True Crime

The desire to read news as narrative complicates the agendas of journalists and readers alike

One long weekend in mid-October of 2016, my husband and I met three friends from D.C. in Albuquerque for the annual Balloon Fiesta. We ate green chile at every meal; we gawked at the hot air balloons shaped like dragons and elephants and the Bimbo Bear; we burned off our altitude hangovers in the afternoons watching Ink Master at our Airbnb.

We also talked incessantly about the election, about our addiction to the news. We checked the news on our phones while we talked. It was like rage-bonding. One morning, standing in line at the fairgrounds for piñon coffee, Allison said she wasn’t sure what she’d do with herself after the election. Despite our worst fears, we still assumed Hillary would pull through in the end. We believed in “the end.” We believed the glut of news could not possibly last. She said, “I think I’ll almost miss it.”

I remembered Allison’s comment on “Indictment Day,” as the media or regular people (I’m not sure who got to it first) dubbed October 30, 2017, when Robert Mueller filed the first indictments in his investigation into the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russia. My friend Mike, who had also been with us that weekend in Albuquerque, sent me a text that evening: “Read the news for like six hours today, feel almost hungover.” I’d done the same, and it was unsatisfying; I didn’t know how to feel. Was the news truly good — a sign of good things to come — or seemingly good, but actually bad? I no longer trusted the news to tell me, or myself to know the difference. I felt I had lost the thread.

I watched Indictment Day happen without feeling involved. It was like being at a party when you’re not in the mood. But I could see that my friends were getting some kind of high from it. Wanting to take part in that, I kept clicking links. From my unsure remove, I could tell they were experiencing something close to what I experienced on January 10, 2017, the day the infamous “pee tape” dossier was published by Buzzfeed — I was so absorbed in Twitter that evening, we were late to an event — and before that, the day the Access Hollywood tape got out, on October 7, 2016. I was on a train when that news dropped, and I didn’t take my eyes off my phone for the two-hour trip. I gorged on the news like I was starving. And I could see, via Twitter, that my friends were doing it too. It was hitting all the same pleasure centers as watching TV — in both the old way, where everyone watches the same shows at the same time, and the new way, where streaming makes it possible to binge unto sickness. What we felt was close to joy, an inter-city orgy of communal schadenfreude.

I wanted that joy on Indictment Day, but I wasn’t getting it. In the past, bad news for Trump had necessarily felt like good news for me, but I was getting used to my vindictive hopes being disappointed. I kept checking the news every 20 minutes anyway. It was comically like real addiction: My brain had adapted to high doses of news, and I needed more and more news just to feel something. But quantity wasn’t the problem. I wanted to know what it meant. There were the usual let’s-be-clear, make-no-mistake takes in abundance, the reviews of the news, but I didn’t trust them. They contradicted each other; they rang false. I trusted only the dry news, the fact-checked reportage without overtly apparent bias, that didn’t tell me how to feel, that I couldn’t even really understand. The narrative-making meta-media had betrayed me.

“When the first American newspaper, Benjamin Harris’ Publick Occurences Both Forreign and Domestick, appeared in Boston on September 25, 1690, it promised to furnish news regularly once a month.” This rather hilarious fact is from Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, published in 1962. Boorstin goes on to explain how inventions like photography, the phonograph, radio, and motion pictures, proliferating rapidly between the late 1800s and early 1900s, gave “new meaning” to “verisimilitude,” increasing demand for images and recordings from life. Before long we had “round-the-clock media”:

The news gap became so narrow that in order to have additional “news” for each new edition or each new broadcast it was necessary to plan in advance the stages by which any available news would be unveiled. After the weekly and the daily came the “extras” and the numerous regular editions. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin soon had seven editions a day. No rest for the newsman. With more space to fill, he had to fill it ever more quickly. In order to justify the numerous editions, it was increasingly necessary that the news constantly change or at least seem to change.

The news, in this model, is not something reported (retold after the fact) but something created (planned out before the fact).

According to Boorstin, it became “financially necessary” for the media, after building this machine, to keep it running. The costs of printing and broadcasting were high; constant content kept the money flowing back in. They accomplished this by creating “pseudo-events,” or seemingly newsworthy, reportable happenings to fill pages and airtime. He gives as an example a televised parade to celebrate the return of General Douglas MacArthur from Korea in 1951. The event was engineered to look good on TV, with “cameras carefully focused on ‘significant’ happenings — that is, those which emphasized the drama of the occasion.” They recorded “wild cheering and enthusiastic crowds” — but this cheering was more a response to the cameras, the idea of being on TV, than it was to MacArthur. (It’s like that scene in Grease when the kids at the dance, after being told to act natural and avoid the camera, all wave and blow kisses at it.) Anyone who wasn’t near a camera felt bored and disappointed. The result was that people who attended the live parade had inverted FOMO: “We should have stayed at home and watched it on TV.”

When I think of “fun” news days like Indictment Day, which couldn’t have occurred without the horror of Election Day, it’s almost like there’s another me, a spectator to the drama

A political debate is another good example of a pseudo-event. In a previous life (a previous decade), I rarely watched the news, but I married a man who follows politics like sports — watching news clips like replays, rooting for his team. In 2016, I too got sucked into watching every single debate going back to the primaries. There were nights when I wasn’t in the mood, but if I tried to leave the room, I’d still hear it going on across the apartment, which distracted me from reading, and Twitter offered no alternative distraction. So I’d join in the “fun” — I’d watch with Twitter open. Debates, like the news, give us something to tweet about. It’s fodder for jokes; it’s material.

It’s strange how our memories get so rooted in place. When I was a kid, I understood the assassination of JFK to be the single moment of my parents’ lives that was so significant they were supposed to remember where they were when it happened. But I have so many moments like that, just from the past year, often in the same few hundred square feet: I was on the couch during the debates. I was on the couch when we watched the election results. (I had been at a friend’s house, a party of sorts, until I couldn’t stand it and came home.) I was at my desk the next morning, on Valium and crying, when I saw tweets about Hillary’s concession speech. (I could not stand to watch it.) I was at my desk during Obama’s last press conference. I was in the armchair when the dossier came out. At my desk for Indictment Day.

My memories of these comparatively trivial moments, in the prickliness of their detail, have the quality of memories of large-scale disaster. I think about them the way I think about 9/11 or the Challenger explosion, both of which I experienced from afar, on TV. Horrifying, but removed — not traumatic in the way that a car crash is traumatic, or that 9/11 would have been if I had lived in New York at the time. What nags me about these memories, these unhappy memories, is that I think that I think of them fondly.

Let me try to explain. For years, I’ve believed there are two kinds of happiness. On the one hand there’s the happiness of stability: a good job, a loving family; dependable American-dream prosperity. On the other, there’s the happiness of intense experience: dizzying highs and crushing lows in quick succession. My theory is that when we’re young, we prefer the second kind of happiness; we take a lot of risks because the lows improve the highs. As we get older, as the pressures of conformity increase and the lows take their toll, we strive for the first kind of happiness. But we continue to prefer our painful memories — stable life may be happier, but unstable life is more interesting. It’s almost as though being happy day to day doesn’t make us happy overall.

Believing this scares me, as much as the news scares me. I worry that, despite the wages of stress on my body — my blood pressure is higher, my gums are receding — I’ll look back on this whole awful year with nostalgia. Nostalgia, etymologically, means “homesickness” or “return-home pain” — again, there’s the significance of place. But I also find that the “pain” part of the word (algos, as in fibromyalgia), the longing part, bleeds over into the “return home” part — I’m not just nostalgic for my past, I’m nostalgic for my pain. My own past suffering can be a great source of comfort. Why is that? Because it’s over? Or because it’s a badge of honor?

If we treat the news like sports, like a hobby, a dramatic “season” is more fun, even when some of that fun feels like pain. The disappointment of the losses makes the glory of the wins that much better. When I think of “fun” news days like Indictment Day, which couldn’t have occurred without the horror of Election Day, it’s almost like there’s another me, a spectator to the drama.

My media tastes have gotten weird this year, weird for me. There are things I can’t stomach anymore — I never listen to NPR in the car now. I’ve replaced it with top 40 stations; vacuity seems more tolerable than pandering. My “guilty pleasures” are different. I watch a lot of horror movies, really wanting to be terrified. Artificial horror displaces actual horror, for a couple of hours at least, though nothing is ever scary enough. I’ve started reading true crime: all the lurid reality porn of the news, but with pain-relieving distance. With true crime we already know how it ends.

I picked up a copy of In Cold Blood, which I’d never read before, when I saw it on my library’s rack of recently returned books. (I love the randomness of this shelf; it’s like anti-curation, like Oulipo.) It was so good I didn’t want to read it; I’d read ten or twenty pages and then put it down and look for something worse to read instead. I either wanted to save it for my future self or didn’t believe I deserved it. I mentioned this on Twitter and several people, perhaps thinking it was journalistic ethics I was interested in rather than crime, recommended The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, quoting its famous first sentence: “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.” My interest was piqued. I was feeling like the media had fucked up — it fucked up in its coverage of the election and the candidates, and in so doing had fucked up history for all time and my life personally. Vindictively, maybe, I thought a screed against the morals of journalists sounded pretty good. So I read that next.

Like the relationship between journalist and subject, the relationship between newsmaker and news consumer is mutually parasitic

The Journalist and the Murderer is about Jeffrey MacDonald, convicted in 1979 of killing his pregnant wife and two daughters nine years earlier, and Joe McGinniss, who wrote a best-selling book about MacDonald called Fatal Vision in 1983. MacDonald, a Green Beret, was originally cleared of guilt by a military hearing but arrested years later. He has always maintained his innocence — he claims to this day that a group of four hippies broke into the house and attacked them, Manson Family–style, chanting “Acid is groovy” and “Kill the pigs,” wounding him but leaving him alive.

MacDonald contracted McGinniss (who had become famous for his first book, The Selling of the President 1968, about the Nixon campaign) to tell his story and clear his name. McGinniss was added to MacDonald’s defense team and given full access; the “journalist” and the “murderer” became friends. However, through the course of the trial, McGinniss came to believe that MacDonald was guilty. They continued corresponding after MacDonald went to prison, but McGinniss refused to show him the manuscript before it was published — at which point MacDonald was shocked to discover his friend had written a portrait of a killer. He sued McGinniss for breach of contract.

Malcolm takes this second case, the civil suit, as occasion to meditate on the relationship between author and subject. Why, we may wonder, did MacDonald trust McGinniss to be his advocate, when McGinniss had pulled an inside-job switcheroo once before? Nixon’s team had invited McGinniss along for the ride, and then he exposed them. Don’t journalists always have an agenda, and isn’t their loyalty to the agenda first? Shouldn’t we treat them like vampires — never invite them inside?

But “something seems to happen to people when they meet a journalist,” Malcolm observes, “and what happens is exactly the opposite of what one would expect”: “One would think that extreme wariness and caution would be the order of the day, but in fact childish trust and impetuosity are far more common.” Even more dangerous, perhaps, the journalistic subject “lives in fear of being found uninteresting, and many of the strange things that subjects say to writers — things of almost suicidal rashness — they say out of their desperate need to keep the writer’s attention riveted.” This makes me think of Twitter, which allows us to converse directly with journalists. Though most of us won’t get the chance to play the subject, following a journalist creates a kind of false intimacy. It encourages that same blind trust, which the journalist is then poised to exploit. Like the relationship between journalist and subject, the relationship between newsmaker and news consumer is mutually parasitic.

Malcolm takes a strong dislike to McGinniss, who does not come out looking well in the trial. Though he never promised to let MacDonald dictate the story of the book, his letters to MacDonald are painfully misleading:

There could not be a worse nightmare than the one you are living through now — but it is only a phase. Total strangers can recognize within five minutes that you did not receive a fair trial … It’s a hell of a thing — spend the summer making a new friend and then the bastards come along and lock him up. But not for long, Jeffrey — not for long.

He continues this way for years, discouraging MacDonald from communicating with other writers who show interest in covering the case, plying him for more background. MacDonald records and sends him a series of tapes, essentially narrating his life story. Malcolm gets copies of these too (she finds them banal), plus heaps of other evidence related to the murder — MacDonald seems to trust her as well, though at this point — in prison on three consecutive life sentences — I suppose he has less to lose. She opts not, however, to review all this material; she feels “oppressed” by this “mountain of documents”:

I have read little of the material he sent — trial transcripts, motions, declarations, affidavits, reports. A document arrives, I glance at it, see words like “bloody syringe,” “blue threads,” “left chest puncture,” “unidentified fingerprints,” “Kimberly’s urine,” and add it to the pile. I know I cannot learn anything about MacDonald’s guilt or innocence from this material. It is like looking for proof or disproof of God in a flower — it all depends on how you read the evidence.

The facts, she suggests, can be made to mean one thing, or its exact opposite. Whether it’s piles of evidence or piles of news, you read it through the lens of whatever conclusion you’ve already come to, and once you’ve come to a conclusion, it’s extremely uncomfortable to change your mind.

In his 2012 book A Wilderness of Error, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris objects to Malcolm’s position: “It comes down to an issue of truth … And yes, there is such a thing. There is a fact of the matter of whether you killed your family or you didn’t. It’s not just somehow thinking makes it so.” This is taken from a transcript of an interview between Morris and MacDonald. Morris has taken MacDonald’s side: The book argues that MacDonald is, if not innocent, at least not guilty. “There’s a difference,” Morris says, meaning that guilty, in the eyes of the law, means “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If there’s reasonable doubt, then you’re not guilty even if you actually did it. Real life is not like fiction, he writes, not like The Count of Monte Cristo, where “all the pieces can be engineered to fit perfectly together.” “Reality is different. We have to discover what is out there — what is real and what is merely a product of our imagination.”

Once you’ve come to a conclusion, it’s extremely uncomfortable to change your mind

Malcolm’s book is remarkably self-aware; she cops to the same pitfalls of journalism that she criticizes. In writing the book, she willingly steps into that “morally indefensible” author-subject relation. She notes the parallels between her own correspondence with MacDonald and McGinniss’s: “I was no less enamored of the sound of my voice than McGinniss had been of his.” But Morris seems unaware of the ways that he manipulates the evidence to serve his own ends. Having succeeded once before, with the film The Thin Blue Line, in getting a man out of prison and off death row (he’d been wrongly accused and convicted in Texas of killing a cop), Morris is out to play hero again, to play Henry Fonda’s role in Twelve Angry Men. A Wilderness of Error, at 500-plus pages that include diagrams and other images of court-admitted evidence, has a veneer of comprehensiveness, of objectivity. But he tends to skim over or elide any evidence that would implicate MacDonald, interfering with his narrative of wrongful conviction.

For example, Fatal Vision recounts a story McGinniss heard from a friend and former lover of MacDonald’s (he had encouraged McGinniss to speak to her). She says that MacDonald once dangled her 10-year-old son over the edge of a dock, “threatening to drop him head first into the water,” and then later exploded in anger toward him on a boat trip and threatened to “crush his skull.” McGinniss then calls the son, in college now, who says he remembers the incident “with real terror to this day” and reports that MacDonald actually threw him off the side of the boat. Morris doesn’t question the relevance of this anecdote; he just doesn’t mention it.

Throughout his account, Morris only gives secondary evidence like psychiatric assessments and polygraph tests credence when they support his own theory, and he fails to address the inconsistencies in MacDonald’s story. Morris’s journalistic agenda is clear. Nevertheless, he does succeed in making a case for the trial as a miscarriage of justice. It’s clear that the investigators mishandled evidence and failed to properly secure the crime scene. This, along with the existence of at least one other suspect without an alibi, introduces room for reasonable doubt. However, all MacDonald’s appeals have been denied, and by maintaining his innocence, he has relinquished the possibility of parole.

I have not read Fatal Vision, which by virtue of coming first has become the official story on the MacDonald murders. I have not reviewed the mountain of evidence, like Morris or his research assistant, whom he thanks for becoming an encyclopedic resource on the case. But you can probably tell that I lean toward believing MacDonald is guilty. I am not entirely sure why. I knew nothing about the case before reading The Journalist and the Murderer, and while Malcolm withholds judgment on the matter, she gives the impression of presuming MacDonald’s innocence if only to spite the hated McGinniss. I like to think I came to Morris’s book with an open mind, but within a few pages, I could see the seams of his rhetoric. His aims may be noble, but his tactics are shady. I began to distrust him, and then almost as a matter of course, I found myself siding against MacDonald, rooting against him. It gave me a reason to finish the book: the search for holes in Morris’s argument. I could not read it in the spirit of negative capability — Keats’s phrase for “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” — any more than Morris could write the book in that spirit.

Increasingly, access to information will mean that we have to choose between happiness and morality

Was there something sick about reading the book in this way, needing to discredit it? I was reminded of those disheartening studies on confirmation bias, where challenges to a person’s prior beliefs only tend to strengthen those beliefs. If Morris was rejecting the “facts” that didn’t jibe with his agenda, so was I. I had a similar feeling several weeks ago, when Donna Brazile’s book came out and her claim that Hillary Clinton had “rigged” the Democratic primary made the rounds. I did not even read these stories; my immediate reaction was refusal, refusal to accept another story in the media of Hillary’s corruption. Not long afterward, there was a round of corrections; Brazile had misread a memo about the general election, believing it applied to the primary. But Elizabeth Warren was already on record lending support to Brazile’s claim, and then we got corrections of the corrections — here’s why the primary really was rigged, if you think about it. The meta-corrections are more about the corruption of party politics and campaign money in general, but Hillary’s name in particular is still attached; the first version of the story has a tendency to stick.

In the era of fake news — a natural extension of the era of news proper — we don’t just look to the media for facts, we look to it for narratives. And with plenty of news to choose from (we can’t read it all), we naturally gravitate toward the news and news sources that align with our existing worldview, our ongoing narrative. Journalists must know this; they must, consciously or not, play to our desires by oversimplifying stories — ignoring facts that compromise the greater narrative — or only pursuing stories that they perceive to fit an existing and popular narrative in the first place. This is how it becomes parasitic: we need the drugs and they need us to buy them.

Reporters jump on a story that fits the “Hillary bad” narrative because it makes people emotional; it’s guaranteed to spread on social media. True or not, people will read and share that story because they want it to be true. As Kevin Young writes in Bunk, speaking of the “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835, when the Sun published a series of articles claiming that the (real) astronomer Sir John Herschel had observed bat-like humanoids on the moon, “The story seemed too good, if not to be true then not to be told.” The Sun was penny-press trash, but does the appeal of a surefire hit make even legitimate outlets cut corners on fact-checking? It certainly seems to — they’re ad-supported, not sponsored by patrons as newspapers once were. Traffic, not just truth, keeps newspapers alive.

When we talk about the ethics of journalism, we’re usually talking about the ethics of producing it. But what about the ethics of consuming the news? We can’t put all the blame on media for creating these narratives, these pseudo-events. As Boorstin writes:

This world of ambiguity … is not created by demagogues or crooks, by conspiracy or evil purpose. The efficient mass production of pseudo-events — in all kinds of packages, in black and white, in technicolor, in words, and in a thousand other forms — is the work of the whole machinery of our society. It is the daily product of men of good will.

In a piece called “Information, Technology, and the Virtues of Ignorance,” originally published in Daedalus in 1986, philosophy Daniel C. Dennett questions whether information technology is “poised to ruin our lives” (the emphases, here and below, are Dennett’s). Dennett says that people all want to lead “good lives” in two senses: “We want to lead lives that are interesting, exciting, fulfilling, and happy, and we want to lead lives that are morally good.” Increasingly, however, access to information will make this difficult, if not impossible — we will have to choose between happiness and morality. Our ancestors were

capable of living lives of virtue … a virtue that depended on unavoidable ignorance. Modern technology has robbed us of the sorts of virtue that depend on such ignorance, for ignorance is all too avoidable today. Information technology has multiplied our opportunities to know, and our traditional ethical doctrines overwhelm us by turning these opportunities into newfound obligations to know.

Thirty years later, this theory, or prophecy, feels grimly true. I do not know how to live an ethical life, when I consider the implications of almost every aspect of my existence — on the rest of the world, on future generations. I know what it means that I eat meat whenever I want, that I work in advertising, that I fly many times per year, that I’m psychologically dependent on a device that was built under sweatshop conditions. When it breaks, or just gets slow and inconvenient, I’ll buy another. I know because I read the news, and I keep doing it all anyway.

This essay is part of a collection of essays on the theme of TOO MUCH NEWS. Also from this week, Nathan Jurgenson on the false pieties of presidential press coverage, and Navneet Alang on too much affect

Elisa Gabbert is the author most recently of The Word Pretty. Her next collection, The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays, will be out from FSG Originals in August 2020.