by Alan Johnston, Pottsville, Australia
Recently I read a piece of ‘long journalism’ in the Washington Post Magazine by staff writer Gene Weingarten. The kind of in-depth, thoughtful reporting the majority of newspapers in Australia abandoned long ago as they raced to the bottom in the world’s first media ‘murdochracy’.
Weingarten’s article is simultaneously about a lurid murder case that occurred in North Carolina in 1970 and the latest in a string of appeals by the convicted perpetrator – but it is also a very insightful examination of journalism itself. Remarkably, Weingarten discusses, uses and highlights techniques of journalistic bias as he goes along. The kind of spin he applies, as he openly leads his readers to the conclusion he wants them to come to, makes for insightful reading.
He does this because this case is notorious not just for itself, but also for several books, one written in 1983 by journalist Joe McGinniss.
A dozen or so years after the event, during a legal appeal by the deemed guilty party, McGinniss embedded himself with the defence team – ostensibly to write a book about an unjust conviction. At some point he became convinced that the appellant was guilty but he didn’t reveal this so as to keep his access, and any inside information, flowing. The upshot of this duplicitous ingratiation included a number of highly self-revealing letters sent to him from prison by the perpetrator. In his book, McGinniss pilloried the convicted person as a psychopathic monster. Later his book was turned into a TV mini-series.
Subsequently, in 1990, McGinniss was excoriated for his actions in an article in the New Yorker Magazine by writer Janet Malcolm. She began with what has become a famous quotation:
‘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.’
Now I’ll quote Weingarten:
‘(Janet) Malcolm contended that McGinniss’s tactics were symptomatic of what all journalists do, to some degree: fool people into trusting them, then betray them by spinning facts, or distorting them, to create whatever compelling narrative they wish. Every story, she implied, is on some level a con job.’
So here is journalism being called out by its own.
The reason I am writing this post is simply that when I first read the above it resonated so much with me with respect to the recent tabloid reportage on Serge Benhayon and others associated with Universal Medicine. Here the usual leaden-footed suspects were trotted out –loaded words, factual errors, glaring omissions, snide allusions, condescension….
Indefensible to anyone who is not ‘too stupid or too full of himself’.