Prosecuting Janet

Fallows and Rosen

Prosecuting Janet

Fallows and Rosen

Prosecuting Janet
New books dissected over email.
Feb. 2 1999 8:49 AM

Fallows and Rosen

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Hi Jeff--

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I will confess that my first reaction, on learning that we see this yin-and-yangwise, was "Oh, no!" That's not because your view differs from mine, which will force me to refine and re-explain my case. Being out here in the amazingly polite and well-mannered Pacific Northwest (where people actually give you a chance to merge in traffic--still having my East Coast driving manners, I can zoom down the road!), I am sure that you and I will be able, as the locals say, to "disagree without being disagreeable." Instead my gloom is at winding up in the role of the heavy vis-à-vis Janet Malcolm, and consequently being highly likely to end this week with one more big-time, well-connected journalistic figure mad at me.

But I digress. In the fashion of your lawyer colleagues, let's stipulate several positive points about this author and this book. I agree with you that:

  • Janet Malcolm's work is challenging and engaging, even when one disagrees with it;
  •  many passages in this book express complicated thoughts extremely well. The first 15 or 20 lines of the book are a marvelous example. As I turned from the first page to the second, I thought: This is going to be great!
  •  the high-concept heart of the book, the mismatch between "truth" in its ultimate forms and the narrative constraints of lawsuits, or journalistic accounts, or historical interpretations, or mere conversation, is a real and important idea. I believe more strongly than Malcolm does that there are different degrees of tension between "truth" and narration in these different fields. A lawyer, like a campaigning politician, consciously thinks of himself as "making a case" for one side in a dispute; he is perfectly comfortable using such selections from the "truth" as fit his assigned side of the story. A journalist or historian, on the other hand, at least pretends to be open-minded about the case he'll eventually make, until he's looked around for himself. Still, the struggle and inevitable loss-of-nuance involved in boiling down chaotic facts to a "story" of any sort is a rich theme, and I'll think about it differently for having read this book.

Having offered that stipulation, let me return to the case for the prosecution.

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1) Let's think again about this "truth" point. It's important--but when pushed to its extreme, in a way Malcolm tends to do, it's also trivial or meaningless. She likes to use "truth" where one might more precisely say "raw data" or "info dump" or "undifferentiated chronicle of events." That is, she says that historians and lawyers and conversationalists are always violating "truth" because they have to fit narratives into bounds of time and interestingness. To set up any act of selectivity as a departure from "truth," as she does, is a kind of straw man--and adds a pumped-up drama to a point that everyone recognizes (that you can't deliver all the raw data about everything).

It has a worse effect, too--one that inescapably brings back the most famous passage Malcolm has written. This was the beginning of her piece about Joe McGinnis and Jeffrey MacDonald: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows 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."

To which the only sensible reaction is: Yes, but. (I am speaking here in my official capacity as Scourge of the Press.) Yes, there are terrible temptations in the life of the reporter, and an awful imbalance of power between reporter and subject. The subject can almost never do back to you what you can do to him. Yes, there is an implicit form of bargaining, blackmail, or flattery underway as you try to persuade a subject to reveal things that may be in his interest to conceal. But there are differences of degree in reporters' behavior that become differences in kind. Reporters respond to these temptations in different ways. They struggle to be honorable to their subjects, or they don't. They decide that they give some weight to the subject's self-respect, or they figure "Hey, I'm never going to see him again." The "every report" pronouncement reminds me of the dicta that "all" marriage is institutionalized rape, or "all" work is legalized slavery. You know what they're getting at, but the gradations are at least as important as the axiomatic rule.

Malcolm is advancing the "no one can tell the truth" argument about the law, but the structure of the book demonstrates it as it applies to journalism. There is an impressionistic structure to the presentation of evidence that suits her larger Rashomon point. But I didn't think this was enough. If she really believed that no one can tell the truth about events, why bother to "write" this book at all? Why not just bind up the trial transcripts, and add her raw interview notes, and let other people see the "truth"? And once she decides that it's worth trying to "write" the story--to depart from "truth" and apply a shape--then, it seems to me, she might as well meet some of the conventions a) of resolving basic factual disputes, and b) trying to guide the reader through the complications.

2) Notwithstanding all this previous palaver about truth-telling, there are certain points about which Malcolm says she is axiomatically certain. Mainly these involve Sheila McGough. All the facts in Malcolm's account suggest, to be polite about it, that there is something wrong with McGough's common sense and judgment. (Surrounded by evidence that your client was running one scam after another, you would not bat an eye when he asks to use your account for a $75,000 transaction???) Based on the interviews in both accounts, many people who dealt with McGough shared these doubts about her judgment. But Malcolm announces, more or less on her own authority, that McGough's decisions were "the signs not of naivete, as some observers have believed them to be, but of a bracing idealism." Well, maybe – but even if I personally found the argument more convincing, it still seems at odds with Malcolm's qualms about trying to fit unruly "truth" into clear conclusions.

3) I mentioned journalistic self-indulgence yesterday. I know that these are fighting words, so let me try to demonstrate what I mean. There are some truly impressive feats of reportage, in which the writer wants to be sure you notice what he's pulled off. Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes comes to mind. The best book about politics in a generation, in my view – and written in a self-indulgent, Tom Wolfeish style that Cramer earns through the marvels of his reporting. On the other extreme we have Ron Suskind's recent A Hope in the Unseen. Another marvelous book, one that no doubt involved countless moral judgments (a well-paid reporter is covering a poor kid; when and how does he intervene?), but one in which Suskind takes great pains not to intrude except in an explanatory afterward.

Here I thought there was more gratuitous reportorial intrusion here than I'd seen in a while. Early on, introducing a factual nugget drawn from a newspaper ad, Malcolm tells us: "I had dug up the ad out of a writer's inquisitiveness, a storyteller's wish to go back to the origins of the story, a journalist's habit of lingering in empty rooms on the off chance that a secret door will give way under accidental pressure." It's a matter of taste, I know, but passages like this make me think: Puh-leeeze!

Jeff, back to you. Best wishes, Jim

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James Fallows is the author of
Breaking the News and is currently designing software at Microsoft. Jeffrey Rosen teaches law at George Washington University and writes for the New Republic and The New Yorker. This week they discuss The Crime of Sheila McGough, by Janet Malcolm.