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The Morality of Journalism

One of the striking instances of the necessity for this mediation—showing how the literally true may actually be a kind of falsification of reality—is offered by a transcript of tape-recorded speech. When we talk with somebody, we are not aware of the strangeness of the language we are speaking. Our ear takes it in as English, and only if we see it transcribed verbatim do we realize that it is a kind of foreign tongue. What the tape recorder has revealed about human speech—that Molière’s M. Jourdain was mistaken: we do not, after all, speak in prose—is something like what the nineteenth-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies revealed about animal locomotion. Muybridge’s fast camera caught and froze positions never before seen, and demonstrated that artists throughout art history had been “wrong” in their renderings of horses (among other animals) in motion. Contemporary artists, at first upset by Muybridge’s discoveries, soon regained their equanimity, and continued to render what the eye, rather than the camera, sees. Similarly, novelists of our tape-recorder, era have continued to write dialogue in English rather than in tape-recorderese, and most journalists who work with a tape recorder use the transcript of an extended interview merely as an aid to memory—as a sort of second chance at note-taking—rather than as a text for quotation. The transcript is not a finished version, but a kind of rough draft of expression. As everyone who has studied transcripts of tape-recorded speech knows, we all seem to be extremely reluctant to come right out and say what we mean—thus the bizarre syntax, the hesitations, the circumlocutions, the repetitions, the contradictions, the lacunae in almost every non-sentence we speak.

The tape recorder has opened up a sort of underwater world of linguistic phenomena whose Cousteaus are as yet unknown to the general public. (A fascinating early contribution to this field of research is a paper forbiddingly entitled “Countertransference Examples of the Syntactic Expression of Warded-Off Contents” by Hartwig Dahl, Virginia Teller, Donald Moss, and Manuel Truhillo [Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 1978], which analyzes the verbatim speech of a psychoanalyst during a session and shows its strange syntax to be a form of covert bullying of the patient.) But this world is not the world of journalistic discourse. When a journalist undertakes to quote a subject he has interviewed on tape, he owes it to the subject, no less than to the reader, to translate his speech into prose. Only the most uncharitable (or inept) journalist will hold a subject to his literal utterances and fail to perform the sort of editing and rewriting that, in life, our ear automatically and instantaneously performs.

For example, when I asked Dr. Michael Stone, a psychiatrist who testified for the defense in the MacDonald-McGinniss lawsuit, if he thought there was any possibility that MacDonald was innocent, he said (on tape):

No. In fact I had hoped to be able to say—since the judge kind of cheated me out of my opportunity to be redirected—Dan [Daniel Kornstein, the defense laywer] said I had time to be redirected—then Bostwick cleverly ate up all the time with a bunch of silly questions so that—the judge just let him go on and on—and then finally there wasn’t really time because I had to catch a plane at a certain hour. However, the material I gave to Kornfeld, was that having looked at all this and having slept on this material the night after my first appearance at trial, I had a kind of insight, if you will, that the four intruders represented, psychologically speaking, the only truthful thing that MacDonald had told—that there were really four intruders—but, of course, they weren’t exactly as he depicted them—but there were four people who intruded upon the hedonistic—and—life style and whoring around of Jeff MacDonald—and four people who, you know, intruded into his disinclination to be a responsible husband and father, namely Colette, Kristy, Kimberly, and the unborn son.

In my text I rendered this as:

No. In fact—and this, too, was something I wasn’t able to say in court, since Bostwick cleverly ate up all the time with a bunch of silly questions and I had to catch a plane—the four intruders who MacDonald claimed were responsible for the murders represented the only truth, psychologically speaking, that he told. There really were four people who intruded on the hedonistic life style and whoring around of Jeff MacDonald: the four people who intruded on his disinclination to be a responsible husband and father; namely, Colette, Kristen, Kimberly, and the unborn son.

Before the invention of the tape recorder, extended quotations were not verbatim—what Boswell quotes Dr. Johnson as saying was not precisely what Johnson said; we will never know what that was—and many journalists continue to work without benefit of this double-edged technological aid, doing their work of editing or paraphrasing on the spot, as they scribble in their notebooks. In this litigious time, it has proved useful for journalists to have an electronic record of what a subject said. But this extraliterary reason for using a tape recorder, as well as the more conventional one of capturing the flavor of a subject’s speech, may prove to be insufficiently beneficial—to both text and journalist—to warrant the continued use of the tape recorder in journalistic interviews. Texts containing dialogue and monologue derived from a tape—however well-edited the transcript may be—tend to retain some trace of their origin (almost a kind of metallic flavor) and lack the atmosphere of truthfulness present in work where it is the writer’s own ear that has caught the drift of the subject’s thought. And lawsuits in which transcripts of tape-recorded interviews are used to settle the question of what a subject did or didn’t say can degenerate (as, in my opinion, Masson v. Malcolm degenerated) into farcical squabbles about the degree to which a journalist may function as a writer rather than as a stenographer.

The quotations in The Journalist and the Murderer—and in my other journalistic writings—are not, for the reasons given, identical to their speech counterparts. Neither, however, are any of them of the “probable” variety described by the writer Joseph Wambaugh at the McGinniss-MacDonald trial. Although the Wambaugh technique is frequently used in historical novels—“Mon dieu,” Richelieu said, “when the King hears this, he will freak out!”—as well as in Wambaugh’s own “true crime” novels, it is out of the question for works that represent themselves as journalism. When we read a quotation in a work of journalism, we assume it to be a rendering of what the speaker actually—not probably—said. The idea of a reporter inventing rather than reporting speech is a repugnant, even sinister, one. Because so much of our knowledge of the world derives from what we read in the press, we naturally become nervous whenever the question of misquotation is raised. Fidelity to the subject’s thought and to his characteristic way of expressing himself is the sine qua non of journalistic quotation—one under which all stylistic considerations are subsumed. Fortunately for reader and subject alike, the relatively minor task of translating tape-recorderese into English and the major responsibility of trustworthy quotation are in no way inimical; in fact, as I have proposed (and over and over again have discovered for myself), they are fundamentally and decisively complementary.

I have been writing long pieces of reportage for a little over a decade. Almost from the start, I was struck by the unhealthiness of the journalist-subject relationship, and every piece I wrote only deepened my consciousness of the canker that lies at the heart of the rose of journalism.

When the lawyer Daniel Kornstein and his client the writer Joe McGinniss approached me with a larger-than-life example of the journalist-subject problem—a lawsuit in which a man serving a prison sentence for murder sues the writer who uneasily deceived him for four years—it dovetailed with the thinking on the subject I had been doing for many years and fired my imagination with its narrative possibilities. The notion that my account of this case is a thinly veiled account of my own experience of being sued by a subject not only is wrong but betrays a curious naiveté about the psychology of journalists. The dominant and most deep-dyed trait of the journalist is his timorousness. Where the novelist fearlessly plunges into the water of self-exposure, the journalist stands trembling on the shore in his beach robe. Not for him the strenuous athleticism—which is the novelist’s daily task—of laying out his deepest griefs and shames before the world. The journalist confines himself to the clean, gentlemanly work of exposing the griefs and shames of others. Precisely because MacDonald’s lawsuit had no elements in common with Masson’s did I feel emboldened to write about it (and, incidentally, was I, a defendant, able to position myself so as to view a plaintiff’s case with sympathy). MacDonald v. McGinniss was unprecedented in being concerned with a writer’s personal conduct toward his subject—no previous lawsuit had opened this messy drawer; Masson v. Malcolm was confined to a published text.

That some readers were nevertheless able to think of The Journalist and the Murderer as being veiled autobiography (and thus found my text incomplete, even devious, because it did not mention the Masson lawsuit) derives, I have come to think, from a misconception about the identity of the character called “I” in a work of journalism. This character is unlike all the journalist’s other characters in that he forms the exception to the rule that nothing may be invented: the “I” character in journalism is almost pure invention. Unlike the “I” of autobiography, who is meant to be seen as a representation of the writer, the “I” of journalism is connected to the writer only in a tenuous way—the way, say, that Superman is connected to Clark Kent. The journalistic “I” is an overreliable narrator, a functionary to whom crucial tasks of narration and argument and tone have been entrusted, an ad hoc creation, like the chorus of Greek tragedy. He is an emblematic figure, an embodiment of the idea of the dispassionate observer of life. Nevertheless, readers who easily accept the idea that the narrator in a work of fiction is not the same person as the author of the book will stubbornly resist the idea of the invented “I” of journalism; and even among journalists, there are those who have trouble sorting themselves out from the Supermen of their texts.

There was a moment in my conversation with the professor-journalist Jeffrey Elliot when this confusion was brought into sharp relief. Elliot told me of his outrage over an incident in Fatal Vision—one that also appeared in the film version of the book—in which MacDonald and the members of his defense team in Raleigh entertained themselves during a birthday party for the criminal lawyer Bernie Segal by throwing darts at an enlarged photograph of Brian Murtagh, an abrasive government prosecutor. McGinniss wrote:

One by one, each member of the defense team took a turn throwing darts at the picture. Jeffrey MacDonald scored a direct hit. He cheered for himself as his attorneys and their assistants clapped and laughed. In high spirits, he seemed oblivious to the possibility that, under the circumstances, it might not have been appropriate for him to be propelling a sharp pointed object toward even the photographic representation of a human being.

In the film version, MacDonald is shown throwing darts as Joe McGinniss looks on grimly. At McGinniss’s first deposition, the opposing lawyer Gary Bostwick asked him if he himself had thrown a dart at the party, and McGinniss replied, “I don’t recall.” At the MacDonald-McGinniss trial, Segal testified that he remembered McGinniss had thrown a dart. Elliot said indignantly to me, “How can you write a book and consult on a film where you portray yourself as standing in the corner at a birthday party watching MacDonald throw darts at the face of the prosecutor—standing there looking as if you found this repulsive—when in actuality you weren’t watching aghast but were throwing darts like the rest?” He went on, “It’s dishonest. You use that scene to make MacDonald look wicked and evil, and you’re this pure character just watching, horrified. But if you participated in the dart-throwing, then don’t write the scene. Because it’s going to come out that you participated.”

No, it isn’t,” (the real life) I said to Elliot. “Until the MacDonald lawsuit, no one ever thought of challenging a journalist’s personal conduct the way Bostwick challenged McGinniss’s.”

I’m sure McGinniss didn’t think his would be either.”

That’s right.”

Well, it’s outrageous.”

Bostwick’s delvings into the discrepancy between the character “I” of Fatal Vision and the man who wrote the book are what make the lawsuit unique and give it its subversive character. Kornstein was right to characterize it as a threat to journalism. If the journalist is going to have to start proleptically imitating the behavior of the “pure character” he will become in his text, his hands will be tied. The oxymoronic term “participant observer” was coined to describe the fieldwork of anthropologists and sociologists; and it also describes the fieldwork of journalists. Because McGinniss participated more fully and intensely in the culture of his subject than most journalists have occasion to do—how many of us live with a subject for six weeks, accompany him daily to a murder trial, form a business partnership with him, and write to him in prison for three years?—he was more vulnerable than most of us would be to the charge of duplicity on which Bostwick poised his case.

But what McGinniss did egregiously, other journalists do more subtly and quietly. Colleagues have said to me, “I would never do what McGinniss did. I’m not that kind of writer. It would pain me to cause a subject distress”—as if what we write is the issue. The moral ambiguity of journalism lies not in its texts but in the relationships out of which they arise—relationships that are invariably and inescapably lopsided. The “good” characters in a piece of journalism are no less a product of the writer’s unholy power over another person than are the “bad” ones. During my friendly dealings with Gary Bostwick, I always knew I had the option of writing something about him that would cause him distress, and he knew it, too, which gave our “false friendship” a bracing kind of self-consciousness rare between writers and subjects, but which in no way altered the authoritarian structure of the relationship: he was completely at my mercy. I held all the cards. Yes, he had consented to be written about, and yes, he hoped to gain something from his encounter with me. The fact that the subject may be trying to manipulate the journalist—and none but the most otherworldly of subjects is above at least some manipulativeness—does not offset the journalist’s own sins against the libertarian spirit. “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” as the folksy Bostwick was fond of saying during the trial, quoting his mother. As it happened, Bostwick’s personal agenda and my narratival one coincided; if they hadn’t, I probably would have put what I believed to be the reader’s interests ahead of Bostwick’s susceptibilities—though not necessarily: in my time, I, too, have committed the journalistic solecism of putting a person’s feelings above a text’s necessities.

There is an infinite variety of ways in which journalists struggle with the moral impasse that is the subject of The Journalist and the Murderer. The wisest know that the best they can do—and most practitioners easily avoid the crude and gratuitous two-facedness of the MacDonald-McGinniss case—is still not good enough. The not so wise, in their accustomed manner, choose to believe there is no problem and that they have solved it.


Nothing But the Truth? July 19, 1990

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