The Journalist and the Murderer

By Janet Malcolm,

Book cover of The Journalist and the Murderer

Book description

'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'

In equal measure famous and infamous, Janet Malcolm's book charts the true story of a lawsuit between Jeffrey MacDonald, a convicted murderer, and Joe…

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Why read it?

4 authors picked The Journalist and the Murderer as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?

I never thought I’d write a True Crime book. But when Krystal Senyk’s story landed on my doorstep (literally—see I Got a Name for details), I couldn’t turn away.

True Crime is a genre that has a complex relationship with writerly ethics—and Malcolm hits that nail sharply on the head. The book opens with the assertion that every journalist knows their work is “morally indefensible”—an intriguing if damning premise.

This book is a seminal one in the world of journalistic ethics. It’s intelligent, painstaking, and thoughtful. It has also helped me parse through what I most feared in writing I…

First published in 1990 – based on a series of articles originally written for The New Yorker, this book is a warning to true crime authors the world over about the morality of reaching out and writing with and about murderers. 

The journalist in question is Joe McGinniss and the murderer is the former Special Forces Captain Dr Jeffrey MacDonald who became the subject of McGinniss’s 1983 book Fatal Vision. Is it ethical to collaborate with someone who has been accused of murder? What are the pitfalls that need to be managed? And, at the end of the day, who…

Convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald sues Joe McGinniss, who wrote a best-selling book about MacDonald’s 1970 trial for brutally killing his family.

Author Janet Malcolm asks, How is the journalist like the murderer? When are they lying to each other and when do they conspire to deceive the world? Malcolm had me from the get-go (despite the unfortunate sexism of the book’s first sentence): “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.”

Malcolm’s unflinching examination of sociopathy and masquerade proved an indispensable guide…

From Geoffrey's list on crime exploring more than the crime.

I could name any number of Malcolm’s books as favorites but I have to go with the granddaddy of ‘em all, The Journalist and the Murderer. Malcolm dissects a trial in which a man convicted of murder sues an author who wrote about his crime for libel. And the murderer wins. Can you believe?! Malcolm uses the case to analyze the journalistic transaction between writer and subject and thirty-three years after publication the book reads as contemporary. When talking about Malcolm’s writing, what doesn’t get mentioned enough is how laceratingly funny she is, and this book showcases that humor…

From Elizabeth's list on true crime-adjacent stories.

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