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Joe McGinniss and Janet Malcolm: Back at it again

Posted: Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Who's worse, Joe McGinniss or Janet Malcolm? The two journalists were famously at each other's throats after Malcolm wrote scathingly about McGinniss' book on the Jeffrey MacDonald murder trial of 1979. But they are also eerily similar in their penchant for overwriting, amateur psychoanalysis of their subjects, sneering condescension and questionable journalistic tactics. And now they've both come roaring back into the public eye.

McGinniss' latest caper is renting the house next door to Sarah Palin in Wasilla. From his deck, McGinniss - who is writing an unauthorized biography of the 2008 GOP candidate for vice president - can peer down on the Palin family's every coming and going, and even into the bedroom of Palin's 9-year-old daughter, as Palin noted in a humorous "Welcome, Joe McGinniss!" entry on her Facebook page.

If the object of McGinness' 24/7 attentions wasn't Palin, who along with her children is always fair game for sniping from those who deem themselves her intellectual betters, we'd call his most recent stunt by its proper name: stalking.

And Malcolm? Just a few weeks ago, she published an article that spread out over 25 pages of the New Yorker (there's no such thing as a short Janet Malcolm article) in which she revealed herself to be maybe the only person in the known universe to not think that Mazoltuv Borukhova is guilty as sin.

Borukhova, a physician from Forest Hills, N.Y., was sentenced to life in prison without parole last year after a jury found her guilty of hiring a hit man, her cousin by marriage, who shot her ex-husband in front of their 4-year-old daughter. The evidence against Borukhova included 91 cellphone calls between her and the hit man, Mikhail Mallayev, in the three weeks preceding the shooting and several more calls just before he deposited $20,000 into two bank accounts about a week afterward. (Mallayev was also convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life.) The motive? Three weeks before the murder, a family court judge had transferred custody of the daughter from Borukhova to her ex-husband, an orthodontist, after social workers and a lawyer appointed to represent the child agreed that Borukhova was poisoning the girl's mind against her father.

Nonetheless, in her New Yorker article, titled "Iphigenia in Forest Hills," Malcolm confessed to a "sisterly bias" that led her to believe that Borukhova, as an "educated woman" - like Malcolm herself - "couldn't have done it" and was railroaded to conviction by an "inhuman" and misogynist court system. Malcolm was shocked - shocked - that Borukhova, who was jailed throughout the trial, was led into the courtroom in handcuffs (imagine that!), and she deplored the prosecutor's cross-examination of Borukhova as "brutal" (is there such a thing as a nice cross-examination?). The judge had "the faux genial manner that American petty tyrants cultivate."

Moreover, Malcolm committed what most of the editors I've worked for would regard as a gross journalistic impropriety: In an effort to help out Borukhova, Malcolm crossed the line from reporter to defense investigator, turning over to Borukhova's lawyer her notes from her telephone interview - done under the New Yorker's auspices - with the daughter's lawyer, David Schnall, a prosecution witness. The notes painted Schnall as a possible 9/11 truther and a global warming skeptic. The judge, to his credit, refused to let Borukhova's lawyer use material from the notes at trial.

Such skating over the thin ice of dubious ethics is nothing new for Malcolm or McGinniss. The latter's 1993 biography of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, "The Last Brother," was published under a cloud of allegations from John F. Kennedy's biographer, William Manchester, that McGinniss had plagiarized material from his 1967 book, "The Death of a President."

McGinness' most controversial ethical foray, and the one that made Malcolm his implacable foe, was the writing of his 1983 bestseller, "Fatal Vision," about the trial of MacDonald, an Army doctor convicted of bludgeoning to death his pregnant wife and two young daughters in 1970.

"Fatal Vision" was a gripping read - all the more so because McGinniss, professing an initial belief in MacDonald's innocence, had ingratiated himself with the accused physician and his lawyers. He agreed to split his book earnings with MacDonald to cover his defense costs (checkbook journalism may raise eyebrows in some quarters but not, apparently, with McGinniss, who recently bid $60,000 for dinner with Palin in an EBay auction, only to be outbid). In order to keep the material coming from MacDonald, McGinniss continued what was now a pretense long after he became convinced of the doctor's guilt. McGinnis leavened his reporting with psychoanalysis, diagnosing MacDonald as having a "narcissistic" personality and opining that he was high on diet pills when he embarked on the killing spree. (McGinniss dipped his toe into psychological waters, albeit more cautiously, in a 2009 article he wrote about Palin for Portfolio magazine, accusing her of "magical thinking ... the irrational belief that thinking is the same as doing.")

Enter Malcolm with her book, "The Journalist and the Murderer" (1990), which hammered McGinniss for his betrayal of MacDonald and also bequeathed to a generation of college journalism majors this orotund lead sentence as part of their required reading: "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."

It turned out, however, that while sermonizing about McGinness, Malcolm was having psychology-related libel problems of her own - over a 1984 book, "In the Freud Archives," in which the noted psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson described himself as an "intellectual gigolo" who wanted to bring "sex, fun, women" to the London library that housed Sigmund Freud's papers. The phrases were nowhere to be found in the 50 hours of tapes of Malcolm's interviews with Masson. Masson's $10-million libel suit against Malcolm dragged up to the Supreme Court and back, until a jury found in 1994 that even if Malcolm had made up the quotations, they weren't enough to add up to defamation.

So there you have it: allegations of fabricated quotes, plagiarism, lying to get a story, invading your subjects' privacy and using your journalistic notes to try to ruin a witness' reputation in a criminal trial. Who really is worse? It's close to a toss-up, but if pressed, I'd throw Malcolm, not McGinness, to the lions. No, I wouldn't want him living next door, and judging from his Portfolio article, his Palin book promises to be a predictable if juicy slog through every doodle she made at Wasilla City Council meetings, every electrical bill the Palins got behind on and every enemy that Bristol Palin made in middle school. But at least McGinnis doesn't use the word "counter-transference," as Malcolm did.

Besides, Sarah Palin can take care of herself. She already has, good-humoredly offering to bake McGinnis a neighborly blueberry pie. And she's nicely pre-empted McGinniss' likely "people of Wal-Mart" take on her mowing the lawn in her tank top by mentioning it herself in her Facebook piece. She's got a titanium hide, and she can deal with what everyone would denounce as stalking if she weren't Sarah Palin.

• Charlotte Allen is the author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus" and a contributing editor to the Minding the Campus website of the Manhattan Institute. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.



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