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Moral Debate Rages Over Writers Who Exploit Human Tragedy

Times Staff Writer

Some murder cases don’t die. They become the source of endless literary arguments.

For most of this month, journalistic tongues have been wagging over a two-part article by Janet Malcolm in New Yorker magazine in which Malcolm--after investigating the tangled aftermath of a celebrated multiple homicide--castigated her colleagues for “preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

Titled “Reflections: The Journalist and the Murderer,” Malcolm’s 40,000 words have provoked a barrage of rebuttal, including an editorial in the New York Times and an expose on Malcolm in New York magazine.

The argument, interestingly enough, is based on a Southern California court case that was largely ignored by the East Coast press at the time it occurred.

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Malcolm’s chief contention is that journalists lull their subjects with displays of false camaraderie and--after those naive subjects bare their souls--turn on them by writing stories that are unflattering and often vicious.

In her opening paragraph, Malcolm wrote, “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. . . . 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 writing learns--when the article or book appears-- his hard lesson.”

Malcolm’s jumping-off point for this and other sweeping pronouncements was a lawsuit filed in 1984 by convicted murderer and former Green Beret Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald against writer Joe McGinniss, author of “Fatal Vision,” a book--and later a television miniseries--about MacDonald and the murder of his wife and two young daughters Feb. 17, 1970. In the suit, MacDonald, who once practiced in Long Beach, charged that McGinniss had strung him along by pretending to believe that he was innocent, all the while writing a book that portrayed the former Army doctor as a psychopathic killer. The suit was tried in federal court in Los Angeles in 1987 and resulted in a mistrial. McGinniss, in a move that shocked many, later settled out of court with MacDonald, agreeing to pay him $325,000, rather than endure a new trial.

Much of the trial--and most of Malcolm’s charges--hinged on letters McGinniss wrote to MacDonald in prison in which McGinniss constantly reassured MacDonald with sympathetic comments. At the trial in Los Angeles, a number of witnesses, including columnist and author William F. Buckley and crime writer and novelist Joseph Wambaugh, testified that misleading or lying to subjects about their true feelings was an acceptable technique for writers.

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Got What He Deserves

Malcolm concludes that McGinniss got what he deserved; that has provoked the outraged response to her articles.

New York magazine contributing editor John Taylor got off the most telling blow in an article in the March 27 issue. Taylor reported that in preparing a New Yorker profile of psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson, Malcolm had engaged in many of the same tactics for which she vilified McGinniss.

Wrote Taylor: “Like McGinniss, she (Malcolm) acquired the trust of her subject (“have a little faith,” she told him at one point). Like McGinniss, she exploited the confidences her subject revealed. Like McGinniss, she portrayed her subject as a sort of monster. Like McGinniss, she left him feeling utterly betrayed. And, like McGinniss, she was sued.”

Taylor also reported that in Malcolm’s article on Masson, “a number of quotations were not on Malcolm’s tapes or in her handwritten notes.”

But he also noted that Malcolm successfully defended herself, with a federal court in San Francisco ruling that “there was an absence of malice and that '(t)he inclusion of quotation marks in a passage does not require complete accuracy; a writer may resort to rhetorical license.’ ”

In a telephone interview, Taylor said there “has not been a letter or phone call from the New Yorker” contradicting his article. In his story, Taylor wrote that Malcolm did not reply “to numerous messages and requests for an interview.” (Masson’s suit against Malcolm is being appealed, and a New Yorker representative said the magazine would not comment until the case is finally settled.)

Like others who have read Malcolm’s article about McGinniss and MacDonald, Taylor said he was captivated by it. “I think the New Yorker’s great . . . and I think Janet Malcolm is a very profound writer and her piece is very profound though skewed,” he explained.

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Increasingly Puzzled

But as he read the two installments, Taylor said he became increasingly puzzled because Malcolm never mentioned her clash with Masson despite its obvious parallels.

Taylor speculated that Malcolm’s examination of how journalists work struck a chord because “journalists, like most people, don’t examine why they do what they do” and the article “really set people thinking.”

In the latest salvo on Malcolm, Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley filed a commentary this week in which he made the distinction between journalists who ply their trade daily or weekly and nonfiction writers who turn out blockbuster books.

Yardley concluded that “Janet Malcolm’s exploration of this question is flawed in numerous ways, not least of them her reliance on precisely the amateur psychologizing she so deplores in McGinniss, but her essential arguments are sound and important. There is nothing sacred about the cynical process by which real human calamities are turned into blockbuster books; it is business pure and simple, not very pretty business at that, and it deserves exposure as precisely what it is.”

Perhaps overlooked in this debate is one remarkable fact--the murders that led to it happened more than 19 years ago. That they are still the ultimate source of news is due largely to the almost inhuman persistence of MacDonald, who continues to proclaim his innocence.

In a prescient passage in “Fatal Vision,” McGinniss quoted one of his sources as saying that MacDonald is “never going to accept his guilt. He’s never going to just sit in jail. . . . The case is never going to be in a posture where he just quietly sits in jail and lets the years roll by.”

Merger Consequences?

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Now that the initial spate of publicity over the merger of Time Inc. and Warner Communications Inc. has died down, Media Industry Newsletter, an insider’s newsletter, has weighed in with some second thoughts. Among other things, the newsletter’s anonymous authors wonder if film-TV giant Warner might not find magazines a bit passe

“Is it too remote to imagine the ‘entertainment power bloc’ in the combined companies looking at magazine publishing as an anachronism in their new world of global film-TV-cable interests?” the newsletter asks. “If entertainment is TWI’s new ‘core’ business, how long will the news and information print properties be looked upon favorably?”

Good questions.


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