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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Journalists: Don't Make Promises You Can't Keep

Joe McGinniss
Joe McGinniss died this week, age 71.

He was a newspaperman and author who pioneered two amazing pieces of breakthrough journalism in his career.

First, he was able to have access to Richard Nixon's second presidential campaign. No other reporter had ever gained such access. The result was "The Selling of the President - 1968". It revealed how devious Nixon really was. Hence the deserved sobriquet: "Tricky Dick."

Jeffrey MacDonald
Second, he cajoled and convinced the murderer Captain Jeffrey MacDonald to give him unprecedented access, by promising that the "real" story would be told. The result this time was the book "Fatal Vision" which confirmed that McDonald was the murderer.

In a fit of chutzpah, MacDonald sued McGinniss for a form of journalistic breach of promise, claiming in his lawsuit that McGinniss had agreed to write a sympathetic portrayal that would be used to exonerate him. The jury could not reach a verdict and the case was settled out of court for a reported six-figure amount.

The MacDonald-McGinniss story got even more complicated when in 1989, the New Yorker reporter Janet Malcolm wrote her extraordinarily brilliant assessment in her book, "The Journalist and the Murderer."

Janet Malcolm
In it Malcolm accused McGinniss in particular and journalists, in general, of moral deviousness. Malcolm described what he did as something many journalists do in pursuit of a good story:

“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. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

McGinniss was a remarkable, old style newspaperman. He covered the war in Vietnam, then asked the publisher Walter Annenberg if he could also cover the Paris Peace Talks. Annenberg who disliked McGinniss' columnizing opinions but respected his work at a reporter, just picked up the phone and told his business manager to put McGinniss on the next flight to Paris.

His many friends and admirers spoke warmly about him today, especially about his time at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Editor Bill Marimow posted this remembrance on Facebook.

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