The Problem Isn't Selectivity. It's Dishonesty.

Fallows and Rosen

The Problem Isn't Selectivity. It's Dishonesty.

Fallows and Rosen

The Problem Isn't Selectivity. It's Dishonesty.
New books dissected over email.
Feb. 2 1999 10:40 PM

Fallows and Rosen

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Dear Jim,

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Thanks for the helpful plot summary, and also for the lawyerly stipulations, both of which have helped us focus on our very different reactions to Malcolm's insights about the distinctive hazards of legal narratives as opposed to journalistic narratives. Let's begin with journalism. I think you inadvertently do Malcolm an injustice--and misconstrue her central point--when you attribute to her the caricatured position that truth is synonymous with raw data, and that any narrative selectivity is a departure from truth. Malcolm says nothing of the kind, and indeed her book takes the opposite view: Sheila McGough was unable to persuade others of her innocence, Malcolm argues, because of her failure as a narrator: "Sheila's refusal (or inability) to tell a story obviated the usual journalistic task of dismantling a well-made story." In a wonderful passage, Malcolm contrasts Hulkower's "elegant lawyer's narrative" with Sheila's version of her efforts to get Bailes released from prison, contained in a meandering letter to the District of Columbia Bar, "which has all the dumb discursiveness – and truthfulness – of a girl's letter from camp."

Malcolm, by contrast, made it her mission to tell the story that Sheila was unable to tell, with all the artfulness, editorial judgment, and narrative selectivity that Sheila didn't possess. "The task," Malcolm writes, "was to try to coax a story from the morass of her guileless and incontinent speech." Her book is the opposite of a "document dump"--on the contrary, Malcolm recognizes her need to construct a compelling narrative, and she apologizes for the dramatic imperatives that force her to turn Hulkower, the prosecutor, who she assumes to be a decent and well-meaning man, into her villain. "A journalistic narrative is a kind of lumbering prehistoric beast that knocks over everything in its path as it makes its way through the ancient forest of basic plots," she writes. "My sneaking liking for Hulkower simply has no place in my story."

Malcolm doesn't oppose narrative selectivity; what she opposes is narrative dishonesty. And in this regard, I think you may do her another injustice (again inadvertently) when you quote the famous first sentences of The Journalist and the Murderer as some kind of brief for journalistic duplicity. Once again, Malcolm is arguing the opposite, and she puts the same point more gently in The Crime of Sheila McGough: "A journalistic interview is posed on the intersection of two frequently conflicting desires: the journalist's desire to advance a narrative, and the subject's desire to advance himself (or some enterprise that is an extension of himself.)" Malcolm doesn't endorse gratuitous betrayal of sources any more than you do: The Journalist and the Murderer was an extended argument against Joe McGuiniss's treachery in betraying a man who may well have been innocent (and Malcolm has been increasingly convinced of Jeffrey MacDonald's innocence since the book was published); just as The Crime of Sheila McGough is an extended argument against a legal system that betrayed an innocent woman. But Malcolm recognizes the tension between the journalist's efforts to convey the truth through storytelling, and the subject's efforts to conceal the truth through storytelling. Unlike the trial lawyer, Malcolm says, the journalistic interviewer "doesn't know what the answers are and .... [has] no wishes as to what they will be. You are only pushing a button, turning on a tap." But after the interviews are done, the process of narrative selection begins.

Far from taking the nihilistic position that you attribute to her--"no one can tell the truth" in journalism--Malcolm takes the morally idealistic position that journalists have an obligation to tell the truth, and to use the tools of narrative to do so. But she insists on narrative candor above all, which is why she herself is an important character in all of her books. (Reportorial intrusion is, as you say, a matter of taste, but Malcolm's observations never strike me as gratuitous: When she describes her excitement in discovering the WallStreetJournal ad that proved a crucial witness had perjured himself when he claimed to have called a phone number that didn't exist, she reminds us of how much the jury never heard.) Journalistic narratives, as Malcolm conceives them, shouldn't try to purify public debate, or improve democracy, or create better citizens. They shouldn't be tendentious in any way. They should paint the whole truth, in all of its frustrating complexity. Legal narratives are a different matter. Malcolm is far more skeptical, and convincingly so, that legal narratives can be vehicles for truthtelling, because they are necessarily tendentious.

Malcolm finds her metaphor for the stories that lawyers tell in the vacant rooms where so much of the business that led to Sheila's conviction had been conducted: "Law stories are empty stories," she writes. "They take the reader to a world entirely constructed of tendentious argument, and utterly devoid of the truth of the real world, where things are allowed to fall as they may .... The method of adversarial law is to pit two trained palterers against each other. The jury is asked to guess not which side is telling the truth--it knows neither is--but which side is being untruthful in aid of the truth." The adversarial system can be a treacherous testing ground for an innocent person, Sheila's story teaches us, because Sheila refused to play the lawyer's game of being untruthful in aid of the truth, and her weak but true protestations of innocence were less familiar, and therefore less persuasive, than the prosecutor's strong but false story of guilt. I don't think Malcolm slights the maddening failures of judgment that led Sheila to her doom: She calls Sheila her most exasperating subject and repeatedly confesses her impatience at the mind-numbing literalism that made Sheila "beyond rescue by narrative." But one of Malcolm's great contributions in the book, I think, is to remind us of the crudeness of legal narrative as an instrument of truth seeking, and the power of journalistic narrative as a corrective for the limits of law.

Hope this provokes further thoughts. Look forward to more tomorrow.

Best regards, Jeff

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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.