Wednesday, July 20, 2011

the journalist and the joyrider

This article dates back 18 years, but the kicker seems as important as ever. "Being a reporter," I wrote, "doesn't mean you stop being a person."

I was writing in reaction to a mostly forgotten tempest--the Jeffrey Masson/Janet Malcolm/Joe McGuinness entanglement--but that one-liner remains relevant given the revelations that many reporters in the UK committed crimes--including hacking phones, phishing for data, and bribing the police in the pursuit of scoops and juicy details.

the journalist and the joyrider.

All reporters, deep down, love good stories. I admit: I love murder. I love tragedy. I love sexy trials. I love political corruption. I love exposing the emperor's new clothes.

Working on a good story is like joyriding in a sports car after having spent your life in a sedan--you want to floor it, patch out, thrash the transmission, put the beast through its paces.

Janet Malcolm undoubtedly saw Jeffrey Masson as a good story. Her profile in the New Yorker was devastating. I am sure she heartily enjoyed every minute of it.
Last month, a jury declared that Malcolm had libeled Masson by using quotes that were not backed up by her notes or tapes. Certainly, all journalists should take note of the verdict. However, there is another concern in the case, one that has not gotten much attention--except, ironically, from Malcolm herself: The issue of bad faith.

I know all about bad faith. I have been guilty of it many times. So have most reporters I know.

I have paid for stories when I knew my money was being used to buy drugs the minute I left the scene. I have deliberately misled people I was interviewing--sometimes putting on a show of sympathy to get juicier quotes.

I have delayed calling people I was writing about until the last possible moment, trying to catch them off guard. I have hidden scoops from my competitors and lied to them about it.

I am not proud about any of this, but I can assure you that, in each case, I thought I was doing my job.

A few years ago, though, that all changed. An editor put me in touch with a man who had had a stroke. He talked haltingly, with a stutter. He could take 15 minutes to find one word. However, this was a big improvement. For almost a year after his stroke, he had been unable to speak at all.

I spent hours with him to make sure I had his story right: He believed the corrupt leaders of his municipal union had poisoned him.

I began to check his account. It was all circumstantial. He had been a member of a dissident union faction. The union president had been accused of corruption, but none of the other dissidents had come down with a mysterious illness, and there was no it known drug that could have caused his symptoms.

As I worked, I decided to pursue a different, more compelling story--the story of a man who had made the arduous journey back from a stroke and was now trying to make sense of his illness.

I told him, over and over, that I was not going to write the story he wanted me to write. He always agreed and then returned to his central theme: This happened to him. It was fact. All I had to do was write it down the way he rehearsed it.

I realized then the difference between his goal and mine. He came to me for vindication. If I told his story, his ideas would be legitimized, his world affirmed. I came to him looking for a good story. I wanted to joyride.

Ultimately, I decided not to write about his case. No story is more important than the person it is about.

I am not saying that journalists should cover up for corrupt politicians because an article might hurt their feelings. But I do believe that if we are going to expose someone in print, we have an obligation to tell them what we think--face to face if possible. We do not let them hide in their houses and offices. So why should we be able to hide behind our pages?

I imagine many journalists will argue that a person who talks with a reporter knows the risks. But I think most people, even the most self-assured, talk to reporters because they want their side of events recorded. They want to be proved right and, if you treat your sources as friends, you owe it to them to tell them straight out what you think.

That is why it was wrong for Joe McGinniss not to tell Jeffrey MacDonald, the subject of his true-crime book Fatal Vision, that McGinniss believed MacDonald had murdered his wife and kids.

MacDonald had opened up to McGinniss, had made the author part of his life, and McGinniss had betrayed that trust, not by writing the book but by hiding his conclusions from the man he was writing about.

In her book on the McGinniss-MacDonald dispute, Malcolm says all reporters are, in essence, charlatans, "preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and then betraying them without remorse."

She suggests that we should feel "some compunction about the exploitative character of the journalist-subject relationship."

Indeed we should. So should she. Malcolm spent hours talking with Masson, even putting him up at her house, as if she were his friend.

Ultimately, she concluded that Masson was, in some of her nicer words, "impudent," "complicated," "unruly," but she never told him. To Masson, it appeared that Malcolm had hooked him in and then, with no warning, vilified him. I am sure he felt it was an unprovoked attack.

Certainly, fabricating quotes is wrong. Stitching them together in a dishonest way is wrong. But I am afraid that most journalists will dismiss the Malcolm-Masson case as a simple mater of libel and lose sight of the ethical point. Being a journalist does not mean you stop being a person.

1 comment:

Cameron said...

Interesting post!

Its theme reminds me of an article I am currently reading in an old issue of Vanity Fair (October 2009) called "A Clash of Camelots" about writer William Manchester's book "The Death of a President". Shortly after JFK's assassination, Jackie Kennedy opened her heart to Manchester in a series of interviews and was later horrified at the author's use of the material, and fought the book's publication tooth and nail.