When Janet Malcolm died in June, I remembered that I’d once started reading “The Journalist and the Murderer” and, for extraneous reasons, never gotten around to finishing it. So I bought the book again and devoured it this time. Books can find their way to you at the most opportune moments. Here I was, a year and a half into a pandemic, a year and a half into interviewing on Zoom and aching with the utter artificiality of that enterprise—and here the book was, testifying to the truth that all journalistic interviewing was artificial.
For those still waiting for the book to find them: Malcolm’s account describes the relationship between Jeffrey MacDonald, a man accused of killing his family, and Joe McGinniss, a journalist writing a book about the trial. The book’s theme is the ethics of journalism—specifically, the ethics of how journalists present their purpose, their persona, and their process to the people they interview. MacDonald’s great complaint about McGinniss is that he pretended to believe in MacDonald’s innocence throughout their association even though he was arriving at his own, entirely contrary conclusions. MacDonald saw it as a betrayal; Malcolm’s argument is that all journalism involves—even relies upon—that kind of betrayal.
Let’s leave aside the question of MacDonald’s guilt. (Another book, by the documentarian Errol Morris, argues that McGinniss was wrong, and that MacDonald fell victim to “the fabrication of a case from incomplete knowledge.” Morris does not admire Malcolm’s book.) The thing that struck me, as it has others, was Malcolm’s acute—some would say cynical—diagnosis of the nature of the journalistic interview as a one-sided, parasitic affair that pretends to be an equal conversation. To perpetrate that pretence, the journalist resorts to tricks that verge on the psychopathic.
I use that word deliberately, because long portions of the middle of Malcolm’s book are clinical descriptions of psychopathy. These descriptions are being applied, in the book, by doctors and to Macdonald. But it’s not difficult to think that Malcolm is including them for the benefit of journalists who might recognise versions of themselves during interviews. Behind the “mask of sanity,” Malcolm writes, there is not a real human being but a mere simulacrum of one. And then she quotes an expert:
We are dealing here not with a complete man at all but with something that suggests a subtly constructed reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly. This smoothly operating psychic apparatus not only reproduces consistently specimens of good human reasoning but also appropriate simulations of normal human emotion in response to nearly all the varied stimuli of life.
Anyone who has conducted an interview will, I think, have cause to flinch at least a little. What is our feigned interest, in the face of a dry or irrelevant answer, but an appropriate simulation of normal human emotion? What are our near-automated sound of encouragement—“Uh-huh,” “Right,” “I see”—but the products of a subtle constructed reflex machine? What is the journalistic persona in an interview but a mimicry of the human personality? I can easily count the number of times an interview has somehow transcended these realities to turn into a genuine conversation. And I need no hands at all to count the number of times that has happened on Zoom.
But then I wonder if perhaps I’m idealising the “normal” conversation too much—particularly now, when we’ve all been deprived of so many such conversations over the last year and a half. Maybe even the best of conversations, with partners or friends or colleagues, feature these untarred patches amidst the miles of smooth tarmac. The introverts of this world will perhaps see this best, if they’re accustomed to viewing all conversations as careful, rickety theatre, liable to fall apart if both parties don’t play their roles. Perhaps all conversations are artificial; and perhaps, within that limited context, all of us exhibit the ways of the psychopath.