One of the more troublesome contradictions of journalism, suggests D. Patrick Miller, is that reporters generally aren’t as truthful as they want everyone else to be. This leads to betrayal, distortion, and an undermining of public trust.
As an ex-newspaper reporter myself, I know that much of what he says is true. There’s no question that journalists would benefit from spending more time questioning themselves. Yet I also know, as Ben Bagdikian put it, that trying to be a first-rate reporter for the average newspaper is like “trying to play Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on a ukulele. The instrument is too crude for the work, for the audience, for the performer.”
Comment is invited on some of Patrick’s more controversial ideas — for example, that journalists allow sources to preview manuscripts, so they can approve the editing and use of their quotations.
The normally unreflective world of American journalism found itself facing a harsh and unforgiving mirror last March, when The New Yorker printed a two-part feature entitled “The Journalist And The Murderer,” by staff writer Janet Malcolm. Her controversial essay began with this paragraph:
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. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns — when the article or book appears — his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know’’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about making a living.
In the ensuing 35,000 words, Malcolm examined in detail the strange relationship of Joe McGinniss, the prominent author of the nonfiction bestseller Fatal Vision, and Jeffrey MacDonald, the book’s subject, who was convicted in 1979 of brutally murdering his wife and two young daughters in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1970. That relationship included a business partnership between the journalist and the suspected murderer, by which MacDonald agreed to cooperate fully with McGinniss in return for a third of the royalties from Fatal Vision. At the request of MacDonald, McGinniss even lived with him on the campus of North Carolina State University during the murder trial, and the two seemingly became friends. After MacDonald’s conviction, McGinniss wrote him forty letters expressing his continuing support and friendship, while his ongoing investigation for the book was convincing the writer of MacDonald’s guilt. But McGinniss did not allow his subject to preview the book draft before publication, and never made it clear to MacDonald that, contrary to his expectations, the book would condemn rather than exonerate him.
Charging that McGinniss had defrauded him, Jeffrey MacDonald sued the author in 1984 for fifteen million dollars. After McGinniss’s letters were revealed and the author was subjected to a punishing courtroom examination of his ethics, five of six jurors found the complaint of the convicted murderer to be sound; one held out for the reporter, so the trial ended in a hung jury. But McGinniss later paid his former subject $325,000 in a negotiated settlement. (At this time, MacDonald is serving three life terms for his murder convictions, although he continues to pursue exoneration and will be eligible for parole as early as 1991.)
Janet Malcolm’s critique of this peculiar episode of checkbook journalism would have been controversial enough on its own, but its publication provoked an even greater outcry because Malcolm failed to mention her own involvement in a similar conflict. In 1983 Malcolm published a lengthy profile of Jeffrey Masson, a prominent Freudian scholar and former psychoanalyst who is identified with the growing anti-psychiatry movement. Masson sued Malcolm for having made up and published quotes attributed to him, quotes which he asserted were responsible for the devastation of his career as a scholar.
Masson, in turn, was regarded as something of a traitor by his former employer, the Sigmund Freud Archives of Vienna. It was there that Masson, with extensive access to the documents of Freud’s career, became convinced that the father of psychoanalysis had suppressed compelling evidence that most of his female patients had been sexually abused as children. Fearing that this information would prove too shocking for the Victorian age, Freud substituted a theory, according to Masson, that his patients fantasized early sexual abuse. Masson felt that this coverup invalidated psychoanalytic theory as a whole, and said so to a New York Times reporter in 1981. Masson was summarily fired by the Freud Archives and essentially excommunicated by the psychoanalytic community.
In a two-part article for The New Yorker in 1983, Janet Malcolm portrayed Masson as a sexually promiscuous braggart and self-destructive narcissist — similar in part to the characterization that Joe McGinniss made of his subject MacDonald in Fatal Vision, published that same year. And like McGinniss, Malcolm used a friendly relationship with her subject to procure the most damaging information against him. At one point in her research, Malcolm invited Masson and his girlfriend to stay with her in New York for a four-day visit, while Masson was negotiating with his publisher on his book, The Assault On Truth: Freud’s Suppression Of The Seduction Theory. During that visit, and during earlier interviews with Masson in Berkeley, California, Malcolm recorded forty to fifty hours of conversation which she used as the basis for her unflattering profile of the radical anti-therapist.
Like McGinniss, Janet Malcolm was eventually sued by the subject of her profile. However, Masson charged that Malcolm actually fabricated several of the most damaging quotations attributed to him. According to an article by John Taylor in the March 27, 1989 issue of New York magazine, Malcolm did take substantial liberties in reconstructing interview material, including one of the most controversial quotations. Masson had been telling Malcolm how he had once planned to change the atmosphere of Maresfield Gardens, an estate owned by the Freud Archives. According to a transcript of the original tape, Masson actually told Malcolm this:
Oh, it’s a beautiful house. But it’s dark and somber and nothing went on in there. Boy, I was going to renovate it and open it up, and the sun would come in and there would be people and — well, that’s what it needs, but it is an incredible storehouse.
The typed manuscript that Janet Malcolm submitted to The New Yorker carried this version of part of the quote: “Sun would have come pouring in and people would have come, there would have been parties and laughter and fun.” Then Malcolm made a correction in pen to the manuscript, so that the final published version of Masson’s statement was:
It was a beautiful house, but it was dark and somber and dead. . . . I would have renovated it, opened it up, brought it to life. Maresfield Gardens would have become a center of scholarship, but it also would have been a place of sex, women, fun.
Like Joe McGinniss, Janet Malcolm also refused to let her subject see any preview draft of her profile of him. At one point, according to Taylor, she even admonished the suspicious Masson to “have a little faith.” After Masson sued, Malcolm’s lawyers argued in court that her reconstructions of interview material constituted “a rational interpretation of ambiguous conversations.” A federal court agreed with that stance in 1987, and it was recently upheld on appeal, striking down Masson’s challenge.
What Journalists Really Do
One of the most fascinating aspects of this many-layered controversy has been the way it has focused attention on some of the standard operating practices of conventional journalism. Malcolm’s New Yorker articles touched off a storm of responses in other publications, demonstrating that her charges had hit a nerve among her peers. Jonathan Alter and Geoffrey Cowiey wrote in Newsweek:
Contrary to Malcolm’s worldview, betrayal is not the root of all journalism, only some of it. . . . Writers shouldn’t have to issue Miranda warnings before opening their notebooks. Beyond the same decency that they would bring to any human encounter, they owe their subjects (who, after all, cooperate freely) nothing. Their obligation is to the reader and to their own vision — fatal or otherwise — of the truth.
The Columbia Journalism Review joined the tempest in July 1989 with a cover story by Martin Gottlieb entitled “Dangerous Liaisons: Journalists And Their Sources,” which presented the remarks of twenty prominent American journalists about their relationships to their sources. On the whole, the writers’ revelations should give any potential interviewee reason for caution. “The world is full of people who honestly don’t know that journalists are not their friends,” said Nora Ephron, the well-known screenwriter and author of Heartburn, the thinly disguised novelization of her relationship with investigative reporter Carl Bernstein. “Do you always have to betray someone to write a piece? On some level, yes. . . . If people read Janet’s pieces on Joe McGinniss and Jeffrey MacDonald and learn to be wary of journalists, they’ve learned a valuable lesson.”
J. Anthony Lukas, twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, commented that he found Janet Malcolm’s charges “profoundly silly,” but added, “I am certainly not denying that reporters do their share of manipulation. Of course they do. But the relationship is mutually manipulative. And that’s because human relationships are mutually manipulative. . . . In my experience, the relationship between reporter and source, particularly one of long term, is filled with collaboration and manipulation, with affection and distrust, with a yearning for communion and a yearning to flee.”
A.M. Rosenthal, columnist and former executive editor of The New York Times, remarked that “Malcolm is absolutely right when she says that the relationship between subject and reporter can very easily lead to shading the truth, even falsehood, in order to draw people out. But when she says that this is inevitable, I just dismiss that. . . . It may very well be true about her, because — it’s a fascinating thing — I’ve found that very often when people talk or write about other people they are really talking or writing about themselves. They are looking at themselves. They are holding up a mirror.”
“I think it would be very sobering for all journalists to . . . put themselves in the shoes of the newsmaker,” added Clarence Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer for The Chicago Tribune, who found himself the object of press attention after the suicide of his ex-wife, a Tribune co-worker. Page recalled the coverage of that story: “One broadcast journalist said, ‘Friends attributed her suicide to the pressure of being a role model for other young blacks.’ I have yet to find a friend who said that. I think that sounded so good that the journalist couldn’t resist saying it.” Yet Page also noted, “I have always been troubled by the notion that we should not run quotes past the newsmaker after we have interviewed them. But I always end up sticking by the idea that we should not.”
Finally, a revealing account of the difficulties journalists can face when they try to follow their best instincts was given to the Review by Sara Davidson, whose books include Loose Change and Friends Of The Opposite Sex. After having written a mocking profile of author Jacqueline Susann for Harper’s, Davidson “felt about two inches tall.” She said, “I made a decision at this point that I was not going to write about people and subjects toward whom I felt so negative at the outset. . . . I wanted to see if I could write an interesting, vibrant journalism that did not have that sarcastic, mocking base, and that also wasn’t a sugary puff piece.”
For a subject she felt she could respect, Davidson chose the spiritual teacher Richard Alpert, better known as Ram Dass. She wrote a long profile of him which she submitted to Esquire. “I was very interested in Eastern mysticism,” recalled Davidson, “and I thought the piece I finally wrote was the best thing I had done in my entire career. I turned it in and it became the first piece I had ever written for a magazine that was rejected. The editor told me, ‘You will thank me for not publishing it. This guy’s ideas are absolutely unintelligible and your willingness to embrace them makes you look foolish.’ That’s when I started thinking my career in journalism was over,” Davidson told the Review.
I was slowly beginning to question the whole purpose of identifying and eliminating “bad guys” from positions of power or influence, a purpose which seemed to be the end-all of investigative journalism. I wanted to know what made guys bad, and journalism seemed to have no means for investigating that.
Getting The Bad Guys
I started thinking my career in journalism was over not long after it began in earnest, when I was working as a freelance reporter on environmental issues for the weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian in 1977. At the age of twenty-three, I felt pretty green, although my resume included the unusual credit of having co-published and edited an alternative monthly newspaper in my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, at the even more tender age of twenty-one. In high school, I’d written for the school paper and helped to create an alternative one as well, and most of my two years of college had been spent learning every aspect of production of a bohemian student weekly.
Until my arrival in San Francisco in 1976, the high point of my career as a reporter had been a visit to Washington, D.C., to interview Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, who was at that time chairing the historic Watergate hearings. The hearings were actually in session when the student paper’s editor and I arrived at Ervin’s office, where his assistant nodded a greeting to us as he talked excitedly on the phone. Hanging up abruptly, he motioned for us to follow him as he broke into a run down the hallway of the Senate office building. When we arrived at the crowded hearing chamber, he motioned us toward the press seats up front and told us to drop his name to the security guard. He then disappeared. When we told the guard whom we knew in these echelons of power, he took one look at our clothes and long hair and said, “Sure you do,” redirecting us to a far corner of the room.
Standing there in the crush of people, listening to the testimony of a man we couldn’t see and wouldn’t have recognized anyway, we didn’t fully understand the significance of his revelations to the Senate committee, which caused waves of murmurs and low exclamations in the crowd. Only later did we learn that we had witnessed the testimony of FAA administrator Alexander Butterfield, who had revealed in our unsophisticated presence the existence of the White House tapes that would prove centrally responsible for the downfall of President Richard Nixon. Understandably, Senator Ervin immediately became quite unavailable for an interview by a couple of college reporters, even if they were from his home state. Although we didn’t leave with much of a story, I had nonetheless experienced the seductive excitement of finding myself present at a pivotal moment of history. And I had gained access to that excitement simply by being able to say, “I’m a reporter.”
In San Francisco, I was to learn how quickly that excitement could turn to high anxiety. I joined the staff of the Bay Guardian as a typesetter, but after a few months I gained the confidence of the editors and began to write articles on environmental issues. Although my first few stories were quite cautious — I remember doing a report on the profusion of raccoons in urban areas due to the drought of 1977 — I was exhilarated by the opportunity to take on almost any story I could think of, with the friendly backing of like-minded editors not more than ten years my senior. The pay and benefits were punitively low, but a young reporter simply couldn’t find more support for ambitious undertakings than in the often anarchic environs of a liberal weekly paper, dedicated by its publisher to “printing the news and raising hell.”
After I wrote a few noncontroversial articles, I was asked by one editor to assist with the Bay Guardian’s major investigation of a city supervisor who had recently been nominated to a high post in the Interior Department of the new Carter administration. The Bay Guardian had been publishing evidence that the nominee, formerly a member of the state coastal commission, had once sold his vote on a coastal development project to a contractor. Although the circumstantial evidence was strong, the investigation had yet to produce a “smoking gun,” and San Francisco’s major newspapers had virtually ignored the controversy. The Bay Guardian was essentially going it alone against the city’s establishment, which was proud to have a native son nominated to such a prestigious post.
My editor suggested that I might help out by doing a story on how the locally based environmental lobbies, such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth (FOE), were reacting to the nomination. As my first piece would reveal, they were in fact trying not to react at all. Although they didn’t regard the nominee as a trustworthy environmentalist, the overworked advocacy organizations saw him as a minor player in a new federal team of unprecedented environmental sensitivity. To rock the boat by opposing one of its nominations would be a waste of their newly gained political capital.
My story, which featured a dearth of environmentalists willing to speak “on the record” and a host of references to “reliable unnamed sources,” essentially portrayed the major environmental lobbies as either uninformed on the nomination issue or willing to compromise their principles for politics. I was very uneasy about the fact that the article was particularly critical of FOE, where I had worked for six months as a volunteer intern before narrowly losing a staff position, by a vote of the salaried staff, to another intern. My friends in the organization had provided me easy access to both its spokesmen and the “inside story” behind what they say on the record; they considered me an ally. I realized now that the story could distance one of my most valuable sources. I was also bracing myself for the accusation that I might be exacting a little revenge for having been turned down for the staff position. In fact, I never heard this accusation from anyone other than myself; if I had, I don’t think I could have answered it with total confidence in my innocence.
So even before the story was printed, I was realizing that investigative journalism could quickly lead one into a thicket of ethical quandaries that made “objectivity” appear as an impossibly distant ideal. After it was printed, my sense of complexity intensified. The piece prompted a legislative activist at FOE to wonder whether the organization should indeed oppose the nomination in upcoming Senate hearings, and he called to ask if I would help him write the testimony. The request made me dizzy; I could not believe that a single story derived from a dozen phone calls was about to catapult me, metaphorically at least, back into the Senate hearing chambers where I had stood as an uncomprehending student reporter. I was also not sure whether I had any business complying with the request.
“Absolutely not,” said the reporter who had been spearheading the Bay Guardian investigation for nearly a year. “You can’t have anything to do with that. Send them clips of all the articles we’ve done, and wish them the best. But that’s it.” I received this advice with a grateful sense of relief, but my anxiety then took a new and unexpected turn. Eyeing me ruefully from across his desk, the reporter said, “You know, I’ve been working on this investigation for months without clinching it. And now your first story is about to break it open.” My mentor of the previous few weeks suddenly looked like an unhappy competitor.
Had any environmental lobby in fact decided to oppose the nominee in Senate hearings, his federal post would have been in serious jeopardy. As it happened, neither FOE nor any other lobby ever voiced opposition, although my second article announced that possibility. Days after that news was printed, FOE’s decision to oppose the nomination was quashed, apparently after some influential calls to the organization by a U.S. Senator friendly to the nominee. By the time I wrote my third and last story on the subject the following week, my part of the inquiry was finished. Eventually, the Bay Guardian’s stories did lead to an investigation of the beleaguered nominee by a state ethics commission, and after an unfavorable finding, he was shuffled in a face-saving maneuver away from the prestigious Interior Department position and into an anonymous federal job. The Bay Guardian had won. By that time, I had decided I was not cut out for investigative journalism.
Part of my decision had to do with the confusion and anxiety of finding myself in over my head with the excitement of the situation, and realizing that I was more drained than stimulated by it. I had been increasingly troubled by the way investigative journalism was actually done. I will never forget watching one reporter call a San Francisco city bureaucrat to procure a particular bit of information that he knew was being deliberately withheld from him. One minute he was calmly conversing with me; the next, he was shouting into the phone at his reluctant source, in a seemingly instant burst of anger. Even more surprising, he returned to his previously calm demeanor immediately upon hanging up the phone, with the sought-for information still not in his grasp. Open-mouthed, I realized that the anger had been some kind of act, and I asked the reporter what he was up to. He explained to me that people who regularly dealt with the press were expert in dodging questions or providing meaningless “quotables,” and that hard information was seldom obtained from them by polite inquiry. “Sometimes if you get these guys mad enough,” he explained, “they’ll slip up and tell you something they’re not supposed to.”
I was already uncomfortable with the experience of calling people who didn’t want to talk to me and asking them questions they didn’t want to answer. It was becoming clear that a good investigator must have a certain kind of predatory zeal, and I didn’t think I had it.
At the simplest level, I didn’t like the feeling of becoming a bad guy for the purpose of getting the goods on a worse guy. At a more sophisticated level, I was slowly beginning to question the whole purpose of identifying and eliminating “bad guys” from positions of power or influence, a purpose which seemed to be the end-all of investigative journalism. I wanted to know what made guys bad, and journalism seemed to have no means for investigating that. I definitely suspected that evil was a potential present in everyone, not just sleazy developers and vote-selling politicians. If evil was potential in myself as well, then how could I use the aggressive and manipulative techniques of investigation without being overcome by their very nature? Who would I be then, to pursue and pass judgement on those who were only, perhaps, somewhat more evil than I?
So far as 1 could tell, journalists of all stripes — left, right, and mainstream — enjoyed the battle of their jousting perspectives too much to confront their personal investments in conflict.
These questions and many others led to a critical cooling of my fervor for journalism. Part of my doubt arose from the fact that I really didn’t like reporters very much. I attended enough journalists’ parties to observe the real-life basis for the cliché of the hard-drinking reporter, and I saw no romance in that cliché or its reality. Most of the journalists I met seemed to be nursing rather obvious neuroses, and their daily work did nothing to heal them. If anything, the continuing drive to “get the story” by deadline — which often required a combination of dull, detail-oriented research and combative interaction with sources — seemed only to make reporters’ personal problems worse. At a largely inarticulate level, I sensed that my own psychological stability probably wouldn’t be able to withstand the long-term stress of investigative reporting.
Finally, I was troubled by the impression that the search for truth that ostensibly drove journalism rested on a very shallow foundation. In a day-to-day sense, the search for truth seemed to proceed along the rather narrow confines of the politically liberal advocacy that the Bay Guardian was founded to promote. In general I agreed with those politics and the social change they encouraged, but I sensed that authentic social change would also require investigating the deep sources of human conflict. So far as I could tell, journalists of all stripes — left, right, and mainstream — enjoyed the battle of their jousting perspectives too much to confront their personal investments in conflict.
In another sense, I was too ambitious to join the fray: I didn’t want to spend a year, or possibly years, of my professional life trying to dislodge a dishonest politician or inflict a temporary wound on someone from the other end of the political spectrum. I really wanted to change the world. And I was beginning to suspect that real change was derived not from slugging it out, but from finding, somehow, a way to call off the war. I was still a long way from realizing that the war of politics — that endless struggle between the champions of opposing social solutions — might bear a resemblance to the war within me.
In 1978, a little more than a year after I joined the staff, I left the Bay Guardian to work as an advertising typographer with a firm in downtown San Francisco. During the year I spent there, journalism, politics, and ethical quandaries seemed far away, but the world of advertising held even less long-term appeal for me than journalism did. By 1979 I was self-employed as a freelance typographer and part-time writer, confident that I could find my own voice as an independent journalist and eventually make a living with it. Ten years later, I have just begun to establish that voice. The writer I was in my mid-twenties would be more than a little surprised to learn that my eventual return to full-time journalism would come out of a deep spiritual impetus; because if there’s one thing that makes a reporter nervous, it’s any kind of talk about God.
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll captured this attitude in his commentary on July 14, 1988, under the title “The Name That Is Not Spoken.” Imagining a scenario in which a sportswriter encounters a baseball pitcher who attributes his success to God, Carroll wrote:
Does the reporter then ask a probing follow-up question on the order of “Do you mean the personal God of Christian fundamentalism?” or “Is God a moment-to-moment presence in your daily life?” He does not. In all likelihood, he pretends that he hasn’t heard the answer.
He behaves as though the pitcher had committed a slight social faux pas, sort of like spilling champagne on the floor. A civilized man such as the reporter would certainly not compound the embarrassment by alluding to the incident further.
God just can’t get any ink these days. . . .
Carroll goes on to suggest that the questions of God’s existence and role in daily life are of vital interest to just about everyone, and are frequently debated as a matter of common conversation. He continues:
But all of this vigorous debate rarely, if ever, is reflected in the popular media. I would guess that there are a lot more people interested in the role of God in their lives than in the root causes of the Iran-Iraq conflict, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the papers.
Based on my personal experience, I would venture to say that the embarrassment about spiritual matters found among journalists stems from the failure of conventional religion to provide believable answers about the mysteries of life. For many, this failure likely includes the experience of early religious training, often intensified by family pressures, which insisted on the acceptance of unbelievable answers. The intellectual liberation implied by scientific thinking or an existentialist point of view is often linked to an emotional liberation, both usually occurring on the threshold of adulthood. Regrettably, when people reject unsophisticated religiosity in favor of an undeniably more mature rationality, they usually also throw away the instinctive, childlike curiosity about the “big questions” of existence and consciousness. Without the spiritually renewing ground of a deeper questioning, the search for truth is then limited to the investigation of always-plentiful human foibles — that is, an endless muckraking.
Of course, this loss of innocent curiosity about the big questions is not unique to journalists. Philosopher Jacob Needleman has observed the same phenomenon among people of all walks of life whom he has met at conferences and lectures nationwide. In the introduction to his book, The Heart Of Philosophy, he writes:
I am astounded by how many successful men and women in our society seriously studied philosophy in their youth. I don’t mean those who took it only to satisfy some college requirement; I mean those who majored in it or who took considerably more than the required number of courses. Asked to speak about their studies of philosophy, they undergo a change. Suddenly their faces are young, and then, just as suddenly, they smile sadly or cynically.
Their numbers are truly astonishing. I feel as though I’ve uncovered a secret national love affair. Or, if I may put it this way, it is as though I’ve discovered that everyone has slept with the woman I married and, moreover, that she treated them all rather badly. It is not hard to see that these people are still carrying a torch.
The typical journalist, I believe, is simply more embittered than most over the lost loves of philosophy and religious questioning. Like policemen, reporters have seen too much of the dark side of human nature to hold any perspective that speaks of redemption or the potential of the human spirit. They are obsessed with problems to the extent of ruling out solutions, particularly if those solutions imply the need to reshape their own hard-earned point of view — their own basic assumptions. Thus they have forgotten the mind-changing power of deep questioning itself — and they have also lost, as Needleman suggests, an essential component of objectivity:
As a general rule, the great questions of philosophy are those that we have all but given up hope of ever seeing asked or answered, questions that somewhere deep within us, in the child within us, we long to think about, dream about. These are questions that have a certain quality of magic about them. That means they touch something in us, something that is at the same time utterly intimate and impersonal, something that we can refer to by the paradoxical words, “the warmth of real objectivity.”
In Zen practice, “real objectivity” is referred to as “beginner’s mind,” implying a regained innocence and freshness of perspective. This kind of innocence is essential to creativity and problem-solving: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,” wrote Shunryu Suzuki. “In the expert’s mind there are few.” Most adults tend to see innocence and sophistication as contradictory qualities, the former inevitably giving way to the latter. But it is my experience that sophistication without innocence is nothing more than a cold forgetfulness of the human essence. In journalism, this spiritual amnesia results in an investigatory bias toward the impersonal. What is lost is the “utter intimacy” that also constitutes real objectivity — an intimacy that I believe can be regained only with changes in journalistic practice and perspective.
From Investigation To Inspiration
For me, rediscovering inspiration was a long and halting process, which was slowed for many years by my own skepticism. I had begun reading the confounding discourses of Krishnamurti at age sixteen, and grew up under the periodic influence of both Eastern mysticism and Western esotericism. But in my early days as a reporter, these ideas were relegated to a closet of private curiosity, and I quickly learned that philosophical and spiritual questioning was likely to bring ridicule from my journalistic peers and teachers — or at least make them uneasy. Through my late twenties, I found myself exploring spiritual themes on my own in poems and journals, but until the past five years, I hardly considered these musings suitable for journalistic exploration.
Yet the journalism I read and studied still disappointed and depressed me. There was always something — depth, warmth, compassion, or communion — missing. In the first few years after I left the Bay Guardian, I often looked back on my departure from investigative journalism as a failure of nerve. As I approached my thirties, I began to suspect instead that my conscience had won out over my pride and ambition.
At the age of thirty-one I suffered a collapse of my immune system, a malady that has in recent years been labeled as “chronic fatigue syndrome.” This illness substantially incapacitated me for nearly two years, but occasioned a period of intense self-examination and soon thereafter, to my surprise, a spiritual awakening. My healing required the recognition and release of a great deal of repressed anger, and then the acceptance of a new point of view — a perspective based not on any sort of religious dogma, but rather on the grateful recognition and activation of an inner wisdom that was previously obscured from me.
If an interviewee finds it impossible to regard me as a friend, I strive to be regarded at least as an honorable adversary. For in moral and spiritual terms, honor is a ground of communion.
This wisdom, likewise, is not a static set of ideas, but an energetic, constantly evolving way of seeing. In my work as a journalist, my subject is the search for self-knowledge — both as a growing social phenomenon and a personal discipline. All my investigations rest on the foundation of an ongoing self-investigation, which includes a deep questioning about the nature of reality, truth, and human purpose.
My spiritual perspective in reporting — my angle, as it were — has led me to realize that the search for truth requires my own truthfulness at every stage of investigation. Whenever a little manipulation or deceit might seem like a shortcut to facts that have been concealed, I know that sooner or later I would have to deal with having created untruths of my own. Nor do I have any basis for claiming that my use of deceit would be morally superior to anyone else’s. A claim by anyone to such superiority is a distortion that arises from unreflective egotism — i.e., the separation from one’s higher nature, wherein one recognizes the spiritual interconnection among all humans. This separation stems from the belief that we are only what we have “made” of ourselves, and that making something of ourselves requires a struggle between individuals.
Standard Operating Procedure
The operation of unreflective egotism in contemporary journalism can be clearly seen in further remarks of writer Nora Ephron in the Columbia Journalism Review. Ephron, who warned readers never to imagine that journalists were their friends, also said:
Part of what you are trying to do as a journalist when you are writing about other people is to sort of wave at the readers through whatever you’re writing about; you are trying to get them to notice you, the writer, to notice your way of looking at things, to notice your own peculiar, particular voice. So even if you are just talking about a minor betrayal, you have to do that — you have to make the material your own. And there is no question but that you have to have a certain lust for blood to do this.
Ephron also points out that people unused to dealing with journalists “honestly have no idea how awful it is to be misquoted or to be quoted out of context or to have what they said quoted but used to make a point they never intended — all of which, I’m sorry to say, is standard operating procedure among the majority of journalists.”
On the last point, she is undoubtedly accurate. Of the twenty prominent journalists surveyed by the Review, not one proposed a fairly obvious solution to the problem of betrayal: giving sources the opportunity to preview manuscripts about them, so that they can approve both the editing and the contextual use of their quotations. I have done this with a number of feature interviews, and I intend to continue doing it whenever feasible. I have yet to encounter a situation where it was not feasible, and I see no reason not to do it — although it could be impractical in the context of daily newspaper reporting.
The most obvious argument against this practice is that sources will be prone to revise or restate their original remarks once they see them on paper and, further, that they will try to influence the writer toward a more favorable assessment. This, of course, implies a distrust of the motivations of the source, while leaving the motivations of the writer unexamined. It is my belief that sources have every right to review their statements on paper and suggest changes, because any written piece is in fact an interpretation of reality, and never a pure report. I think that the truth is better served by the discussion between writer and source about their respective visions of reality; their collaboration can result in a balanced interpretation. I suspect that what lurks behind any writer’s reluctance to have a subject review an article is literally a fear of relationship — a desire to preserve separation. But I submit that any interview is already a relationship, and that it cannot be severed prematurely in order to defend the writer’s “peculiar, particular voice” without the writer’s betraying the source.
Thus the antidote to betrayal is consensus —a consensus between writer and source about what constitutes a fair presentation of the material. This does not necessarily imply that they must be in agreement on every point. I have had occasion to interview people with whom I disagree to varying degrees, but in previewing the material together, we have reached an agreement not only about the editing of their quotations, but also the fairness of my remarks about them. I believe that it was my willingness to afford these people this degree of respect, pursuing our relationship to a more natural end, that eventually enabled us to “agree to disagree,” and enabled me to proceed with the publication of material that the interviewee had reviewed and that I still felt to be “my own.” If an interviewee finds it impossible to regard me as a friend, I strive to be regarded at least as an honorable adversary. For in moral and spiritual terms, honor is a ground of communion.
In the introduction to his interviews in the Columbia Journalism Review, Martin Gottlieb observed that “no hard and fast rules define the relationship that should, ideally, be maintained between a journalist and a source.” I don’t think this relationship can be effectively legislated. Indeed, I agree with the ruling of the federal courts in the Malcolm-Masson dispute. Some editing and even rewrite of quotes is necessary for practical reasons, and the writer must be at liberty to summarize and interpret “ambiguous conversations.”
But I feel that writers are morally compelled to review all editing of quoted material with their sources. I have decided to follow one rule — drawn from a spiritual text, but widely known in Western culture — that I think provides an invaluable guide for conducting the relationship with a source. It’s popularly called the Golden Rule. Contemplating its ramifications sheds an interesting light on the remark of the Newsweek writers quoted earlier — that journalists owe their subjects nothing “beyond the same decency that they would bring to any human encounter.” This raises the question: how much decency is owed in any human encounter?
Murderers, Pigs, And Fishes
Then how much decency does the journalist owe the murderer — or any subject of suspected or proven guile and evil intent? Can we reasonably expect to build a framework of collaborative trust with a source who is, for instance, known to be a pathological liar? Joe McGinniss maintained that he betrayed Jeffrey MacDonald only after he became convinced of MacDonald’s guilt in the murders of his family, and that MacDonald had deliberately manipulated him to procure a journalistic defense. There seems to be a general agreement among journalists that some kind of untruthful manipulation may be necessary in order to “draw out” the truth from decidedly unreliable sources.
The I Ching, a Chinese book of oracular wisdom whose origins date back three thousand years, provides a provocative alternate strategy for this kind of situation. In its discussion of hexagram #61, labeled in English as “Inner Truth,” the classic Wilhelm/Baynes edition of the I Ching says:
Pigs and fishes are the least intelligent of all animals and therefore the most difficult to influence. The force of inner truth must grow great indeed before its influence can extend to such creatures. In dealing with persons as intractable and as difficult to influence as a pig or a fish, the whole secret of success depends on finding the right way of approach. One must first rid oneself of all prejudice and, so to speak, let the psyche of the other person act on one without restraint. Then one will establish contact with him, understand and gain power over him. When a door has thus been opened, the force of one’s personality will influence him.
In the context at hand, I read the oracle as a suggestion that the best way to approach an untrustworthy or otherwise “intractable” source is not with a matching guile, but rather with a greater truthfulness — “the force of inner truth.” Such truthfulness is only to be had through a genuine, vibrant, and ever-increasing self-knowledge — which is not to be mistaken with mere psychologizing about one’s most obvious habits and attitudes.
For example, one of the first steps a writer might take in the investigation of a murderer would be to contemplate the murderousness within his or her own consciousness. This would be a necessary step in ridding oneself of “all prejudice” toward the subject. Of course, the writer would first have to be willing to admit to murderousness within — an admission probably difficult for many. It is precisely this difficulty in recognizing and admitting our own potential for evil that feeds the fascination for murder mysteries, be they fiction or reportage. In her New Yorker piece about Joe McGinniss, Janet Malcolm noted that nonfiction books on murder cases are always intolerably long and burdened with detail. It’s as if readers can’t get enough of the lurid particulars of evil; I believe this is because of the vicarious thrill to be had from imagining oneself in the role of the perpetrator.
That was certainly part of my experience in reading Fatal Vision, although I eventually found the book profoundly tiring. It slowly became clear that McGinniss had no substantial understanding of MacDonald; although McGinniss notes that he and MacDonald became close friends during the murder trial, he never explores his attraction to the suspect. It became clear in McGinniss’s own trial that he, too, was capable of guile and manipulation, but one finds in his book no real compassion for his subject.
In my paperback edition of Fatal Vision, there’s a curious picture of McGinniss and MacDonald during the latter’s trial, their closeness graphically emphasized by their virtually identical suits. In light of what was to follow, the mystery of their relationship becomes just as intriguing as the mystery surrounding the murders of Jeffrey MacDonald’s family. It seems that neither one of them ever told the whole truth; in the case of the journalist, his readers are the poorer for it.
Perhaps the motivation of writing a bestseller outweighed the motivation of searching for truth. This kind of ethical choice is not news, of course, but it closes the door on the development of self-knowledge and of our collective wisdom. Had McGinniss thoroughly and conscientiously examined his fascination with the accused murderer while investigating him, perhaps he could have written a much more insightful book, a book whose vision was not just another fatality.
One of the first steps a writer might take in the investigation of a murderer would be to contemplate the murderousness within his or her own consciousness. . . . Of course, the writer would first have to be willing to admit to murderousness within — an admission probably difficult for many.
Projection, Confession, And Redemption
Psychologist Carl Jung once suggested that the most important political act any individual could undertake would be to withdraw his or her projections from the world. Projections operate as a subconscious form of compensation for guilt and anxiety about our own nature: by projecting the evil we fear within ourselves onto others, we hope to be rid of it entirely. Several critics have noted the apparent projection of Janet Malcolm in her essay on Joe McGinniss, suggesting that since she betrayed someone named Jeffrey (Masson), she subconsciously attempted to transfer her sense of guilt by criticizing another prominent journalist who betrayed a Jeffrey (MacDonald). In John Taylor’s New York article, Jeffrey Masson commented that part of Malcolm’s essay read like “an open letter to me. . . . She’s really writing about herself. It sounds like a confession — a personal letter confessing something she feels terrible about.”
Perhaps inadvertently, Janet Malcolm may have initiated the first difficult, self-investigative steps toward an awakening for her entire profession. Whether or not she intended to write a confession, her sense of self-dissatisfaction is clear, for at no point did she except herself from the charge that “every journalist . . . knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” It is only during the writing of this essay that I have come to realize a deeper implication of her opening salvo: that a desire to project evil may have always been part of the allure of investigative journalism. Is it possible that the whole profession is a magnet for guilty consciences? Or, to approach it in a slightly different way, is the allure of investigation the fascination with guilt itself?
If so, we reporters are no worse than the rest of humanity. Virtually all spiritual traditions suggest, through a variety of metaphors, that everyone struggles with a fundamental sense of guilt and anxiety because of our collective decision to separate from our original spiritual communion — which is the awareness of God. We have reaffirmed the “human condition” of self-abandonment a million times through forgetting our real nature. Forgetfulness is, in fact, our “second nature,” and seems so much easier than the discipline of remembering to search for what we have inexplicably lost. That is the search for truth, of course, and it leads us out of separation.
In striving to treat their subjects with trust and mutual respect instead of judgement and deceit, journalists will accelerate the search for truth by supplying a necessary ingredient — their own authenticity. In the examination of the most profound human crimes and sorrows, reporters will not be able to construct a framework of trust with subjects unless they trust themselves. This realistic and unsentimental self-trust, which can be extended as understanding (“the force of inner truth”), arises only out of the search for self-knowledge. By supplying information, guidance, and reflection on that search, a journalism of consciousness has the potential to point the way toward a philosophical renewal for all of journalism. Then someday, perhaps, every journalist can know that what she or he does is morally creative.