The Book Club

The Reporter’s Bargain

Hi Jeff–

It’s time for the last round, which I’d like to introduce this way:

It seems to me that there is one great luxury of the journalist’s life, which in turn creates one great responsibility. The luxury involves all the things you get to see and learn and do. I often think of this as the chance to cram several lifetimes’ worth of experience into one actual lifetime. You get to enter worlds temporarily, you get to pry into other peoples’ affairs and ask them to explain themselves, you get to meet and know a much wider range of people than you otherwise would. You get to enjoy the distilled month or year of what’s interesting about being a research biologist, or an Air Force colonel, or an oilfield roughneck, or a villager in the hill country of Thailand, without investing all the other years those people spend in those lives.

The rest of the world puts up with this because of an implicit bargain. The bargain is that one way or another reporters will share what they’ve learned with a public that can’t go see it all for themselves. The bargain doesn’t work out in every single case (many stories fall through, much material is “wasted” in the sense that you can’t fit it into a story). Because of the inevitable limits on what a reporter can learn–and the limits of skill and craft on what he can express–the bargain is not perfect in any one story. But taken as a whole, the idea is that we’ll get to roam around and have adventures because we’ll give people a better picture of their world than they could otherwise have. By analogy: Doctors get to cut people up and prescribe potentially-lethal drugs, because taken as a whole they use their skills to keep people healthier than they could otherwise be.

It seems to me that this social-contract bargain creates a responsibility for the individual reporter. That responsibility is to convey as clearly and vividly and powerfully as he can the truth of what he has seen. I chortle at the direction our last round-and-a-half of discussion has taken, which seems to have left me in the position of defending classic AP-style “just the facts, ma’am” journalism as the most “truthful” of all. That’s obviously not what I think, or what I have ever tried to apply. I still vividly remember a lecture Charlie Peters of the Washington Monthly gave me, when I started there 25 years ago. He cited Peter Lisagor, a Chicago newspaperman, as a classic illustration of a reporter whose wit and brilliance and perception of “truth” was evident in his conversation but never made it into his stories, because of the strictures of old-style “objective” journalism.

But even in the modern, non-“objective” journalism both of us practice and believe in, there are gradations in effectiveness in conveying the truth you’ve seen. And I think what the Malcolm/Spake contrast highlights is that you and I have different estimations of where Malcolm’s book should be placed along those gradations.

Let me pause for a moment to say a word more about Amanda Spake. In weighing her article against Malcolm’s book, it’s worth remembering a) that her article is at most one tenth as long as the book, and b) it was written seven years ago, when (as Malcolm points out) the subject, Sheila McGough, wouldn’t speak freely, because her client Bobby Bailes was still alive. I submit that the article is way more than one-tenth as illuminating about the case as the book is. (No, I’m not weighing journalistic merit by the foot-pound, but you know what I mean. Also, you know what I mean in gently suggesting that comparing Spake to Ken Starr really is not a view you’d defend on reflection.)

What are the gradations in judging how well a reporter has met his share of the bargain? I can think of two, each of which explains why I’m uneasy with Malcolm’s book.

One, of course, is how much of the “truth” of the case the reporter manages to convey. Let’s stipulate all the bumps and imperfections about ever capturing real truth. (And let me restate my view, stipulating your dissent, that Malcolm repeatedly claims that “truth” means the full, “shapeless housecoat” of raw data.) You think Malcolm conveys more truth than Spake, in her smaller article, does. I disagree. It seems to me that Spake has tried harder than Malcolm to tell what sense she’s made of the entire pattern of events–including her doubt about what, exactly, to make of McGough. Malcolm has presented the who-what-when in what you accurately called “nonlinear” fashion–and has offered “truth” mainly in the form of her axiomatic assertions that McGough must be innocent, without giving the reader of lot of evidence other than her own authority to believe it.

In the complicated assessments of “truth” we all make, I did not find this sufficient. Partly that is based on my knowledge of Malcolm’s past work, much of which I greatly admire. Even in the best of it, one of her clearest intellectual traits is to push a point to its extreme formulation. (This is why I mentioned the “every journalist” quote from the McGinnis/MacDonald book.) Sometimes that’s a wonderful clarifying tactic. But as applied to Sheila McGough, it struck me as mannered, rather than “truth”ful.

Here is the moment that made a tremendous impression on me. Malcolm comes across evidence that McGough had deceived one of her client’s business partners. When she asks McGough, McGough says that, in fact, she had misled the man. Malcolm says: “As I listened to this speech, I felt as if the ground were giving way under me. Until this moment, it had never occurred to me to doubt the truth of anything Sheila said. She was my lodestar. Veracity was her defining characteristic, like the color of an orange…. Now I had to face the possibility, perhaps the probability, that she was the clever liar of [the prosecution’s] narrative, and that I was a naïve fool.”

Two sentences later, Malcolm has stifled this reaction: “The flame of doubt began to rise and flare in my imagination. Then it sputtered and went out. Her confession to me that she had misled [the businessman] was only further evidence of her honesty.” Well, maybe. But I still find it odd that the one point in the book presented with absolute, no-shading certainty (that McGough is innocent) is the one about which the evidence that is shared with the reader seems most hazy and ambiguous. In short: You and I agree that the best modern writers are ones who delve into a story, ascertain the “truth” as best they can, and then share it with the reader. But the truth I get from this book is that Malcolm believes McGough–not necessarily that I should.

There’s one other type of gradation to consider: the insertion of writer into story. Again, it would be preposterous for me to claim that writers should keep strictly out of their tales, referring to themselves only as “this reporter.” You and I have both used ourselves as characters in our own journalism, describing the effort to sift through argument and evidence. It’s often a crucial tool for conveying truth.

But as a matter of degree, I felt “enough, already” about the reporter’s role in this book. A small-town interviewee asks Malcolm a question she finds tedious. ” ‘No,’ I said, suppressing a yawn.” “Abrams’ story stirred my reporter’s imagination.” When visiting McGough’s parents she is taken to a Western Sizzlin’ for breakfast. “Not everyone’s pulse quickens at the thought of a pile of scrambled eggs edged with strips of bacon and triangles of toast.” Again, it’s a matter of taste and proportion. The narrator-as-intrusive-subject works brilliantly in many books–Bruce Chatwin’s, to name one example. In your own writing, Jeff, you’ve never intruded yourself to this degree. This makes me think that while we disagree about this book, in practice we share a sense of the right proportion for the narrator’s voice.

Let me end on this note: If we define the subject of this book as, “What Janet Malcolm feels about Sheila McGough, and how she came to feel that way,” then I think its proportions and structure amount to a brilliant success. If it is designed to help me or other readers understand the “truth” of the case, I’m still with Bruce Springsteen, dancing in the dark.