Is journalism morally indefensible?
I don’t know much about most things. So when a subject comes along that I’ve actually given some thought I leap at the opportunity, even at physical risk, to add my two cents.
Just such a chance presented itself this week when Howard Levi, a friend, invited me to join the class he teaches at CUNY Graduate Center’s Lifelong Peer Learning Program. Members share the responsibility for designing, teaching and running weekly noncredit study groups.
It’s sort of like college without the stress of grades, finding a job upon graduation, or the sex and drugs. Though I’m not really qualified to comment on the sex and drugs since I only sat in on one class. Also, it meets in midtown Manhattan at noon for ninety minutes, not an hour synonymous with wild partying.
Howard, a retired lawyer, brings the same preparation to his course about the New York Review of Books that he did to representing multi-national corporations in court. The group, of about two dozen students, uses the literary publication’s articles to spark discussion and debate. Howard invited me to join a conversation about a 2020 story that journalist Janet Malcolm published in the NYRB.
The story described her physical preparation as a witness at a 1994 trial where she was being sued for a profile she wrote in the New Yorker in the early 1980’s about Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. Masson was a psychoanalyst and the former project director for the Sigmund Freud Archives.
Masson claimed that Malcolm libeled him by fabricating quotes she attributed to him. After a decade of legal proceedings, a jury found in Malcolm’s favor. It may have been her classes with an acting coach that taught her how to speak, dress and behave that won the jury’s sympathy. That training was the subject of her New York Review story.
As a journalist, I was asked to weigh in on, among other things, Malcolm’s presentation in the original New Yorker story, titled “In the Freud Archives,” of an interview she conducted with Masson. She purported to quote at length from the interview which she depicted as having taken place over the course of a single marathon lunch in Berkeley at the famed restaurant Chez Panisse.
Actually, her interviews occurred over the course of months, many of them over the phone. She also liberally edited Masson’s words to make the narrative more compelling. “Are you OK with a non-fiction writer’s use of such devices?” Howard asked the class, allowing me to weigh in first.
I’m not okay with taking interviews that happened over months and making believe they occurred over a single lunch at a fancy restaurant. That’s fiction, not non-fiction. My feeling is that it’s real life that should compel one to become a journalist in the first place. There are easier, certainly more lucrative, ways to earn a living.
What you get – sadly sometimes instead of a big paycheck, pension and benefits -- if you’re lucky and any good, is a front row seat on life. You get to interview fascinating, culture-defining people and witness history as it happens. Life is cool enough without embellishing it. There’s more than enough opportunity to flex your literary and creative chops without making stuff up.
Some of the members of the class – their backgrounds ranged from business to journalism and the arts -- agreed with me. Others didn’t. One gentleman said he was unbothered by the license Malcolm took if it served a larger purpose, captured a greater truth. But that raised Howard’s next question: is it legitimate to edit your subject’s words and sentences to make them flow better, to make the narrative more interesting for the reader?
My answer to that question was yes, with qualifications. Few of us can think on our feet fast enough to craft perfect sentences. They’re littered with filler as we gather our thoughts. I was listening to a recent interview with Barack Obama, no slouch when it comes to forming ideas, but he was so professorial when discussing responsibility for the current crisis in Israel and Gaza than it was like watching paint dry.
Every journalist tightens up quotes. If you don’t your editor will, assuming reporters still have editors. Again, that’s not what Janet Malcolm did. Howard projected onto the classroom screen a tape recording of a paragraph that Jeffrey Masson spoke and Malcolm’s edited version, where she omits sentences that change her subject’s meaning in not so subtle ways. In the original 1993 trial a jury decided that two of five disputed quotations were defamatory, though none were written with the recklessness required to establish libel.
Another question Howard asked the class to consider was Malcolm’s famous statement in her 1990 book The Journalist and the Murderer – that “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.”
That statement I agree with. An interview is a form of seduction. You’re not interviewing people in the hope they’ll become your friends, though you might make it seem that way. Your obligation is to the truth, the story and your readers. Not necessarily in that order. People are often reluctant to talk. Maybe they’re wary or self-conscious or have never spoken to a journalist before. Many who aren’t practiced interviewees may not even realize or believe their quotes might be published. Whatever their understanding – and whether a celebrity or the man on the street – you must gain their trust. And that requires persuasion. With humor, with compassion, best of all by identifying something you have in common that engenders trust and allows them to lower their guard.
I mentioned truth. We live in a time where fact and fiction, reality and conspiracy are sometimes hard to tell apart and only getting harder. That makes the journalist’s commitment to the truth invaluable, even sacred.
Truth exists. It’s not a matter of opinion. Janet Malcolm’s crime, it seems to me, was sublimating the truth to her art when it should have been the other way around.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.
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