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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Journalism and the question of ethics in its professional pursuit

Journalism and the question of ethics in its professional pursuit

Janet Malcolm (1934-2021) wrote widely but will be remembered most for her journalism classic

Photo: Mint (Photo: Mint)Premium
Photo: Mint (Photo: Mint)

In 1970, a US army physician called Jeffrey MacDonald was accused of murdering his pregnant wife and two young daughters. The writer Joe McGinniss interviewed him, and they struck a rapport. MacDonald asked McGinniss if he would write a book about his case and share the revenue so that he could pay for his legal defence. McGinnis agreed, but MacDonald was convicted. McGinniss wrote letters to him, saying he thought he had not received a fair trial. However, McGinniss was convinced early that MacDonald was guilty, but he maintained the illusion of friendship to earn MacDonald’s trust. The book he wrote, Fatal Vision (1984), shattered MacDonald, who sued McGinnis, and they settled out of court.

In 1989, Janet Malcolm, who died last week at 86, wrote a thoughtful yet uncomfortable account that became a book, The Journalist and the Murderer, which is now a classic. In her chilling opening paragraph, she wrote: “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 non-fiction 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."

Reporters who claim to pursue facts (since truth is not an exactitude, as Pilate warned) believe we are objective. But we are really after a narrative. The best among us keep our emotions apart; the passionate embrace causes hoping to serve ideals but abdicate impartiality; the weak and meek obey governments and corporations, because we have bills to pay; the vain are happy being photographed with the powerful, confusing that proximity with influence. And we are selfish, as Malcolm puts it, and act without remorse.

The reporter and the subject use each other. The subject wants his version to get accepted as the truth. The reporter is interested in ‘what happens next’; the subject is immaterial. The experienced war correspondent has seen babies orphaned and homes razed. Keeping distance is important. Cross a line, and the consequences are incendiary, as Michael Ignatieff writes in his 2003 novel, Charlie Johnson in the Flames. Every seasoned investigative reporter realizes that sources speak because they have a motive. The good reporter listens, entraps the subject, letting him talk and reveal.

Malcolm said this openly, in the New Yorker, upsetting many reporters who thought they responded to a higher calling. She also wrote extensively about psychoanalysis with an acute understanding of the outward parallels between the client and the therapist, and the reporter and her source. The reporter must stay detached, even if it sounds callous and cruel, a point Edward Behr referred to when during a conflict he noted a journalist shouting, “Anyone here been raped and speaks English?" while looking for victims to provide him with the opening anecdote. That sentence gave Behr the title for his 1978 memoir.

The journalist is committed to the story, not to morality. Malcolm understood what incentivized reporters. “The journalistic ‘I’ is an over-reliable narrator, a functionary to whom crucial tasks of narration and argument and tone have been entrusted, an ad hoc creation, like the chorus of a Greek tragedy," she said in an interview with Paris Review in 2011. “He is an emblematic figure, an embodiment of the idea of the dispassionate observer of life." The crucial word here is ‘idea’, note, not reality. And because Malcolm pitilessly laid bare journalists’ manipulative ways, when she was sued by psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson for libel in her book In the Freud Archives, few journalists openly supported her. Eventually, she was vindicated.

Malcolm scrupulously avoided ‘off-the-record’ conversations. She told Katie Roiphe, who interviewed her for Paris Review, “If someone suggests going off the record, tell them you don’t want to hear it. They’ll probably talk to you anyway." That shifted the onus and the journalist couldn’t be accused of betrayal. In India in the early 1980s, former Karnataka chief minister R. Gundu Rao learnt that the hard way when his bombastic interview with Arun Shourie appeared verbatim in Sunday magazine. Similarly, Indian Express owner Ramnath Goenka had huffed and puffed after my then editor, Shobhaa De, published in Celebrity exactly what he told her about his editors. Years later, Karan Thapar would ask questions that Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, declined to answer. Modi asked for water and ended the interview, saying, “Dosti bani rahe," (Let us keep our friendship).

Shourie, De and Thapar never pretended to be what they were not—friends, allies or therapists. They were there to listen, to get their stories, and report what they learned. Malcolm would have approved.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at

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Published: 23 Jun 2021, 09:33 PM IST
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