There is an incestuous and self-congratulatory tendency for media to report on media commenting on media reporting on reporters who are exposing some shocking fact that is by now lost in the layers.
Nonetheless, it is sometimes worth doing.
This story starts when Army physician Jeffrey MacDonald is charged with murdering his wife and two young daughters. Journalist and author Joe McGinniss, a man “drawn to the kind of serious subject that had a tabloid sheen,” ingratiates himself with MacDonald, eager to write a true crime book that will rival Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. He gives MacDonald had every reason to fancy him an ally.
Then he writes that he knows with absolute certainty that MacDonald is a murderer.
Furious, MacDonald sues him for fraud and breach of contract. A hung jury and an out-of-court settlement later, we are left still wondering: Was MacDonald within his rights to sue? Is a journalist who fakes sympathy to get a story committing a crime?
Janet Malcolm takes up that question in a book that is now required reading on many a syllabus. The Journalist and the Murderer is about the legal question, but also about truth, and journalism, and ethics, and human relationship. She opens with the now famous lines: “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.”
Enter the famously cocky French journalist and author Emmanuel Carrère. He is not stupid, though he can be full of himself, and he always notices what is going on. He pushes back in an essay called “The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm.”
First, Carrère takes exception to Malcolm’s cynicism. Her opening remarks are accurate in McGinniss’s case, he writes, but not in others. (Certainly not in his own work.) Then, he objects to her take on a party where MacDonald and his defense team amused themselves by throwing darts at a blown-up photograph of the prosecuting attorney. Afterward, McGinniss writes, “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 court, witnesses testify that McGinniss threw darts too, laughing along with them in his role as the supportive, sympathetic journalist. The hypocrisy of participating, Malcolm suggests, undermines his credibility as a neutral observer.
Carrère sees nothing wrong with McGinniss throwing darts along with MacDonald: “Is that bad? Of course not. What is bad is describing the scene without saying just that. It’s putting yourself in the role of an impartial, horrified witness. It’s not knowing that in telling the story you yourself become a character in the story, as much to blame as all the others.”
Carrère, as you might have guessed, loves to become a character in his own stories. “I know nothing other than my own ego,” he once wrote. His partner describes him as “a little bit autistic,” saying it is “an effort for him to get interested in others.”
He proved the disconnect when he surprised an earlier girlfriend, Sophie, with a gift: a letter to her, published in Le Monde. In the letter, Sophie is on a train, reading his step-by-step instructions that she should do this, do that, and eventually, as her arousal becomes unbearable, pleasure herself in the train’s restroom. And she would be on a train reading these instructions, because he had timed the letter to be published on the Saturday that she was taking the train to join him at the seaside.
Was the marshmallow porn of Carrère’s column abhorrent? It might have shocked a few Americans, but certainly no Parisians. What was objectionable was laying the intimacy of his relationship with Sophie on a cold table for all of France to examine. Being ordered, in a public forum, to obey and do certain things by yourself, to yourself, while the world giggles—if that is his notion of what a woman finds arousing, he is tone deaf. Had he whispered suggestions to her over the phone and stayed on the line to enjoy her pleasure…perhaps. But given the format he chose, Sophie was probably relieved that she missed the train. (A further slap: she missed the train because she had just learned she was pregnant with another man’s child.)
“The moral ambiguity of journalism,” Malcolm writes, “lies not in its texts but in the relationships out of which they arise.” Why? Because those relationships are so easy to exploit. Carrère gives us another example when he uses the backfired “gift” in another essay, as a scourge to excoriate himself: “Performative pornography, involving my girlfriend, without telling her? And being sure that you are doing something wonderful?”
As one reviewer notes, “Self-deprecating honesty is his schtick.”
By the time he writes My Life as a Russian Novel, Carrère is explaining that in Sophie missing the train because she was pregnant, there was “a stunning logic…and also (I can’t help thinking ahead), the ideal ending for the book I will write.”
I agree with him, though: rather than stand back and avoid dirtying one’s hemline, journalists should work hard to acknowledge their methods and their bias (though it can be stealthy and subliminal). We can hardly return to the old days, when we pretended such detachment that “I” was forbidden and the awkward “This reporter” had to be used instead. Readers have lost their innocence, and they watch for bias like cops on a stakeout.
They also watch for arrogance, and it shows in Carrère’s later attack of conscience, his concession that “when you write about someone, you’re using in a pretty unpleasant fashion the right of the strongest, the right of someone who writes, who has the last word, who gives the version of history.” Please. What writer dictates history unchecked and uncriticized? There are other people weighing in, always. And must a writer use that power “in a pretty unpleasant fashion”? In The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception—a lucid and thoughtful book that does give In Cold Blood a run for its money—Carrère takes almost excessive care to not present a man who murdered his wife and children as a monster.
Malcolm concludes that the relationship between journalist and subject is by nature dishonest; there is no escaping the tension of competing agendas. Carrère says she is wrong: the real tension is between “authors who believe they’re above the story they’re telling and those who accept the uncomfortable idea that they are also bound up in it.” Yet his disclosures still smack of persona, and his confessions are always boyish and forgivable. He never quite pulls off the raw candor he claims to aim for; he plays with his ego instead. But he does acknowledge, at the end of his critique, that Malcolm, “all the while declaring such honesty impossible, demonstrates it herself from the beginning to the end of the book.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.