Just one question … for Gene Weingarten, on the Jeffrey MacDonald case
Everybody’s read his latest? Great.
WILMINGTON, N.C. — They are old men now, the doctor and the lawyer, ancient adversaries confronting each other one last time.
The doctor shuffles into the courtroom, his feet in socks and slippers, his ankles in chains. Once a swaggering bon vivant with a Maserati, a yacht and a playboy lifestyle, he is now dreadfully diminished, drained of color and of dignity, with a prison pallor and hair gone white, insulted by a prison haircut. He wears a washed-out dun prison-issue jumpsuit with big black letters: INMATE NEW HANOVER COUNTY. The only daub of color is the maroon accordion file he holds. It glistens. It has been so often repaired over the years that it’s more Scotch tape than cardboard. Inside are papers that document a lost life. For nearly half that life, the doctor, 68, has been in federal custody, largely because of the efforts of the government lawyer who sits across the room, at whom he will not look, not even once, in the seven days they will spend together here.
The two-time Pulitzer winner did something fascinating in this Washington Post magazine story about the notorious Jeffrey MacDonald case. He wrote:
Journalists do have agendas; their articles do marshal facts selectively. They don’t always reveal their biases. Stories are seldom completely arm’s-length.
Then … these six paragraphs:
So, just to be clear:
I intend to spin you toward a certain conclusion. The process is stealthy and has already begun; it was no accident that I called Dr. MacDonald’s stab wound an “incision.”
I have come to believe that Jeffrey MacDonald murdered his family and injured himself as part of a coverup; I’ve concluded this both because I have researched the case extensively, and because, as a writer, I see exactly how Errol Morris prejudiced his account while shrewdly appearing not to do so. I admire his skill but not his book. I think the media have been careless and gullible in reviewing it, perhaps partially because the story of a grievous, enduring miscarriage of justice presents a more compelling narrative than the alternative.
I think “Fatal Vision” is among the best true-crime books ever written, but I think Joe McGinniss unattractively betrayed Jeffrey MacDonald to keep the doctor talking. Still, I do not think McGinniss deserved the national scorn he endured. The partnership between the journalist and the murderer was an exercise in ferocious, mutual exploitation, for enormous stakes, and MacDonald’s lie — that he was innocent — was a far greater deception. And, anyway, in such a freighted transaction no meaningful measure of morality attaches.
I’d never met Brian Murtagh before starting on this article, but he and my lawyer-wife worked together for years at the Justice Department. She would tell me about her friend who, 30 years after the case that would consume his life for better or worse, could not stop talking about ice picks, bloodstains, holes in pajamas, and beautiful, dead children.
Okay, I think we’re at arm’s length now. We’re good to go.
I wanted to know why he did that. So I asked him. And he said:
The first is straightforward. I feel I had to do something like that, both from an ethical standpoint and a practical one. In the past, in online chats, I have written that I thought MacDonald was guilty, so it would have been both misleading and unwise to leave the impression (through omission) that I started on this story with no presupposition at all. Also, I think I was ethically required to mention that Murtagh had been a colleague of my wife’s, and that fact seemed to fit well in this section.
The second reason is stylistic, a matter of texture: I think it was an interesting and entertaining way of addressing the Janet Malcolm issue: Getting the reader to see, specifically, HOW writers are positioned to subtly manipulate them, such as using the word “incision” at a point in the story before I showed my hand. It seemed to address the Malcolm issue in a concise, approachable, show-me-don’t-tell-me way.
The third is that I am a punk. I liked the swagger of it.
Michael Kruse is an award-winning staff writer on the enterprise team at the Tampa Bay Times. He recently gave a TEDx talk and had a story make the anthology Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists. His last installment of “Just One Question” was with Tampa Bay Times colleague Lane DeGregory, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing.