Betrayal and Journalism
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
Janet Malcolm in a famous 1989 New Yorker essay (later
a book), ``The Journalist and the Murderer,'' which was about
the journalist Joe McGinniss and the murderer Jeffrey MacDonald.
McGinniss did a book on MacDonald, writing that he at first thought
that MacDonald was innocent, only to conclude that he was not.
Malcolm concluded only that McGinniss had betrayed his subject
without remorse. Could be.
pretty much what Truman Capote did to just about everyone, including
the killers Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, who in 1959 murdered
four members of a Kansas farm family. Capote noticed an account
of the crime in The New York Times and decided to do a
book about it. With his childhood friend in tow (Harper Lee, who
would write ``To Kill a Mockingbird''), he set out for Holcomb,
Kan. He was a fey, gay New Yorker by way of the South, only 35
and already famous (for ``Breakfast at Tiffany's,'' among other
things) and clearly the oddest thing ever to tumble into a Kansas
farm community so remote that, as he wrote, ``other Kansans call
(it) 'out there.''' ``In Cold Blood'' was not only the best thing
he ever did, it was virtually the last thing he ever did.
is now a movie -- and a splendid one it is. It stars Philip Seymour
Hoffman, who does not so much play Capote as subsume him. My knowledge
of Capote comes only from his late-night appearances on talk shows,
but to me Hoffman does Capote better than Capote did, especially
toward the end of Capote's life when he became all show and little
sense. It is an incredible performance and it must alarm Hoffman
that art in this case could imitate life. Capote never did better
than ``In Cold Blood." It's hard to see that Hoffman can, either.
In his final
days, Capote became pretty well known for betrayal. He published
a short story in Esquire called ``La Cote Basque 1965," in which
he tattled -- a word that suits him perfectly -- on some of the
New York ladies with whom he lunched. Of course, they were furious.
They cut Capote dead, but he was a dying man anyway, expiring
at the home of Joanne Carson, the ex-wife of Johnny, in the tony
Bel Air section of Los Angeles. By then (1984), he was a bloated
alcoholic -- pills, too. He was mean, occasionally incontinent,
frequently incoherent and a banal lesson, if you wanted one, in
the perils of early success. He was 59 and had not written anything
much of substance in about 20 years.
of betrayal stalks Capote's legacy. The shrink in me thinks he
turned on those he cared about before he feared they would turn
on him -- which does not excuse what he did, merely explains it.
It certainly does not excuse his many journalistic betrayals involved
in the writing and reporting of ``In Cold Blood." Among other
things, he led the killers -- particularly Smith -- to think he
cared about them and would assist in the defense and appeals.
All he ever really cared about, however, was transfusing their
lives onto the page -- writing and finishing his book.
of it was one thing. For that he had talent in abundance. The
finishing of it was another. He needed an ending. He needed his
killers dead, and every appeal delayed their execution. They had
to die for him to live. It was hardly Capote's fault if they did
not understand the bargain. It is one, as Malcolm noted, that
many a writer makes.
does not reflect well on journalism, not that Truman Capote was
a journalist anyway. Even so, betrayal is not limited to my craft.
It is inherent in the palaver of any salesman or womanizer or,
for that matter, military recruiter or minister. They all promise
what they know they can't deliver or, in the case of the minister,
no one can prove otherwise. Journalists just do their betraying
publicly, and often make victims of themselves as well. Capote
sure did, but he knew -- as a re-reading of ``In Cold Blood" makes
stunningly clear -- that after the stench of betrayal fades, the
work endures. In Capote's case, that is a promise kept.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group
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