When [Janet Malcolm] died last week, obituaries reprised the famously devastating critique that opened her 1989 New Yorker magazine piece, later to become a book, “The Journalist and the Murderer.”
“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,” she wrote. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
It’s a criticism that’s been so widely quoted that many journalists have internalized it as a strange kind of self-flagellation.
“It’s remarkable how widely the journalistic elite came to accept and even venerate the famous Janet Malcolm quote, which, while valuable as a puncturing corrective to the profession’s smarmier conceits, is at best plainly untrue and at worst deeply damaging,” wrote tech journalist Will Oremus (a Washington Post colleague as of this week). Admitting that he’s quoted it himself, in part because it’s “a little bit punk,” Oremus objects to its perpetuation, especially at a time when “perhaps half the country believes we really are immoral liars and con artists.”
But two other well-known journalists who also recently died offered an alternative view of our profession — and a more accurate one.
Ron Ostrow, the longtime Washington reporter for the Los Angeles Times who broke one of the most important Watergate stories, was respected on both sides of the aisle. “He was tough as a journalist, kind as a person,” Attorney General Merrick Garland recalled for an obituary of Ostrow in the Times. It also quoted former attorney general William P. Barr’s praise and this from William H. Webster, a former FBI and CIA director: “You could trust him. . . . If somebody got hit by Ron, it was because they deserved it.”
This doesn’t sound like a con artist or a relentlessly negative nabob. It sounds like a lot of reporters I know who are still working today or just making their way into the craft. [Continue reading…]