Janet Malcolm: Is journalism really morally indefensible?

July 5, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Janet Malcolm put herself at the center of the journalistic world in 1989 when she wrote this sentence:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

That was the first sentence of a two-part series of articles that she wrote for the New Yorker magazine about a lawsuit that convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald brought against writer Joe McGinnis for the conclusions that he drew in his best-selling book, Fatal Vision. Malcolm’s New Yorker series was later turned into a book, The Journalist and the Murderer.

No one sentence has caused so much controversy and debate within journalism in the thirty years since it first appeared.

Good journalist — those who strive mightily to follow the accepted rules of the profession — think of themselves as morally upright quasi public servants who bring to the Public’s View accurate depictions of the people and events they cover.

The words written by Malcolm, herself a journalist of the highest standing, stung — and they continue to sting even today. Inevitably, the reaction to Malcolm was furious and full-throated, and criticism was heaped not only on her ideas but also on her personal and professional life.

Malcolm was born in 1934 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and her family immigrated to the United States when she was 5 years old. Her father was a doctor to the small check community that lived in Manhattan. When she was old enough to go to college, she fled Manhattan for the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

There, she wrote for the Michigan Daily, student newspaper, and the Gargoyle, the campus humor magazine. As managing editor of the Gargoyle, she produced a parody of the New Yorker magazine, which many people believed was one of the finest things Terry campus you murder magazine had ever published.

At Michigan, she met and later married Donald Malcolm. In 1955, they first moved to Washington D.C., where he took a job is a writer for the New Republic magazine. They subsequently moved to New York City, where he joined the staff of the New Yorker.

In the early 1970s, Donald Malcolm contracted a mysterious illness that remain undiagnosed properly until his death in 1975. During this period, Janet Malcolm began writing pieces for the New Yorker. She eventually married Gardner Botsford, one of the magazine’s editors.

Malcolm proved herself to be a distinct and distinguished writer. She was at that time a smoker who tried to give up the habit, but she found the writing and editing process so intense that she could not do it. To help her kick the habit, she turned to an immersive reporting process — one that would give her the confidence to write without being propped up by cigarettes.

The articles that she wrote for the New Yorker were so distinctive but she developed a set of fan readers who look forward to reading anything that you published.

Reaction to what Malcolm wrote in her introduction to the McGinnis – McDonald articles was virulent and personal. She was accused of withholding the information from her readers that she, too, had been sued but a source. The subject of her articles in that case accused her of libel because she had rearranged some of the quotations that he had given to her. That lawsuit hung over Malcolm’s career for more than a decade before it was finally resolved.

Despite the controversies that continued to swirl around Malcolm, she remained a staff writer for the New Yorker, writing deeply reported an insightful articles about a wide variety of topics. Both her fans and her critics never abandoned their separate positions on how they built about her work.

She wrote several books, and there are at least for collections of her essays in print.

Malcolm died two weeks ago (June 16, 2021) of lung cancer. She was 86 years old.

Is what journalists do morally indefensible?

That question, of course, has no definitive answer. But journalism owes a great debt to Malcolm for forcing the profession to face it squarely.


One of the last things but Malcolm ever wrote was an essay for the New York Review of Books about her own libel trial. It can be found here, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/09/24/jeffrey-masson-trial-second-chance/. A subscription may be required.


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