- In search of a scoop in crime stories, journalists seek an angle.
- Some probe the criminal mind for an imposing motive or level of depravity.
- The need for a memorable story can exaggerate a killer’s persona, feeding myths and escalating fascination.
- However, the audience distrusts reporters who pack fiction into fact.
Recently, two true crime books featured journalists who explored the mindsets involved in sensational murder cases. Although it’s common for journalists to do this today, and much has been published about the criminal mind, journalists from the past were breaking new ground. They had no psychological training, just an instinct for story. Yet some embellished the tales, leading the way for crime reporting to become more like storytelling. When a criminal mind (or their ability to probe) fell short, they added "facts."
In Casey Sherman’s Helltown, Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut competed over the developing Cape Cod, Massachusetts case of Tony Costa, who’d murdered at least four young women. Vonnegut interviewed Costa. Not yet a successful writer, he had a particular agenda to enhance his career. Mailer already had a reputation, according to Sherman’s book, so Vonnegut sought to outshine him.
In 1969, Costa had met Patricia Walsh and Mary Anne Wysocki at the rooming house where he lived. He charmed them into a ride, took them to the woods, killed them, and dismembered their bodies. He left their remains in shallow graves. Upon his arrest, he said he was innocent. To get a gig with Life magazine, Vonnegut claimed (or fabricated) a connection with Costa via his daughter. He viewed the killer as a new Jack the Ripper, setting an ominous tone, but he wrote more about the local community than about Costa. He tried again in another form but couldn't quite create the great American monster. He treated Costa as a vehicle, not as a subject worth exploring.
In The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), Janet Malcolm discussed the oddly unethical relationship that journalists have with criminal defendants. Controversially, she made journalists sound like vampires. "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on,” Malcolm states, “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.”
Her subject was the blatant betrayal by author Joe McGinniss of former Army physician Jeffrey MacDonald, who had been convicted of the 1970 murders of his pregnant wife and two daughters. McGinniss had embedded with MacDonald’s defense team to write Fatal Vision, sharing part of his $300,000 advance and giving the impression he would offer a sympathetic portrait. Even after the conviction, he pretended to be MacDonald’s friend. Yet in his book, he characterized the physician as a narcissistic killer.
Malcolm states that McGinniss’ doubleness, being nice while knowing one’s end-product won’t be, accurately depicted journalism as a whole. “An abyss lies between the journalist’s experience of being out in the world talking to people and his experience of being alone in a room writing.” Journalists need a larger-than-life subject that will command reader attention, she says, but most people – even criminals – aren’t ready for prime time. Thus, journalists “enhance” the person or story. They add elements that will hook and persuade.
However, Calfano, Blevins, and Straka (2022) ran an experiment involving over 2,000 subjects to test the audience perception of journalists who call themselves storytellers. They found that people discounted their work as biased, fabricated, or fake. Thus, those who blur the lines between fact and embellishment for the sake of rendering a story lose credibility as journalists and risk diminishing the profession. That is, the element they believe they need for connecting with an audience is the element that might disconnect them.
In another new book about journalists and criminals, All That Is Wicked, Kate Winkler Dawson writes about several "early mind hunters" who took an interest in Edward Rulloff, a self-described genius suspected in the murders of his wife and daughter. He also instigated a failed robbery that caused three deaths. Rulloff bragged that he had written the “most important book” for humankind, Method in the Formation of Language. He told people he taught himself a number of different languages to arrive at the origin of all thinking. He was ready-made for the tabloids.
Edward “Ham” Hamilton Freeman, covering the story for The New York Times, fell for it. In effect, the journalist became what Malcolm calls “a publicist.” He thought he had found the larger-than-life subject every journalist craves, so he uncritically accepted whatever Rulloff dished out. Rulloff even kissed Freeman just before his execution. Freeman later published a book that promoted Rulloff’s genius. Other journalists who investigated the facts discovered little of substance. Rulloff had perpetrated a con. Ham had been had.
For In Cold Blood, Truman Capote similarly explored the psyche of a killer as he reported on the quadruple homicide of the Herb Clutter family in Holcombe, Kansas, in 1959. He wasn’t a journalist, but he adopted the role, hedging his work as “narrative nonfiction.” He extensively interviewed Perry Smith, focusing on his poetic soul. Oddly, Capote ignored the other killer, Dick Hickock, whose mind might have been just as intriguing. In pursuit of his own fame as a storyteller, Capote told only part of the story and did so with a significant level of bias and embroidery.
Yet some journalists resist the need for hype, even with subjects that promise to loom large. After proving Ted Bundy’s claim of innocence to be a lie in 1980, renowned reporter Hugh Aynesworth (with Jim Henderson), investigated Henry Lee Lucas' admissions in 1986 that he was responsible for 100-plus murders around the country. Dozens of detectives were “closing” open cases as Lucas reveled in the attention. But Aynesworth documented Lucas’ movements and proved that the calculations didn’t add up. The Lucas Task Force had neglected to corroborate his claims, preferring instead to showcase their “monster.” Lucas just laughed and recanted, admitting, "I set out to break and corrupt any law enforcement officer I could get. I think I did a pretty good job." He was certainly a serial killer, but not the super-predator manufactured in many headlines. Aynesworth’s careful work considerably revised and reduced the story.
Malcolm says that the fiction writer is entitled to the privilege of making things up; the journalist should stick to the facts. The experiment in perception suggests that the public, the audience, agrees. We don't need exaggerated tales about monsters to find worth in factually exploring the criminal mind.
Calfano, B., Layne Blevins, J. & Straka, A. (2022) Bad impressions: How journalists as “storytellers” diminish public confidence in media. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 66:1, 176-199.
Malcolm, J. (1990. The journalist and the murderer. New York: Vintage.