Janet Malcolm Gives Journos Another Good Whipping

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For reporters, reading a Janet Malcolm story is like going to an AA meeting for writers in recovery, and last week's long piece in The New Yorker did not disappoint. Malcolm is the author who once famously proclaimed that every journalist "is a kind of confidence man" betraying our subjects "without remorse." (Who told?!) Her stories provide the kind of self-flagellation once preferred by certain Catholic monks. The new article gives scribblers a new taste of the lash, and just in time, too.

The story itself is about last year's murder trial of a Queens doctor charged with having her dentist ex-husband whacked on a playground in front of their little girl whose custody they were battling over.

It's written in classic New Yorker-ese, with a lot of first-person pronouns, and elaborate setups for those simple human exchanges the rest of us mistakenly take for granted ("I watched him remove a bunch of wilted mint cuttings from the table, hose it down, and tilt it so the water ran off.")

She finds many worthy targets in the courtroom, including the court-appointed attorney for the hit man, whose opening argument "bored and irritated the jury to the point that a young juror raised his hand and asked to go the bathroom." (Everyday reporters would have assumed the guy just had to take a leak.)

She rightfully lays low the judge who sped up the trial just to make sure he didn't miss his vacation date with a pina colada on the beach.

Most remarkably, she interviews the daughter's court-appointed guardian who had righteously pushed to have the girl removed from her mom's care, and who testified as a key prosecution witness. Malcolm discovers that the guardian is slightly unhinged himself on topics including male sperm count, the Communist Manifesto, and the Sacred Mysteries of Egypt.

Alarmed, she relays her findings and notes to the lead defense attorney: "I did something I have never done before as a journalist. I meddled with the story." Unfortunately, the colada-craving judge blows off the defense's objections and the prosecution goes forward without a hitch.

Thankfully, each of these tales is interspersed with reminders about the inherent deceitfulness of the business of journalism. Some morsels:

  • "Journalists love one another the way members of a family -- in their case, a kind of crime family -- do."
  • "Journalists request interviews the way beggars ask for alms, reflexively and nervously."
  • "...some journalists write extremely well. But the profession retains its transgressiveness. Human frailty continues to be the currency in which it trades. Malice remains its animating impulse." (Don't bother, I already looked up 'transgressiveness' and let me tell you, my crime family pals, it is not good).

As bad a drubbing as she gives these courtroom pencil-pushers ("their stories are writing themselves; they have only to pluck the low-hanging fruit of the attorneys' dire narratives"), I wouldn't want to be standing next to the prosecution attorneys in a Queens Boulevard bar after they got through reading bits like this about their summations: "Leventhal and Aldea, both dressed in dark suits, sat side by side at their table, like a pair of crows imperturbably looking down on carrion."

And this: "But Mallayev wasn't interesting to Leventhal. He dropped the unappetizing hitman from his maw and loped toward his more delectable prey."

That would be the other accused party, Dr. Mazoltuv Borukhova, the 35-year-old mother for whom Malcolm confesses her "sisterly bias" as opposed to the gum-chewing, pro-prosecution reporters seated on the bench next to her. Who knows? Maybe someone else hired a hit man to gun down the doctor's ex-husband in a playground in full view of the beloved child. The appeal, Malcolm notes, is still pending.

As for journalists, it is case closed. No appeals for us. We are the walking definition of Malice Aforethought (look it up). Hit me again. Harder!

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