By Janet Malcolm

Knopf. 161 pp. $18.95

WHEN Janet Malcolm's two-part series on "The Journalist and the Murderer" appeared in the New Yorker almost a year ago, it was indeed the talk of the town. Her thesis was a shocker, that "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." Her gossipy story was Liz Smith-worthy -- crammed with embarrassing quotes from two-score private letters author Joe McGinniss had sent Jeffrey MacDonald, the Princeton-educated Green Beret doctor convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters who was the subject of McGinniss's bestseller, Fatal Vision. (Attempting to elicit compromising information from his imprisoned subject, McGinniss pretended to believe him innocent, when in fact he was coming to concur in the jury's verdict of guilty.) And although she neglected to mention it, Malcolm herself had been sued for libel by the subject of a previous book, the psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson, leading one journalist (writing in New York magazine) to observe that "in a remarkable number of ways" her relationship with Masson "parallels the relationship between McGinniss and MacDonald."

Malcolm's book, The Journalist and the Murderer, consists of her New Yorker pieces, only slightly tempered (with a new ending referring to "the tension between the subject's blind self-absorption and the journalist's skepticism"), supplemented by a 16-page afterword, principally devoted to answering her critics.

(McGinniss devotes a 24-page epilogue in the paperback edition of Fatal Vision to answering Malcolm.)

Although Malcolm and McGinniss disagree on many things, they don't really disagree over the facts: On the eve of his trial for murder, MacDonald invited McGinniss to write a book about the case, offering him exclusive and complete access to the defense team. They negotiated a deal whereby, depending on sales, MacDonald would receive up to 33 percent of the book royalties, more for movies and television, and sign a release not to sue for libel. McGinniss was free to come to his own conclusions about MacDonald's innocence or guilt provided only that the "essential integrity" of MacDonald's life was maintained, or so stated the ambiguous language of the release. Seven weeks later MacDonald was convicted; four years later, in 1983, McGinniss published Fatal Vision, which quickly became a number one bestseller and a television mini-series. And in 1984, MacDonald, prohibited by his pre-nuptial agreement with McGinniss from suing for libel, or "anything else" contained in the book for that matter, nevertheless sued him for breach of contract and fraud (essentially claiming that McGinniss had never intended to maintain the "essential integrity" of his life). The six-week trial ended in a hung jury and on Nov. 23, 1987, rather than go through it again, the two sides settled, with McGinniss's publisher's insurance company ultimately paying MacDonald a sum that was less than he would have received under the original contract.

Comes now Janet Malcolm, recipient of a letter -- sent to 30-odd journalists -- from McGinniss's lawyer, noting with alarm that "For the first time a disgruntled subject has been permitted to sue a writer on grounds that render irrelevant the truth or falsity of what was published . . ." But what interests Malcolm is less the dangerous precedent that the McDonald v. McGinniss lawsuit sets than its value as a cautionary tale symbolizing the structural relationship between all journalists and their subjects. The journalist, she writes, "is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." Although he may make noises about the public's right to know or the First Amendment or his muse or even his need to earn a living, the unpleasant truth according to Malcolm is that journalists never reveal to their subjects the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about their intentions -- at least not while in pursuit of the story. Integrity, in this view, is for the journalist a conflict of interest.

Speaking of which, I guess here is the place to disclose that I am a friend of Joe McGinniss (despite the fact that I first met him while reporting a story of which he was one of the subjects.) I was tentatively scheduled to be an expert witness at the trial of MacDonald v. McGinniss on the matter of whether a reporter is obliged to reveal to his subjects his true feelings about the subject while researching the story (my testimony would have been that he isn't), but was not called because the judge ruled that additional expert testimony would have been redundant -- William F. Buckley Jr. and the novelist Joseph Wambaugh had already testified on the point. When Malcolm interviewed me for her book, with her permission I taped her taping me and concluded that she was trying to manipulate me almost as much as I was trying to manipulate her. And finally, I should confess that I am the author of the anonymous Nation editorial making the point that the critical question in this whole tempest in an espresso pot is why everybody connected with it has the same initials -- JM? (Not to mention the title of her book itself, The Journalist and the Murderer.) Somebody ought to put Jessica Mitford on the case.

I HAVE two problems with Malcolm's often ingenious and insightful reflections (as the New Yorker called them) on journalism. The first has to do with her apparently irresistible impulse to the hasty generalization, the self-serving universalization. It is not merely that all journalists (including the weatherman, the obituary writer, the nightly newsreader?) are morally indefensible. All defense lawyers are "haters." "People who have never sued anyone or been sued have missed a narcissistic pleasure that is not quite like any other." "Before the invention of the tape recorder, no quotation could be verbatim." Or, my favorite, "The 'I' character in journalism is almost pure invention." Now I wonder if, on reflection, Malcolm really would want to give the "I" of McGinniss's letters to MacDonald the benefit of that doubt.

Since a swift application of an editor's blue pencil would have spared her much criticism, one must assume that her generalizations are intended as provocations. But I (me, really me, the actual "I") have a more fundamental problem: In the end, her punishing case study does not fit the crime she sets out to elucidate. MacDonald v. McGinniss may well be a cautionary tale but if so, it is not about the journalist-subject relationship on which she has such interesting and troubling ideas, but rather a very rare subspecies of that relationship. McGinniss and MacDonald had what Malcolm in uncharacteristic understatement refers to as a "business relationship."

Malcolm mentions but doesn't focus on this business relationship or the unique ethical conundrums and compromises it entails. Had she done so it would have helped her to locate and define the moral dilemma which seems to me to lie at the heart of the case she has chosen to study; not do all writers betray their subjects but rather what is the obligation of a writer to his business partner if that business partner betrays him? Nor does she note that only a tiny fraction of journalists -- more commonly ghost writers and how-to's -- enter such relationships. But it is precisely this fact which ought to disqualify MacDonald v. McGinniss from serving as the lens through which to examine the exquisite ethical issues Malcolm's meditation raises. She has indeed presented us with a cautionary tale but it has to do with the perils of checkbook journalism.

Victor Navasky is editor of The Nation.