The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm

If you’d asked me about my reading tastes a few years ago, I would probably not have mentioned nonfiction as one of my favorite genres. Over the last few years, however, I find myself drawn more and more to true accounts, biographies, and memoirs. I think the change in taste is partly because of my commitment to read different genres as part of my fifty book goal.

This semester, my newfound enjoyment of nonfiction will be put to the test. I’m taking a creative nonfiction writing course, which means anything from memoir to literary journalism. The course requires us to read a different work of nonfiction each week for the first part of the semester, so I’m predicting that quite a few of my books this year will be nonfiction.

Which brings us to the subject of today’s post: The Journalist and the Murderer, by Janet Malcolm. This book is about a libel suit filed by Jeff MacDonald, a convicted murderer, against Joe McGinniss, the journalist MacDonald hired to write about his murder trial.

The Journalist and the Murderer
The book is less about the earlier murder trial and more about the libel case and the relationship between MacDonald and McGinniss. After MacDonald was convicted of murdering his wife and children, McGinniss published a tell-all book about the process. He had been invited to become a member of the defense team, and became very good friends with MacDonald. The problem was that MacDonald and the rest of the defense were under the impression that the book would paint him as an innocent man who had been wrongly accused and denied a fair trial.

The book that McGinniss published was, in fact, the exact opposite. Fatal Vision, as it was titled, painted MacDonald as a psychopath, liar, and cold-blooded killer. To make matters worse, the correspondence between the journalist and the murderer was incredibly deceptive. McGinniss promised MacDonald that he was still his friend, and apologized for MacDonald’s prison sentence. The letters were overly sympathetic, especially when the final product was such a reversal of the reporter’s earlier statements.

The book touches on first amendment rights and journalistic integrity, which are both really interesting topics that are very relevant today. Although I am convinced that MacDonald did kill his family, I also agree that McGinniss’ tactics were suspect at best.

The book delves off a little into the realm of psychoanalysis, which is where it lost me, but on the whole it was really an interesting read.

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