter. But while Malcolm persuasively pinpoints reporting’s morally gray areas, she ultimately overreaches. In doing so, she does more than exaggerate the moral murkiness inherent to journalism—she mounts a nihilistic attack on the very idea of journalism (and truth) itself.

Though not immediately obvious, a key component of Malcolm’s thesis is the elusiveness, indeed the near impossibility, of ascertaining truth. She ends the first article with one source stating that “anyone who professes to be absolutely certain I really distrust,” the climactic placement indicating Malcom's endorsement of the sentiment. Malcolm herself goes further. She summarizes her outlook best when dismissing the voluminous case materials sent to her by MacDonald as irrelevant to determining the truth of his guilt: “It is like looking for proof or disproof of the existence of God in a flower—it all depends on how you read the evidence. If you start with a presumption of his guilt, you read the documents one way, and another way if you presume his difference.” In other words, the influences of our prior “assumptions” will always render our perception of the world unreliable. Malcolm thus asserts a radical subjectivity that denies us the possibility of transcending our biases to access truth. In condemning us to the prisons of our prejudice, Malcolm forecloses the possibility of journalism. For if the truth is inaccessible, then what purpose can journalism serve?

Of course, Malcolm’s bald-faced assertion that divergent interpretations of identical facts illustrate “the difficulty of knowing the truth about anything” itself exposes the absurdity of her position. As is typical of such absolutist statements, it dismisses everything as false but claims for itself an unjustified exemption. More concerning, Malcolm arrives at her agnosticism vis-à-vis MacDonald’s guilt not by rigorously investigating the facts of the case, as any serious reporter would, but by preemptively accepting as hopeless any certain conclusion. In other words, Malcolm presupposes the truth of her argument (truth is elusive) in order to make it. 

This is nothing but circular reasoning. That Malcolm’s sourcing unearths conflicting viewpoints does not exonerate her from her journalistic responsibility to locate the correct viewpoint—if anything, it renders it ever more essential. By only providing differing perspectives without attempting to approximate the validity of either, Malcolm essentially reduces her work to “he said, she said” journalism—ironically the lazy crutch on which many reporters depend to appear “objective,” the very objectivity whose possibility Malcolm denies.

And yet, for all her equivocations, Malcolm ultimately does take a stance on the MacDonald question, as evidenced by her closing quote: she believes him, if not innocent, then at least very possibly not guilty. How does this confident posture—a confidence reflected in the myriad claims made throughout the article—square with Malcolm’s thesis on journalism’s (and truth’s) ontological uncertainty? It very well might not. If anything, Malcolm’s paradoxically self-assured reporting affirms the antithesis of her argument: journalists can, not in spite of but often via their subjectivity, come to firm conclusions about the world. If we could not accept that, then we would be obligated to dismiss Malcolm just she dismisses journalism. 

Therein lies the contradiction of Malcolm’s elaborate project: accepting its tirades against ascertaining truth, and practicing journalism, confirms the possibility of both.





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