Quote Of The Day: The Double-Faced Reporter

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Quote Of The Day #74

Every journalist…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.

Q: Is there a custom or practice in the literary world about whether or not an author should disclose his views to his subject?
A: I believe that one should never disclose one’s views, because it may shut off further communication.

…the invariable inefficacy of the “Don’t blame me–everybody does it” defense. Society mediates between the extremes of, on the one hand, intolerably strict morality and, on the other, dangerously anarchic permissiveness through an unspoken agreement whereby we are given leave to bend the rules of the strictest morality, provided we do so quietly and discreetly.

…admit you have stretched the rules for your own benefit. You do it and shut up about it, and hope you don’t get caught, because if you are caught no one–or no one who has any sense–will come forward and say he has done the same thing himself.

Joe, a journalist, followed Jeff, a medical doctor and an accused murderer, through his trials. Joe built an intimate relationship with Jeff by flattering him and convincing him that he was on his side. They were so intimate that they exchanged several long letters of mutual admiration every week for almost two years while Jeff stayed in jail, convicted of murder. Then Joe published his book on Jeff, which depicted Jeff as a narcissistic womanizer and incorrigible psychopath. Jeff didn’t know that his beloved reporter friend, Joe, was so double-faced and devious. Jeff thought Joe was writing a book to portray him as an innocent man wrongfully accused and convicted, and to exonerate him of the crime he had been accused of. Jeff was denied an early preview of the book, for obvious reasons, but he trusted Joe and didn’t make a big deal of it. Then Jeff went on “60 Minutes”–a CBS television show–and the host read him a passage from the book, which the host got an early copy. The passage described Jeff as a monster and Jeff was dumbfounded. Such a betrayal cannot be left unpunished by Jeff. So he sued Joe. Eventually the case was settled out of court–the book publisher’s insurance company paid compensations to Jeff.

This is the content of the book “The Journalist And The Murderer” by Janet Malcolm, in which the morality of the journalist, Joe McGinniss, and the moral of journalism is examined. There are a lot of detailed description of various people, all reporters, and their opinions on this case. Some “talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; some talk about Art; some murmur about earning a living”. One of the reporters the author interviewed said that a reporter should only profess his agreement with his subject to a certain degree. Overall, it is a controversial issue and there’s no clear answer to it.

It is a very good read and the moral issue of a reporter’s work is examined from different angles. However my attention is more drawn towards the blatant ignorance of human psychology in the 70s and 80s. Jeff MacDonald was accused of killing his wife and two young daughters in 1970s, his on and off trial, acquittal, trial and appeal lasted until 1980s, and Joe McGinniss book “Fatal Vision” was published in 1980s. In those days, people didn’t really think about mental issues, narcissism, or rage problem, to the point that they got themselves blindsided and killed.

Jeff MacDonald is a Princeton educated medical doctor, and his wife Colette trusted him so much that she never complained about his rage problem or his narcissism to her mother or her friends, with whom she had regular correspondence. One rainy night, she and her two daughters were murdered at home. Her husband Jeff pleaded not guilty and claimed that there were intruders who came in and killed his wife and daughters. Then one of Jeff’s lovers told the author that Jeff raged against her 10-year-old son twice, once dangling him from a window by grabbing his feet, and the other time throwing the boy off the boat while they were all aboard because the boy was naughty. And this was a very brief affair, which lasted only two months after Jeff went to trial and got acquitted. As I was reading it, I thought to myself that Jeff did have a rage problem and how come his wife Colette didn’t tell anybody about this. It is unlikely that Colette had never had one encounter with Jeff’s rage until the night she was murdered. It was very unlikely that this was the case. They were married for 7 years. And knowing Jeff’s rage (and his narcissism), she didn’t do anything to protect herself and her children. Not only that, she didn’t even complain to her mother or her friends about Jeff’s flaws. Instead she often told them that she was deliriously happy. I just can’t believe this. How naive was Colette? Or probably women were so programmed to believe in an ideal marriage that their own reality–which contradicted the ideal–didn’t really matter.

And Colette was taking psychology courses in a local community college at the time and wanted to become a psychologist herself. I just can’t believe this. She wanted to have psychological insights into her life while she blatantly ignored the psychology in her own family. And I imagine that Colette provoked Jeff in that fateful night by pointing out his lies or criticizing him of his numerous affairs. And she should not have done this since this would only enrage Jeff. If she had been more observant of human psychology and human marriage, she really should be more cautious–poking a psychopath could cause unthinkable consequences.

11 thoughts on “Quote Of The Day: The Double-Faced Reporter

  1. Very, very interesting and also infinitely, very sad. As I often say to others who want to triumph over someone – “don’t poke the bear!”

    I have been interviewed by journalists on and off for nearly 25 years. During that time, I have developed an appreciation of who I can and can’t trust. Those I do, will contact me from time to time, to seek my opinion on an issue. I have had four interviews this year. Young journalists in today’s world do not have the same understanding re ethics or how the world works.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you write about your experience with journalists, I would love to read it. I mean how much you can tell them and how much you cannot tell them. What if they pretend to be your friends in order to get more information from you? What if you go to a bar to have a drink or two with them?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Perhaps I will one day. There are many, many stories. I have been able to work out over the years who I can trust re the different mediums i.e. tv, radio and print (includes e-copy). A good friend of mine is a radio journalist and I can trust him implicitly. I catch up with him every now and then and yes, we have a quiet drink at the bar.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, it seems that words, even casual words, can cause a lot of problems. I don’t know what I will do if somebody flatters me into reveal more than what I really want to reveal.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great review my friend and such a detailed summary. Human nature is a strange thing indeed. It does seem like his wife would have at least cared about her children. It also seems like the reporter should have been sued. Sounds like the reporter was playing with fire. I can’t imagine lying to anyone like that.

    This was one of the most thorough book reviews I have ever read. Very interesting.

    Have an amazing weekend my friend. Big blessings. 🦋🌹


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