Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Journalist and the Joyrider

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Journalist and the Joyrider

Article excerpt

ALL REPORTERS, DEEP down, love good stories. I admit, I love murder. I love tragedy. I love sexy trials. I love political corruption. I love exposing the emperor's new clothes.

Working on a good story is like joyriding in a sports car after having spent your life in a sedan - you want to floor it, patch out, thrash the transmission, put the beast through its paces.

Janet Malcolm undoubtedly saw Jeffrey Masson as a good story. Her profile in the New Yorker was devastating. I am sure she heartily enjoyed every minute of it.

Last month, a jury declared that Malcolm had libeled Masson by using quotes that were not backed up by her notes or tapes. Certainly, all journalists should take note of the verdict. However, there is another concern in the case, one that has not gotten much attention - except, ironically, from Malcolm herself: The issue of bad faith.

I know all about bad faith. I have been guilty of it many times. So have most reporters I know.

I have paid for stories when I knew my money was being used to buy drugs the minute I left the scene. I have deliberately misled people I was interviewing - sometimes putting on a show of sympathy to ]get juicier quotes.

I have delayed calling people I was writing about until the last possible moment, trying to catch them off guard. I have hidden scoops from my competitors and lied to them about it.

I am not proud about any of this, but I can assure you that, in each case, I thought I was doing my job.

A few years ago, though, that all changed. An editor put me in touch with a man who had had a stroke. He talked haltingly, with a stutter. He could take 15 minutes to find one word. However, this was a big improvement. For almost a year after his stroke, he had been unable to speak at all.

I spent hours with him to make sure I had his story right: He believed the corrupt leaders of his municipal union had poisoned him.

I began to check his account. It was all circumstantial. He had been a member of a dissident union faction. The union president had been accused of corruption, but none of the other dissidents had come down with a mysterious illness, and there was no known drug that could have caused his symptoms.

As I worked, I decided to pursue a different, more compelling story - the story of a man who had made the arduous journey back from a stroke and was now trying to make sense of his illness.

I told him, over and over, that I was not going to write the story he wanted me to write. He always agreed and then returned to his central theme: This happened to him. …

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