The first time I picked up Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision, I couldn’t put it down. In one sitting, I read more than 100 pages of his gripping account of Jeffrey MacDonald, the doctor who survived a home invasion that killed his wife and children—or at least that’s what happened according to the physician’s preposterous story of a Manson-like band of murderous hippies. I had first encountered MacDonald’s story years earlier on an Unsolved Mysteries rerun, and McGinniss’s a few years after that, when as a conscientious journalism student I read Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, the New Yorker contributor’s account of Joe McGinniss’s reporting of Fatal Vision, during which he basically lied to MacDonald about his intentions—thinking he was guilty while leading him on to believe he was sympathetic and would be portrayed as such—in order to get access to his subject.
The first line of Malcolm’s case study of journalistic ethics has since become legendary, though the whole paragraph is worth reading:
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. 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. 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.
McGinnis died yesterday in Massachusetts after a battle with prostate cancer, and Malcolm’s scathing indictment of an entire profession will be his most lasting legacy, at least for those interested in media—that is, not his writing but the ideas his writing inspired in disgusted others. Which is maybe unfortunate, because, as I wrote, Fatal Vision is quite gripping, regardless of how it was reported! And, hey, maybe McGinnis’s work and career will be remembered differently by the culture at large. I first heard the news of his death from StarPulse.com, which for some reason was linked to in the generic “headlines” app on my phone. The article didn’t even include a photo of the author but instead a giant, full-body one of Sarah Palin, who was the subject of McGinniss’s last published book, an unauthorized 2011 biography. As part of his reporting, he moved into the house in Alaska next-door to her and her family’s—which, regardless of your feelings about Palin, even non-media ethicists could identify as skeezy. And brilliant. RIP, Joe!
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