Thursday, March 28, 2013

My Log 348 March 28 2013 Fifty cents well spent: a little book by Janet Malcolm packs a wallop in its analysis of journalism, the trade I have always followed.

Penguin 14 003191 X
Penguin 14 003191 X (Photo credit: scatterkeir)

 During the many years I worked as a reporter on daily newspapers, I only once tried to use a tape recorder while doing an interview.

As a youth I had failed miserably to master Pitman’s shorthand, when I took a course at a secretarial school, but I had bought a copy of Gregg’s, a simpler method, and taught it to myself, in a fashion. What I usually depended on to take notes was my own half-arsed system of shorthand, combined with a private system of scribbling, allied to an excellent memory.

I always thought that by the time one had finished interviewing a subject, one should already know which parts of the interview one was going to need for one’s story, and which direct quotes would be essential.

My only essay with the tape recorder persuaded me it was a waste of time. Far from being able to return to the office, sit down and write one’s piece, (and have it finished within half an hour of beginning it) one was confronted with playing the tape back, listening to the whole interview again, and then having to decide which parts were relevant and which merely the accompanying dross.

The tape-recorder in these days is probably an essential item for a reporter in view of the litigious nature of modern society but in all of my life I can recall only once being accused of having misquoted someone: that came years after I had retired from active journalism, in a review of a book that didn’t much interest me, and that I had carelessly hurried through, with the result that in the review I committed a dreadful boner which the book’s authors were quick to pick up and point out to the editor for whom I wrote the review.

Apart from that one shame-inducing incident, I cannot remember ever having been accused of misquoting anyone, so my personal shorthand method seems to have worked okay.

I was reminded of all this in the last couple of days when, for fifty cents, I picked up a second-hand copy of a book by Janet Malcolm, the famed commentator-reporter for the New Yorker, which deals with the subject of interviewers and their subjects, and the assumptions, responsibilities and expectations that reside in both sides of this encounter.

The book is called The Journalist and the Murderer, was published in 1990, following its publication in the magazine, and must have, I imagine, created considerable interest among journalists when published.  In it, Ms Malcolm investigates a court case in which a convicted murderer, Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, about whose trial for murdering his wife and two children the well-known journalist Joe McGinniss wrote a 600-page book, sued McGinniss “for fraud and breach of contract.”

The murders took place in 1970, but it was not until 1979 that Dr. MacDonald was charged and went to trial. McGinniss, on the lookout for another subject that might equal the block-busting success of his first book, The Selling of the President, approached the guy, liked him, and got himself attached to the defence team so that he could sit in even on conversations such as lawyer-client meetings that would normally have been denied to him as an investigating reporter.

What attracted Malcolm’s interest was that, for the first time, a reporter was being sued not for any mistakes of fact, but because of his attitude while interviewing and being in correspondence with MacDonald --- an attitude of ingratiation, friendliness and support ---- towards the subject, an attitude that was betrayed in the final publication. MacDonald’s case was that McGinniss had given him to believe he was sympathetic to him and his story, whereas, having been convinced during the trial that the doctor was guilty as charged, McGinniss  described him in his book as a psychopathic killer, a publicity-seeker, a womanizer, a latent homosexual, and as a character who, when the layers of his mask fell away, revealed “the horror that lurks beneath.” MacDonald had been helping McGinniss to write a book in which he believed the author would exonerate him of his crimes, and present him as a loving father, dedicated physician and overachiever. And this was now the fraud with which MacDonald charged McGinniss.

All this is of merely historical interest now, but much of what Malcolm writes about journalism and its practice is still extremely relevant.
In her opening paragraph she states:

“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. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse…. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech, and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

I can’t say I disagree with any of this, and Malcolm in the 163 pages of her little book, peels off the layers of journalistic practice in a most revealing way.

What particularly caught my interest, however, came in an afterword she wrote, that was tacked on to the end of her New Yorker piece. Dealing with the question of verbatim quoting, she writes:

“…when a journalist undertakes to quote a subject he has interviewed on tape, he owes it to the subject, no less than to the reader, to translate his speech into prose. Only the most uncharitable (or inept) journalist will hold a subject to his literal utterances and fail to perform the sort of editing and rewriting that in life, our ear automatically and instantaneously performs….”

She then gives a literal taped translation of a reply to a question she asked a psychiatrist who testified in the case. It occupies 19 lines of her book, and is full of peripheral, interrupting statements in the middle of sentences, and so on, the sort of talking that we all do, in fact, but realize how jumbled are our statements only when confronted with them on tape. Her precis of what the man said occupies only 10 lines of her book, but conveys exactly the message he was trying to convey.

As someone who practised journalism for many years, that is entirely familiar to me, and an accurate comment on the way the profession (if I may call it that) ought to be and usually is practised. Ms. Malcolm says that before the invention of the tape-recorder, no quotation could be verbatim, that Boswell’s account of what Dr. Johnson said could not have been a verbatim account of his actual statements. All of which may be perfectly obvious to anyone who has practised journalism.

Another interesting addition to the debate is thrown in a few pages later, when Ms. Malcolm goes into the meaning of the use of the pronoun “I” by journalists.

“The dominant and most deep-dyed trait of the journalist is his timourousness. Where the novelist fearlessly plunges into the water of self-exposure, the journalist stands trembling on the shore in his beach robe. Not for him the strenuous athleticism --- which is the novelist’s daily task ---  of laying out his deepest griefs and shames before the world.  The journalist confines himself  to the clean, gentlemanly work of exposing the griefs and shames of others….

But there is a sort of exception in the work of the journalist:

“The character (called “I” in a work of journalism) is almost pure invention, Unlike then “I” of autobiography, who is meant to be seen as a representation of the writer, the “I” of journalism is connected to the writer only in a tenuous way….The journalistic “I” is an overreliable narrator, a functionary to whom crucial tasks of narration and argument and tone have been entrusted, an ad hoc creation, like the chorus of Greek tragedy. He is an emblematic figure, an embodiment of the idea of the dispassionate observer of life. Nevertheless, readers who readily accept the idea that the narrator in a work of fiction is not the same person as the  author of the book will stubbornly resist the idea of the invented “I’ of journalism, and even among journalism there are those who have trouble sorting themselves out from the Supermen of their texts.”

Thanks to the stubbornness of one of the six jurors who heard the case --- a woman who was convinced from the beginning that MacDonald was guilty --- the verdict was a hung jury --- the other five jurors having come to the conclusion, as Malcolm writes,  “that a man who was serving three consecutive life sentences for the murder of his wife and two small children, was deserving of more sympathy than the writer who had deceived him.”  Ms. Malcolm’s interest in the case was tweaked when she received a letter from the lawyer who had defended McGinniss, in which he said that for the first time, a disgruntled subject “has been permitted to sue a writer on grounds that render irrelevant the truth or falsity of what was published…Now, for the first time, a journalist’s demeanor and point of view throughout the entire creative process have become an issue to be resolved by jury trial.”  Without admitting any culpability, McGinniss eventually agreed to settle the case with MacDonald, paying him some $325,000.

I enjoyed reading the conclusions of someone who had thought so seriously about the nature and practice of journalism, a trade I have followed all my life. Of course, I have a tendency to interpret what she has written as meaning that, to do the job properly, one needs not to be what I might call a true believer --- that is, in the official myths that most or at least many journalists  pursue about their craft’s essential importance in the scheme of society. I have never been a true believer myself, and that is not to say I have never taken the job seriously: of course, I have always tried to do it as well as I could. But I have always avoided taking refuge in noble shibboleths about the central importance of what I was doing.

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