Do Good Reporters Sometimes Act Like Con Artists?

Going to a baseball game with a journalist can bring back the famous Janet Malcolm line about reporters being con artists: “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and then betraying them without remorse.”

It was an exciting game with a big crowd and almost everyone left at the same time. The journalist, who’d been working in DC for 30 years, was driving and when we got to his car it was obvious we were in bad traffic. He tried a couple of shortcuts and then saw an opening—but he’d have to drive a half block in the wrong lane of a two-way street to make a left turn. He didn’t hesitate and then we heard a siren. A cop walked up, asked for license and registration, and seemed ready to write a ticket. The tough guy journalist then played innocent and went into a “Gee, I’m sorry, I’ve never been in this part of town, I didn’t mean to break the law” act. The cop let him off with a warning.

The Janet Malcolm line came from her 1990 book, The Journalist and the Murderer, in which she attacked the behavior of Joe McGinniss, author of the 1983 book, Fatal Vision, about former Special Forces Captain Jeffery MacDonald, who was tried and convicted of killing his wife and two daughters. Malcolm examined how McGinniss operated as a journalist, starting her book with “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.”

Playing dumb with a cop may not be morally indefensible but it did show a savvy reporter in action, able to play whatever role works best. McGinniss is undoubtedly also a good role-player: His first big book was The Selling of the President, a narrative of  how Richard Nixon was packaged in the 1968 presidential campaign. McGinniss hung out with the Nixon people during the campaign and you can bet he acted a lot more innocent and sympathetic than he was.

In my years at The Washingtonian, I saw some of the journalist as con artist but not to such an extreme that it seemed indefensible. The bigger problem was editing several feature writers who were so empathetic with their subjects that they didn’t want to write anything that might hurt the subject’s feelings. I had to push them to not leave things out, telling them that when they sat down to write their loyalty was to the reader.

The two writers with too much empathy were women. But then there was the woman writer who did great stories for us and went on to big success in New York. She said this is how she did it:  “Fall in love and get married during the interview, then get divorced at the keyboard.”

P.S. Joe McGinniss wrote an interesting epilogue to Fatal Vision in 1989, replying at length to the Janet Malcolm two-part article in the New Yorker which was the basis for The Journalist and the Murderer. 

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