Are there three words in the English more disheartening than “no unplayed episodes,” (maybe “you have gonorrhoea,” but only by a hair)? After twelve weeks of hand-wringing episodes from the podcast Serial, I found myself, at the end of December, without a mystery to solve. The series had ended and a new season wouldn’t be coming for at least a year. This was particularly disconcerting because my job provides two weeks of holiday for Christmas and the New Year so I would be waiting in airports, taking long car rides, going for leisurely runs through the city, all without the benefit of Sarah Koenig to keep my brain busy.
Luckily, mes amis, Serial spawned a whole industry of Serial criticism, and lacking a podcast to criticize, this industry got to work compiling lists and think pieces about what Serial obsessives should check out next. Top of all these lists was Janet Malcolm’s 1990 non-fiction work The Journalist and the Murderer.
First a note: The Journalist and the Murderer is structurally quite different from Serial. Malcolm is writing a book about a journalist who wrote a book about a murderer. Clear?
The journalist, Joe McGinniss, was contracted to write a book about Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, a man accused of the murder of his wife and children. McGinniss became very close friends with MacDonald, was given insider knowledge of every part of MacDonald’s defence throughout the trial, lived at MacDonald’s home for awhile and then wrote a scathing book about his certainty of MacDonald’s guilt. MacDonald, who was found guilty, sued McGinniss for the deception and the two eventually settled out of court. If you’re looking to track this against Serial, MacDonald is Adnan Syed, McGinnis is Koenig, and Malcolm is the world of think pieces about the ethics of Koenig’s journalism.
I’m not selling you so far, am I? Well consider the possibility that a well-researched book of those think pieces was written by Janet Malcolm. Malcolm is a BAM (bad-ass motherfucker), a queen of researched, long-form reportage whose only real foray into pop culture is her one (glowing) book review of Cecily Von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl novels. Basically, Janet Malcolm knows what’s up. The thesis or basic idea of The Journalist and the Murderer is that journalism is essentially immoral, so McGinniss’s relationship with MacDonald was no more immoral than what is required by any journalist. Journalists didn’t like that idea much when the book first came out, they thought Malcolm was calling them immoral, but really she’s defending McGinniss, Koenig, and the whole profession that requires the journalist to set aside the feelings of the subject so they can effectively get at the truth.
The book is wonderful and Malcolm is wonderful and you should read it. Unfortunately, because it’s at the top of all those lists, it’s a hot article right now so the hold list at your local library will be long. While you’re waiting, check out this conversation between Malcolm and Ian Frazier at the New Yorker Festival in 2011 or fill your time with another classic, a wise woman’s (not mine this time) take on Gossip Girl.