A Style story Monday about the relationship between reporters and their sources incorrectly reported media critic Ben Bagdikian's former title at The Washington Post. He was an assistant managing editor. (Published 1/16/91)

Jeffrey Masson, for this season at least, is the nation's most aggrieved victim of the First Amendment. He sits large in his overcoat at his desk (it is a rare cold day in his unheated Berkeley, Calif., house), talking heatedly about Janet Malcolm's seven-year-old book about his spectacular rise and fall in the psychoanalytic community, "In the Freud Archives." He says "everything is false" in the book. Everything.

The book, in the main, is not a pretty picture of Masson. A gargantuan ego emerges in "In the Freud Archives," a man of unusual appeal, but one whose ambition is somehow not in control.

"The whole book is a total lie," the 49-year-old Masson exclaims, in one of many small explosions. "But you can't sue for that." He looks momentarily derisive at the very idea that he might not be able to sue for that. "You have to have specifics. They said, 'You have to give us specific passages that are libelous.' "

He found some passages that he believes pass muster. Ostensibly they're his own words, but he claims Malcolm made them up -- invented the quotations to suit her purposes, which was to make him seem vain, dishonorable and intellectually promiscuous. The question of whether those words alone are defamatory and malicious enough to warrant a trial is today being argued before the Supreme Court.

This contentious thicket in the law conceivably will have a different shape when this case is done. But Masson -- himself a writer of books and thus an enjoyer of the liberties his own suit putatively threatens -- makes an interesting point, perhaps inadvertently, when he contrasts the "total lie" with the little ones he's forced to litigate about:

The law doesn't and can't touch the totality of the portrait because it cannot parse the inchoate welter of facts and impressions that constitute such a lengthy exercise in narrative. It is difficult, to say only one thing about it, to codify the veil of human mysteries that surrounds this private and artificial transaction. And journalism is a much more complicated business now that the years of who, what, when, where, why and just-the-facts have given way to something far grander: more analytical, more freewheeling, more audacious, often more presumptuous.

On this legal-journalistic disconnect the antagonists seem to agree. "The fatal attraction of a lawsuit," Malcolm, 56, wrote last year, "is the infinite scope it offers for escape from the real world of ambiguity, obscurity, doubt, disappointment, compromise, and accommodation. The world of the lawsuit is the world of the Platonic ideal, where all is clear, etched, one thing or the other. It is a world ... that we enter at our peril, since it is also the world of madness."

She wrote these words even as Masson's suit against her was moving through the appellate process. They appear in an afterword to "The Journalist and the Murderer," Malcolm's 1990 book about author Joe McGinniss's seduction and betrayal (as she saw it) of his subject Jeffrey MacDonald, the Green Beret convicted of the 1970 murder of his pregnant wife and two daughters. Malcolm's brief is that McGinniss, by assuring his subject, falsely, that he believed in his innocence, persisted in deceiving MacDonald so as not to prematurely end his access to his subject, who was also his financial collaborator.

This narrative, which like "In the Freud Archives" was published first -- and to great hubbub -- in the New Yorker, is used to gird and fire her withering analysis of "the canker at the heart of the rose of journalism" -- and, by the by, has shed much speculative light on her own journalistic behavior toward Masson.

Whatever the effect of the Masson case on journalistic practice, its place at center stage today reminds everyone in the biz of that other Malcolm book, with its cutting denunciations of McGinniss and all his tribe, and of those confounded and now deathless words that opened "The Journalist and the Murderer":

"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. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." And so on.

Malcolm has a fatal attraction for overstatement, a failing that tends to give those made uncomfortable by her provocations an easy exit to ridicule. But for all of that, her description has needled a defensive and protective profession, nudged it into argument and self-scrutiny.

Court and Spark

When Malcolm's articles on McGinniss and MacDonald appeared in the New Yorker two years ago, many -- most damningly, John Taylor in New York magazine -- soon inferred that Malcolm was speaking not just about McGinniss and MacDonald but obliquely to her own act of seduction and betrayal (as her subject sees it) of Jeffrey Masson in the course of interviewing him for "In the Freud Archives." Oddly, in a book studded with the first person, Malcolm, who was in the middle of Masson's suit against her when she wrote about the journalist and the murderer, didn't mention Masson or the lawsuit.

If the afterword to "The Journalist and the Murderer" contains an amplification and defense of her thoughts on journalistic seduction and betrayal, the legal proceedings devolving from Masson's suit against her for the earlier book offer a vivid description of Malcolm's own style of courtship. It describes a waltz between reporter and subject that is likely, in its general outline, to be more familiar to book, magazine and feature section writers than to hard-news reporters, though of course they have their little fox trots too: A professional relationship of any duration and intensity becomes a personal acquaintance. In an atmosphere of friendship, the subject's wariness gives way to trust (and so too the journalist's skepticism). The adversarial becomes, at least to the naked eye, the consensual. It's not only a difficult predicament to avoid, it may actually help the story, help the reporter find the truth.

In the case at hand, Masson and his then-girlfriend stayed as Malcolm's guests in her New York apartment. She threw a dinner party for him before the book came out, introducing the phenom of the profession (her phenom) to her psychoanalyst friends. They were so close she used to call him all the time to gossip, he asserts -- she called him once at 2 in the morning, he says, to tell him who she'd learned was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's shrink.

In 1982, just before the magazine articles about Masson and the Freud Archives were to appear in the New Yorker, Masson says, Malcolm called him in Berkeley and said, " 'You're going to love it.' " Masson recalls her saying she was coming to California and asking, "Can I stay with you?"

Though refusing to be quoted in this article, Malcolm heatedly denies each of Masson's recollections -- about gossiping, and about what she said in her last phone conversation with him.

Whatever may have been said, Masson describes himself as shocked, not long afterward, when he read her deeply unflattering portrayal of him in the New Yorker. "It seemed a betrayal, not of friendship but of civilized discourse. It went against all the rules of the way people interact together," he says.

Looking back on their relationship, Masson recalls that whenever he wondered aloud to her about how she would treat him, she would say, "Have a little faith" -- which is precisely what is asked of every source every day, usually with no subsequent ill feelings whatever.

Malcolm paired faith with the more comforting reassurance that his words were all on tape, Masson says. As it happens, not all of those she quoted were. And as it happens also, some of the quotes that weren't on tape Masson says Malcolm invented and put into his mouth "to make her story more entertaining," but that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has said are not sufficiently defamatory in and of themselves to give Masson a jury trial.

How could Malcolm really have masked her feelings toward him so thoroughly? She was, after all, dealing with a trained psychoanalyst.

"It never occurred to me that she was on my side intellectually," Masson says. "I knew we stood at opposite ends of psychoanalytic theory." But, he adds later, "as a person, she seemed totally warm and friendly and pleasant. I think that was true to a certain extent. She seemed to like me and I liked her. There was no sense that she would do anything to hurt me. We would argue the way friends would argue. That was the way it seemed."

What if it didn't just seem that way? What if it were a perfectly normal dissonance in the mind of a reporter between the process of reporting (which involves getting close to the subject) and the process of writing (which involves getting distance from the subject). "When you're going into an interview, you fall in love," one veteran reporter once reminded a newcomer to the trade. "And when you sit down at the typewriter, you fall out of love."

Masson is willing to buy this.

"I don't pretend, like an analyst, to understand another person's mind. But I get the feeling that ... she liked me, and that she believed this was a positive portrait." But Malcolm, Masson says, consistently misunderstood the kind of person he was. "She had a view of my character which was wrong, that led her to believe I wouldn't mind this hanky-panky."

How did it happen? "I think she just fell in love with her own talent. She thought, 'How fascinating.' She had created a fictional character and didn't want to give it up."

Had Malcolm not, as he claims, invented the quotations in dispute -- Masson allegedly calling himself "an intellectual gigolo," describing the Freud Archives, once he took them over, as a place of "sex, women, fun" -- and edited another to make him sound as if he were confessing blithely to being dishonorable, Masson says, the rest of the portrait (which he has earlier described as a "total lie") would not have troubled him unduly.

"I would have said, that's the nature of the game," Masson says. "And by the way, I would have probably remained friends with her. I would have wagged my finger at her and said, 'That's not nice,' and she would have said, 'That's being a journalist. We're not nice.' "

No Comment

After Malcolm, 56, declined to be interviewed, she sent along some of the latest in her correspondence with publications that have asserted mistakenly that she has "conceded" inventing quotations for "In the Freud Archives."

It is, in fact, a common misconception among those who have read accounts of the case. Her case has been burdened with the lower courts' assumption, for purposes of summary judgment, that Masson's allegations are true -- in other words, that she did invent the quotations at issue. In letter after letter to publications that repeat this hypothetical as if it were fact, Malcolm wearily sets the record straight.

Later still Malcolm sent along a friendly note enclosing a previously published explanation "(I'm sure unnecessary)" for her reluctance to be interviewed. Malcolm's reply to a scathing letter from Brenda Maddox printed in the New York Review of Books is marked at these sentences: "People who are quoted in print are rarely, if ever, pleased with the result, even when they have given their prior approval."

Could be. It's a free country, and the freedom extends not just to speech but to silence. Defensive as her refusal may seem, she's only heeding her own warning. In any case, she has been anything but silent on the subject at hand.

Stranger to Stranger

The general critique of Malcolm's argument in "The Journalist and the Murderer," especially from the hard-news end of journalism, is that she has reduced the relationship of reporter and subject to only one of its components -- duplicity -- and then applied it sweepingly to the whole enchilada, obscuring all else about the relationship.

"I don't think there's any question that some of the things she said are perfectly true, in the sense that not all journalists all the time let the subject know what the journalist's agenda is in every detail," says Ben Bagdikian, the media critic and former Washington Post managing editor, who vigorously takes Masson's side in this case. "We all warm up to our sources. We want to encourage them to speak, and sometimes that does take a con man's approach. ... There is a certain amount of deception, in the same way that doctors and social workers are in being sympathetic, and not closing off that source by apparent hostility."

"When subjects are talking about matters close to themselves, they're making themselves vulnerable," says Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan biographer Edmund Morris. "They definitely want some feeling of human warmth across the table. If the interviewer sits there with a frozen face making no response, I think a creeping inhibition comes over the subject, the freedom with which they are speaking ends up being cramped, and what you get is something less than the truth."

But Bagdikian calls Malcolm "naive" to believe that news sources "have not learned very elaborate ways of deceiving journalists." In Washington in particular, it is the subject who is most often attempting to convert the reporter to his or her way of thinking, and the line between seduction and deception is even blurrier. Armies of people, after all, are paid to put out an institutional message or a personal image that reporters just as doggedly try to verify, tease apart and hold up to the light.

Indeed, as author J. Anthony Lukas put it in his book review of "The Journalist and the Murderer" last spring in the Washington Monthly, "The principal failings of the craft are not seduction and betrayal, but laziness and coziness."

Malcolm acknowledges at the outset of "The Journalist and the Murderer" that "every hoodwinked widow, every deceived lover, every betrayed friend, every subject of writing knows on some level what's in store for him, and remains in the relationship anyway, impelled by something stronger than reason." And, she might have added, "acts" accordingly. So it's not a one-sided con. Yet many readers of her book are struck by Malcolm's failure, as a student of human psychology especially, to appreciate the complexity of the relationship, or to allow for the imperfect but benign arrangements that prevail in 99 journalistic cases out of 100.

Timothy White, the former Rolling Stone reporter, declares: "The process of reporting is very, very painful. You want to find the truth, and yet you want to hold on to a kind of innocence all the time, because you want to keep yourself open to the possibility of having your mind changed."

An interview, White says, "is a stranger trusting a stranger. When they do, it's a metaphor for everybody's onlyness. That's very moving. It's like driving along the highway and your car breaks down and somebody stops to help you, and then you go back to his house for a piece of pie and you never see him again. There's a sweetness to that."

He seems impatient with all the baggage and filigree implied by Malcolm's analysis. "We don't have to be auteurs about this," White says. "We're not directing a scene."

JM vs. JM by JM

Joe McGinniss is in town today, and you'll never guess the reason: He's on assignment for Vanity Fair to cover the beginning of what, if the court rules in Masson's favor, could be a long trial involving his old nemesis, Malcolm. "It's obviously an interesting idea for me to do a piece about this," he says unflinchingly in a telephone interview. "I would be coming into it with a ..." He thinks about it. "I suppose a healthy interest in it, anyway."

McGinniss and Masson have never met, but they've spoken on the telephone, McGinniss says, "expressing some sort of ... solidarity as fellow victims."

As for the lawsuit, McGinniss allows that "it would be disingenuous to say that I wasn't pleased to see the possibility arise that Malcolm might undergo as a participant some of that which she used in her piece about me." But "I'm not offering any support {for Masson}. I'm writing a piece which I hope will be informed and accurate. ... I still don't know in this case what the facts are because the facts haven't been argued."

If there's no trial -- if the court decides in favor of Malcolm -- then all bets are off. There even may be no Vanity Fair piece. "I really don't have a major emotional investment in the outcome of this," he says.

If so, then the man who was held up, at prominent and humiliating length, as an exemplar of the deceitful journalist must have extraordinarily thick skin. But he has protested all along that Malcolm simply had many of her facts wrong about the MacDonald-McGinniss case, and that those who have applauded her caustic diagnosis forget that it was his homicidal subject, MacDonald, who tried to seduce McGinniss with his claim of innocence.

"MacDonald lied systematically to McGinniss, and McGinniss took a lot more grief than he deserved," says Lukas. In his review of "The Journalist and The Murderer" last spring, the author of "Common Ground" (and a self-described friend of both McGinniss and Malcolm's editor, Robert Gottlieb) said he doesn't believe McGinniss "had an obligation to inform MacDonald that he believed him guilty, but he might have been less ebullient in his letters of reassurance. McGinniss's mistake, I think, was in ever allowing himself to be drawn into a 'friendship' with his subject, even when he still believed MacDonald to be an innocent and saw him under siege."

Today Lukas emphasizes that "I don't think what Joe did was betrayal. ... It's not, by and large for me, an ethical problem at all, but a professional question that a lot of good journalists would treat differently."

Lukas, whose acclaimed book followed the paths of several families through the Boston school desegregation crisis, says: "There were many occasions where I spent years with people and I felt the tug of close association bordering on affection with these people. Reporters after all are subject to these tugs of liking and enjoying people. But I do think one has to battle against it."

McGinniss says he mistrusts the one-on-one interview itself. "As a general proposition, the less obtrusive the reporter is when witnessing a scene, the more likely he is to render it accurately," he says. And to achieve that, being the proverbial fly on the wall may not be enough.

"Let's say Tom Wolfe is riding a bus with Ken Kesey and people are taking drugs," McGinniss says. "He wants them to behave as closely as possible to the way they would behave if he weren't there. ... Is it wrong for Tom Wolfe to smoke pot so as not to stand out from the crowd? ... It's the old physics thing, of the experiment itself influencing that which is being tested by the experiment."

Clark Kent and Superman

In its loosest sense, and not its legal one, the dispute between Malcolm and Masson is about the journalist's prerogatives in telling the truth -- whether it's editing or "cleaning up" quotations or conveying the mood of an encounter or assembling some pointillist portrait from artfully arranged facts, all of which put the subject at risk.

Publication of "The Journalist and the Murderer," Lukas wrote last spring, coincides "with some self-criticism from within the craft about the reigning orthodoxy of non-fiction, the third-person narrative in vogue ever since John Hersey's 'Hiroshima' and Capote's 'In Cold Blood.' "

Malcolm, among others, writes in the first person, not the third, but this is only a difference of affects, of poses, at least to her. "The 'I' of journalism is connected to the writer only in a tenuous way," she writes with customary asperity, " -- the way, say, that Superman is connected to Clark Kent."

It is this troubled prerogative to be Superman -- for the journalist, whatever his narrative voice, to be omniscient -- that the professional wagons are circling.

Morris, who has joined in a friend-of-the-court brief on Malcolm's side, offers a distant warning: the case of Alaric Jacob, a British writer who wrote a memoir of his friendship with George Orwell that, because of stricter libel laws in Great Britain, he has had to recast as a novel, "Lovers of the Lost." Morris declares, "Here's a piece of history that's being given this false face of a novel simply because of inhibiting libel laws."

Morris also cites Michael Teague's 1981 book, "Mrs. L: Conversations With Alice Roosevelt Longworth," a distillation and rearrangement of hundreds of hours of conversation with the great Washington character, yielding a single monologue in her own voice. "Most serious historians would feel uncomfortable about doing that, but with this precise person and this writer who understood her better than anybody, I think it was legitimate," Morris says. Teague reports that Mrs. L was pleased with his technique. "He makes me sound like I think I sound," she told a friend after seeing samples of his handiwork -- an analogue, with a happy ending, to the very thing Masson and Malcolm are arguing about in court.

Masson thinks this is presumptuous on the part of the writer, and he attributes it all to the lingering effects of the New Journalism, whose practitioners, Masson says mockingly, arrogantly proclaim, "We're searching for a deeper truth."

Just as psychoanalysts do?

Masson, the lapsed psychoanalyst, agrees. "A person's interpretations should not substitute for reality."