The first sentence in Janet Malcolm’s book, “The Journalist and the Murderer” 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.”
If you have been following this page in the last few weeks you will agree that I deserve a pardon, too, just like DSP Alamiyeseigha, the former governor of Bayelsa State. I deserve a pardon, not from everybody and not for everything.
Mind you, I am not alone. One of my co-travelers is Jon Gambrell, Associated Press’s Chief Correspondent in Nigeria. Facing persistent attacks from Nigerians who believe that the AP does not publish enough positive stories about their beloved country, Mr. Gambrell recent applied for a pardon. He wrote: “‘Positive stories’ for the sake of doing positive stories are a drop of honey on rotten fruit. They belittle the subject. Nigeria is one of the most important developing countries in the world, with a population of more than 160 million people. The nation is rich in ethnic and religious diversity. People in Nigeria and outside of it should have an opportunity to better understand it. Honest, unflinching coverage helps that. While people may disagree which stories garner more worldwide interest, you cannot argue the facts if I report them correctly. If I do make a factual error, I will do everything in my power to promptly correct it.”
He continued, “Nigeria’s government and private industries have thousands of Public Relations officials. Their goal is to provide the best frame for their subjects. My goal, and the mission of the AP, hasn’t changed much since the cooperative’s founding in 1846: Get it right, get it fast and get it out, no matter what. As former AP General Manager Melville Stone once said: “I have no thought of saying The Associated Press is perfect. The frailties of human nature attach to it. … (But) the thing it is striving for is a truthful, unbiased report of the world’s happenings … ethical in the highest degree.”
George Bernard Shaw noted that once journalists touch a story its essence is lost to both the villain and the victor. This has been a constant worry of mine in the years that I have practiced journalism. Recently, as I interviewed subjects I became greatly aware that though we hear the same thing coming out of the subject’s mouth its meaning was different for the subject and for me.
Janet Malcolm’s ‘The Journalist and the Murderer’ is a proof that I am not alone, after all. Based on a lawsuit brought against Joe McGinniss, the author of “Fatal Vision”, by the subject, Jeff MacDonald, a convicted murderer, this book brought to the fore all the conflicting dynamics in the journalist-subject relationship.
Journalists must try to understand the motivation of their subject. Malcolm captured it this way: “For, of course, at bottom, no subject is naïve. Every hoodwinked widow, every deceived lover, every betrayed friend, every subject of writing knows on some level what is in store for him, and remains in the relationship anyway, impelled by something stronger than his reason.” That thing stronger than reason is compared to romantic love by Malcolm, “But how many of us with no illusions left about the nature of romantic love will for that reason turn down a plausible lover when one comes along?”
While most journalists can condemn McGinniss’ tactics of obtaining information from MacDonald(“promethean theft, of transgression in the service of creativity, of stealing as the foundation of making.”), all will acknowledge that at one point or another, they have treated a subject in a way the subject did not expect. Of course, Malcolm recognized the reasons journalists give for that – telling the truth, serving the people or making a living. Gary Bostwick, lawyer for MacDonald gave a definitive answer when he said during McGinniss’ trial that, “we cannot do whatever is necessary. We have to do what is right.”
In the process of actual writing, Malcolm observed that something changes in the comportment of the journalist. “An abyss lies between the journalist’s experience of being out in the world talking to people and his experience of being alone in a room writing. When the interviews are over and the journalist first faces the labor of writing, he feels no less resentful than the subject will feel when he reads the finished text.” That seems to be when the journalist begins to see a character that is different from the one he interviewed. If the character does not fit the picture in the mind of the journalist, he, like McGinniss, goes ahead and creates a new one.
That was why Malcolm wasted no time in passing judgment on McGinniss:
“From Keeler’s blue book I learned the same truth about subjects that the analyst learns about patients: they will tell their story to anyone who will listen to it, and the story will not be affected by the behavior or personality of the listener; just as (“good enough”) analysts are interchangeable, so are journalists… The journalist cannot create his subjects any more than the analyst can create his patients. McGinniss betrayed him and devastated him and possibly misjudged him, but he didn’t invent him.”
Having said that, what Malcolm called the “induced state of moral anarchy” under which journalists must work remained. It remained, Malcolm wrote, because if everyone – the writer and the subject- put their cards on the table the game would be over.
“It is all too natural for people who have been wronged or humiliated- or feel they have been – to harbor the fantasy that a writer will come along on a white steed and put everything to rights. As MacDonald v. McGinniss illustrates, the writer who comes along is apt to only make things worse. What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject’s blind self-absorption and the journalist’s skepticism. Journalists who swallow the subject’s account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists. If the lesson of MacDonald v. McGinniss were taken to heart by prospective subjects, it could indeed, as Kornstein maintained, be the end of journalism. Fortunately for readers and writers alike (as Kornstein’s own fantasy-laden letter demonstrates), human nature guarantees that willing subjects will never be in short supply. Like the young Aztec men and women selected for sacrifice; who lived in delightful ease and luxury until the appointed day when their hearts were to be carved from their chests, the journalistic subjects know all too well what awaits them when the days of wine and roses – the days of the interviews – are over. And still they say yes when a journalist calls, and still they are astonished when they see the flash of the knife.”
In ‘The Journalist and the Murderer’, Malcolm gave an in-depth difference between writers of fiction and non-fiction in terms of what they confront. “… the writer of fiction is entitled to more privileges. He is master of his own house and may do what he likes in it; he may even tear it down if he is so inclined (as Roth was inclined in ‘The Counterlife’). But the writer of nonfiction is only a renter, who must abide by the conditions of his lease, which stipulates that he leave the house – and its name in Actuality – as he found it. He may bring in his own furniture and arrange it as he likes) the so-called New Journalism is about the arrangement of furniture.)”
Malcolm also made references to her own case where her subject accused her of altering his exact statements in quotes. Her effort to justify that appeared tedious to me. She wrote that, “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…. The lawsuits in which transcripts of tape-recorded interviews are used to settle the question of what a subject did or didn’t say can degenerate (as, in my opinion, Masson v. Malcolm degenerated) into farcical squabbles about the degree to which a journalist may function as a writer rather than as a stenographer.”
That journalism is an imperfect profession is obvious to all practitioners. And that most of that imperfection comes from the choice journalists make in search of their story is clear too. Only the self-righteous will make a case to the contrary. Malcolm got it right in her summation when she wrote that, “There is an infinite variety of ways in which journalists struggle with the moral impasse that is the subject of this book. The wisest know that the best they can do… is still not enough. The not so wise, in their accustomed manner, choose to believe there is no problem and that they have solved it.”
Rather than make me abhor the practice of journalism, ‘The Journalist and the Murderer” armed me to confront what is ahead and keep pushing for the best until it is good enough.
Earlier this month, Simon Allison complained in the Guardian of London that African journalism is being stifled by a lack of resources. He wrote: “the failure of Africa to tell its own stories for its own audience is curbing the continent’s freedom of expression.” Meanwhile, in his appeal for pardon, Jon Gambrell wrote: “My colleagues and I have been threatened, harassed, held at gunpoint, arrested and followed on numerous occasions by either the
Nigerian government or other groups. Despite that, we persevere and get the story out.”
Despite everything, my co-travelers and I persevere and get the story out. We do so because Chinua Achebe said in ‘Anthills of the Savannah’, “The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather it is the story that owns us and directs us.”
But since we are in the season of pardons, we deserve a pardon, too. I deserve a pardon – not from my subjects and not from my readers, but from that part of my conscience that says that what we do for the people, because we believe that it is right, is still morally indefensible.