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Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Interviewer/Interviewee Relationship

     Journalist Janet Malcolm wrote a book called The Journalist and the Murderer (1990) about how true crime writer Joe McGinnis, in writing his book Fatal Vision (1983) lived with the Jeffrey MacDonald defense team as they prepared for the Green Beret doctor's murder trial. MacDonald was being tried for the 1970 murder of his pregnant wife and two daughters. The defendant and his legal team had every reason to expect that McGinnis' book would be sympathetic to MacDonald's claim of innocence. The jury found the doctor guilty, and when Fatal Vision came out, the insiders who had invited the journalist into the inner circle of the defense were shocked. McGinnis portrayed MacDonald as a sociopathic, narcissistic, cold-blooded killer who had murdered his family to free himself of the constraints of family life. (Fatal Vision is ranked 97th in Modern Library's 100 Best Works of Nonfiction.)

     In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm's first sentence reveals an ugly truth about the relationship between the journalist and the people he interviews: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."

     The following quotes are from other journalists about the art of the interview and the relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee:

It is a very strange way to make a living, to go into other people's lives and scrape those lives for what you can use for your stories and then go out and display those scrapings in front of others.
Bob Greene

Many reporters, especially in the era of celebrity journalism, far from betraying the subjects in their pieces, praise them and cater rather slavishly to them--so that the reporter's fortunes and his subject's rise together.
Renata Adler

The secret to the art of interviewing--and it is an art--is to let the other person think he's interviewing you. You tell him about yourself, and slowly you spin your web so that he tells you everything. (In his infamous article, "Answered Prayers," Truman Capote betrayed members of high-society who had befriended him.)
Truman Capote

I don't even like interviewing people, because I feel once I've interviewed someone, it's much harder to write critically about them unless you bring up every critical feeling you have in the course of the interview.
Norman Mailer

Walking up to a rank stranger who probably doesn't want to talk to you, introducing yourself cold, then making certain that you're the one in charge and what you're conducting is not a friendly conversation but an interview--these are not natural, or even particularly friendly, ways to behave and not a piece of cake to perform.
Beverly Lowry

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