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Joe McGinniss and Janet Malcolm: Back at it again

The famous journalistic feuders are in the public eye once again; one moved next to Sarah Palin, the other is defending a convicted murderer.

June 06, 2010|Charlotte Allen

Who's worse, Joe McGinniss or Janet Malcolm? The two journalists were famously at each other's throats after Malcolm wrote scathingly about McGinniss' book on the Jeffrey MacDonald murder trial of 1979. But they are also eerily similar in their penchant for overwriting, amateur psychoanalysis of their subjects, sneering condescension and questionable journalistic tactics. And now they've both come roaring back into the public eye.

McGinniss' latest caper is renting the house next door to Sarah Palin in Wasilla, Alaska. From his deck, McGinniss — who is writing an unauthorized biography of the 2008 GOP candidate for vice president — can peer down on the Palin family's every coming and going, and even into the bedroom of Palin's 9-year-old daughter, Piper, as Palin noted in a humorous "Welcome, Joe McGinniss!" entry on her Facebook page.

If the object of McGinness' 24/7 attentions wasn't Palin, who along with her children is always fair game for sniping from those who deem themselves her intellectual betters, we'd call his most recent stunt by its proper name: stalking.

And Malcolm? Just a few weeks ago, she published an article that spread out over 25 pages of the New Yorker (there's no such thing as a short Janet Malcolm article) in which she revealed herself to be maybe the only person in the known universe to not think that Mazoltuv Borukhova is guilty as sin.

Borukhova, a physician from Forest Hills, N.Y., was sentenced to life in prison without parole last year after a jury found her guilty of hiring a hit man, her cousin by marriage, who shot her ex-husband in front of their 4-year-old daughter. The evidence against Borukhova included 91 cellphone calls between her and the hit man, Mikhail Mallayev, in the three weeks preceding the shooting and several more calls just before he deposited $20,000 into two bank accounts about a week afterward. (Mallayev was also convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life.) The motive? Three weeks before the murder, a family court judge had transferred custody of the daughter from Borukhova to her ex-husband, an orthodontist, after social workers and a lawyer appointed to represent the child agreed that Borukhova was poisoning the girl's mind against her father.

Nonetheless, in her New Yorker article, titled "Iphigenia in Forest Hills," Malcolm confessed to a "sisterly bias" that led her to believe that Borukhova, as an "educated woman" — like Malcolm herself — "couldn't have done it" and was railroaded to conviction by an "inhuman" and misogynist court system. Malcolm was shocked — shocked — that Borukhova, who was jailed throughout the trial, was led into the courtroom in handcuffs (imagine that!), and she deplored the prosecutor's cross-examination of Borukhova as "brutal" (is there such a thing as a nice cross-examination?). The judge had "the faux genial manner that American petty tyrants cultivate."

Moreover, Malcolm committed what most of the editors I've worked for would regard as a gross journalistic impropriety: In an effort to help out Borukhova, Malcolm crossed the line from reporter to defense investigator, turning over to Borukhova's lawyer her notes from her telephone interview — done under the New Yorker's auspices — with the daughter's lawyer, David Schnall, a prosecution witness. The notes painted Schnall as a possible 9/11 truther and a global warming skeptic. The judge, to his credit, refused to let Borukhova's lawyer use material from the notes at trial.

Such skating over the thin ice of dubious ethics is nothing new for Malcolm or McGinniss. The latter's 1993 biography of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, "The Last Brother," was published under a cloud of allegations from John F. Kennedy's biographer, William Manchester, that McGinniss had plagiarized material from his 1967 book, "The Death of a President."

McGinness' most controversial ethical foray, and the one that made Malcolm his implacable foe, was the writing of his 1983 bestseller, "Fatal Vision," about the trial of MacDonald, an Army doctor convicted of bludgeoning to death his pregnant wife and two young daughters in 1970.

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