The Morality of Journalism

The following is an essay written as an afterword to The Journalist and the Murderer, to be published later this month by Knopf, and appears here in slightly different form. The book revolves around a lawsuit brought by Jeffrey MacDonald, who had been convicted of the murder of his wife and children, against Joe McGinniss, the author of Fatal Vision, a chronicle of the crime.

Although writers and publishers like to grumble about the proliferation of libel lawsuits in this country, few would seriously propose that anything be done to reverse the trend. The Ayatollah’s death sentence on Salman Rushdie brings into relief the primitive feeling that lies behind every libel suit, and makes the writer only too grateful for the mechanism the law provides for transforming the displeased subject’s impulse to kill him into the more civilized aim of extracting large sums of money from him. Although the money is rarely collected—most libel suits end in defeat for the plaintiff or in a modest settlement—the lawsuit itself functions as a powerful therapeutic agent, ridding the subject of his feelings of humiliating powerlessness and restoring to him his cheer and amour propre.

From the lawyer who takes him into his care he immediately receives the relief that a sympathetic hearing of one’s grievances affords. Conventional psychotherapy would soon veer off into an unpleasurable examination of the holes in one’s story, but the law cure never ceases to be gratifying; in fact, what the lawyer says and writes on his client’s behalf is gratifying beyond the latter’s wildest expectations. The rhetoric of advocacy law is the rhetoric of the latenight vengeful brooding which in life rarely survives the skeptical light of morning but in a lawsuit becomes inscribed, as if in stone, in the bellicose documents that accrue while the lawsuit takes its course, and proclaims with every sentence “I am right! I am right! I am right!”

On the other side, meanwhile, the same orgy of self-justification is taking place. The libel defendant, after an initial anxious moment (we all feel guilty of something, and being sued stirs the feeling up), comes to see, through the ministrations of his lawyer-therapist, that he is completely in the right and has nothing to fear. Of pleasurable reading experiences there may be none greater than that afforded by a legal document written on one’s behalf. A lawyer will argue for you as you could never argue for yourself, and, with his lawyer’s rhetoric, give you a feeling of certitude that you could never obtain for yourself from the language of everyday discourse. People who have never sued anyone or been sued have missed a narcissistic pleasure that is not quite like any other.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to experience this pleasure when I was sued for libel by the main character of my book In the Freud Archives, Jeffrey Masson. I remember well the pile of documents from the …

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Letters

Nothing But the Truth? July 19, 1990