Bill Marvel’s introduction from the 2014 edition of Ten Spurs.
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”—Janet Malcolm
So which is it? Are we stupid? Or too full of ourselves?
In the years since it kicked off The Journalist and the Murderer, her 1990 examination of the fraught relationship between writer Joe McGinniss and convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, Janet Malcolm’s now-infamous quote has gone largely unanswered, though not undisputed.
MacDonald, a former Army physician, was accused of killing his pregnant wife and two young daughters in a crime that was as widely publicized as it was bloody. The writer and the subject – actually the subject’s lawyers – struck a bargain: McGinniss would have exclusive access to the defendant and to the defense team during the trial and would write a book about the case. In turn he would not divulge the defense strategy during the trial, and MacDonald —and his lawyers – would share in whatever the book earned. McGinniss was quite a catch for the defense. He was a best-selling writer, author of The Selling of the President 1968. So the bargain was expected to benefit everyone.
There was one more thing: The book would show MacDonald in a positive light.
Any writer who is not too stupid or full of himself would instantly see the trap, and McGinniss almost immediately fell into it. MacDonald, he quickly concluded, was almost certainly guilty. But he played along, sharing beer, watching television and sizing up babes with the accused murderer, all the time warmly expressing his solidarity. The minute MacDonald was convicted, this show of support evaporated. In his book, Fatal Vision, McGinniss portrayed his subject as a narcissist, a calculating killer and a thoroughly loathsome human being. MacDonald, who learned of the betrayal on a television talk show, was shocked. And Janet Malcolm was off to write her own book.
One might have expected her to steer clear of the McGinniss-MacDonald affair. She herself had been accused of befriending, then betraying her subject in an earlier book, In the Freud Archives. In that book, after a number of seemingly sympathetic interviews, she had skewered researcher and archivist Jeffrey Masson as a person of dubious character and honesty, a narcissist. Masson sued Malcolm and after years of litigation lost. But by then everyone’s reputation lay in tatters.
“There is an implicit covenant between a writer and a subject; in return for whatever agreement you might make for the telling of the story, the subject must tell you the truth. If he lies, all deals are off.” — Gene Weingarten
Early this year a smaller but similar controversy erupted over a long-form piece posted on the website Grantland. The piece, by the very young and talented Caleb Hannan, concerned a mysterious Dr. V, aeronautical scientist, top-secret government researcher and inventor of an ingenious putter that seemed poised to revolutionize the game of golf. It was not entirely irrelevant to Hannan’s story that Dr. V was said to be a tall, gorgeous red-head.
But in the course of researching the story, the writer discovered that his subject was not everything she claimed to be. Aside from inventor of the putter, in fact, she was not anything she claimed to be. Not an aeronautical researcher, not a scientist, not a doctor, and not always a she.
Unmasked as a trans-gendered sometime garage mechanic with evident psychological problems, Dr. V committed suicide shortly before Hannan’s article went online.
Questions and accusations fluttered into the air like startled pigeons: Dr. V had asked that Hannan write about the science behind the new putter, not about the scientist. Had Hannan, then, betrayed his subject? Was the writer’s revelation of Dr. V’s trans-gendered personhood irrelevant and, worse than that, sexist? Did his story push the already unstable Dr. V into suicide?
Any writer who pursues the craft long enough and is not too stupid or full of himself – and by “him” I mean both “her and “him” — will sooner or later confront the moral dilemma: What do we tell? What do we withhold? What is our obligation to our reader? To our story? And to our subject? Where does ordinary morality, even decency, intersect with the journalist’s ethics?
Beyond devising a cunning lead, building a solid structure, working in the telling details, these are the most important and troubling questions we face. And yet they are the questions we seldom talk about. Even among ourselves.
It was Lee Hancock, fresh from a graduate degree in creative nonfiction, and for that reason perhaps inclined to be a little more introspective at the moment, who dropped a word into the conversation one March morning in a Deep Ellum eatery. Four of us were having an early breakfast, trading gossip over migas and omelets and pancakes and coffee refills, when the strange story of Dr. V came up. Like most of our profession we were, if not strongly divided, profoundly ambivalent. Had Hannan gone too far in “outing” Dr. V? Did the journalist owe his readers the whole truth and nothing but the truth? What, then, did he owe his subject? Is it enough to report truthfully and fairly and hang the consequences? Was Dr. V’s transsexual personhood fair game?
That’s when Lee murmured something about empathy. I had to ask her to repeat the word.
“In the end, it doesn’t matter if one is writing about a huckster or a fraud. The best work still enables readers to experience their subjects as human beings, not as mere objects of curiosity.”– Jonathan Mahler
The writer of fiction has the advantage here and occupies the higher ground. Fictional characters have no right to privacy. They cannot be libeled. They cannot be outed. If they commit suicide, it is because the writer wills them to commit suicide.
One writer I know, a memoirist, was driven to fiction for this very reason. When her stories about her family got too close for the family’s — and her own — comfort, she backed off memoir and wrote a novel, a very good novel in which not only the names were changed but just about everything else. The novel grew out her family’s experience. But it was not about her family, not really.
We nonfiction writers, on the other hand, must write about real people, and therefore we have certain obligations.
Legality—the law—sets the bar low. We may not defame those we write about. The courts recognize two forms of defamation: libel (a written statement) and slander (an oral statement), either of which damages another’s reputation or character and is known, or ought to have been known, by its author to be false.
Ethics raises the bar a little higher. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics urges journalists to show “compassion” to those who might be adversely affected by a story. It recommends “sensitivity” when reporting on children or those unaccustomed to dealing with journalists and their probing ways.
Compassion seems simple enough. It requires we be aware of our subjects’ feelings, that we write in a way that, if possible, minimizes their distress. If the revelations become awkward, we try to balance the good the story does against the harm.
The obligation to be sensitive likewise requires us to be aware of our subject’s needs, for example, for security and privacy. Subjects who don’t know better need to be warned of the consequences publication of a story might bring. We might tell a subject, “If there’s anything that you don’t want your boss or family to know, tell us ahead of time so we can figure out how to handle it.” What we write should never expose children to ridicule, exploitation or danger.
Compassion and sensitivity thus tell us how to approach our subjects from the outside.
Empathy, the word Lee Hancock murmured that morning, is more difficult. Because empathy requires that we approach our subjects from the inside. We try to enter into the emotions, thoughts, the very lives of those we write about. We try to imagine what it must be like to be them. Only by living in their skin at least briefly, by walking in their shoes, can we begin to see that person as he or she is. This requires moral imagination. It is what the good fiction writer does. And it is, I argue, what we writers of nonfiction must do.
There are learned people who will argue that this is impossible, and they may be right. How can we ever fully know another person? But the impossibility does not erase the obligation to try. That obligation demands that our actions as journalists not only be ethically sound, but — taking a word from Janet Malcolm — that they be morally defensible. Ethics is the rules of the game: fairness, honesty and disclosure. Morality is what we owe one another, not as writer and subject, but as fallen human beings. It demands self-knowledge, humility, and charity.
This, I think, sets the bar on its highest peg.
The journalist “is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”— Janet Malcolm
The writer has a godlike power. The lives of other people pass through our hands into the reader’s imagination and memory. For better or worse those lives are transformed, because there is no way a writer can write without transforming. We do not, as we sometimes like to imagine, hold the mirror up to reality. We hold our minds and emotions up to reality, our personal histories and attitudes, our own mixtures of sin and virtue.
While we are not required to Mirandize our subjects (“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be held against you…”), perhaps we need to Mirandize ourselves.
There’s an ancient religious practice that might help here.
The examination of conscience is a kind of self-interview, but far more searching and rigorous than any interview we writers visit upon our subjects. Muslims call the practice Muhasaba. The Roman Catholic Catechism describes it as “a prayerful self-reflection on our words and deeds.” St. Ignatius of Loyola prescribed such an exercise for all Jesuits. It is something we writers might be expected to be good at — except maybe the prayerful part — but we are not. We are so accustomed to being told that we are not the story that we often shy away from introspection. This is a great mistake if we are to write honestly.
Such an examination must begin with what might be described as a frank confession of sin. We writers tend to equate sin with bad writing or errors of style. With a failure to attribute quotes or to credit sources. Or, the most serious sin, to get the facts wrong. Once we’ve nailed down the facts, we’ve nailed down our story. Dr. V not a doctor? Check. Not a scientist? Check. Not a “real” woman? Check. Jeffrey MacDonald self-absorbed? Check. Calculating? Check. A murderer? Check.
We writers sin, I think, not just if we fail to run through the checklist, but if we fail to run ourselves through the checklist, fail to perform muhasaba.
How does it change our attitude if we find out that gorgeous red-haired “she” is a “he”? Does it enlarge our understanding of our subject, or narrow it? How does it affect the story that we write, our reader, our subject? Or is it just one of those “gotcha” moments?
What about the narcissism we discern in the heart of a killer? Could it be anything like the narcissism at work in the heart of a writer? Because if we are not too full of ourselves, we have to see that there is at least some narcissism in every act of writing, especially in nonfiction writing. We nourish our craft on the stories of others. The family memoir, the traumatic childhood recollected in tranquility, the profile of an inventor or a murderer: We are the readers’ only way into these stories. But we are also our subjects’ only way out to the reader.
Would an examination of conscience have kept Caleb Hannan from outing Dr. V, or would it have saved Dr. V from suicide? Perhaps not. But it’s worth asking ourselves every time we write: Why are we writing? Why are we putting this in?
This is not an excuse to gloss over or skip unpleasant facts. It is a call to face all the unpleasant facts, about ourselves as well as about our subjects. The fact that the writer’s calling is also always a temptation. To easy judgments, to pride and arrogance. To lay aside compassion and empathy.
This is I think what Janet Malcolm had in mind in that incendiary indictment of our craft. She knew what we are about and the temptations and evasions that come with the territory. (She was, after all, the daughter of a psychiatrist.) The writer who does not acknowledge the relationship he shares with the person he writes about, no matter how loathsome, cannot be writing honestly. And every dishonest piece of writing is a betrayal.
Lee Hancock recalls the time when, as a “baby reporter,” she was assigned to cover the funeral of writer Willie Morris’ beloved dog, Pete. No less than William Faulkner’s niece read the service, from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Then Pete was buried in the local cemetery, a fact that Lee left out of her story lest the local blue-hairs demand that authorities remove the dog to unhallowed ground.
“Willie Morris loved that dog,” Lee recalls.
A trivial example, perhaps. But Lee also recalls those journalists who during the bloody struggle for civil rights withheld certain information that could have meant the difference between life and death to their subjects.
To acknowledge what we owe our subject is not just being high-minded, Lee says. “It’s a more sustainable way of going about the craft. You’re going to make a better story. The reader will get your emotional connection or your lack of emotional connection.”
She points to the recent New York Times’ profile of Leo Sharp, a 90-year-old Michigan man who ran drugs for the Sinaloa cartel. But Sam Dolnick also wrote sensitively of Sharp’s life as a respected hybridizer of dazzling day lilies. And as possibly the victim of dementia. What was the “truth” about this Leo Sharp? That he was a drug mule or a cultivator of flowers or an old man sliding into senility? Or all three, one neither less nor more than the others.
Closer to hand as an example of empathy is the book by one of our keynote speakers, Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial. The author is a trained physician and an excellent writer, which makes her book, about the terrible days after Hurricane Katrina when doctors and nurses in a New Orleans hospital had to make life-or-death decisions, authoritative and useful. What makes it extraordinarily deep and human is the sense on every page that its author knows that she might have found herself in that same hospital alongside those doctors and nurses – and their patients — forced to wrestle with those same decisions. Unlike some newspaper accounts of the days at Memorial, Dr. Fink offered no facile judgments. The book fully engages the ethical and medical issues involved. But its author never lets us forget that frightened and fallible human beings were making those decisions, human beings like herself and like us.
In an epilogue that could as easily apply to the writer’s vocation as to the medical profession, Dr. Fink writes that such stories reveal “our vulnerabilities; our grappling with uncertainty, how we die, how we prioritize and divide what is most precious and vital and limited; even our biases and blindnesses.”
If we are not too full of ourselves.