Literary Journalism on Trial

Literary Journalism on Trial: Masson v. New Yorker and the First Amendment

Kathy Roberts Forde
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 304
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vk6jk
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  • Book Info
    Literary Journalism on Trial
    Book Description:

    In November 1984, Jeffrey Masson filed a libel suit against writer Janet Malcolm and the New Yorker, claiming that Malcolm had intentionally misquoted him in a profile she wrote for the magazine about his former career as a Freud scholar and administrator of the Freud archives. Over the next twelve years the case moved up and down the federal judicial ladder, at one point reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, as lawyers and judges wrestled with questions about the representation of “truth” in journalism and, by extension, the limits of First Amendment protections of free speech. Had a successful Freudian scholar actually called himself an “intellectual gigolo” and “the greatest analyst who ever lived”? Or had a respected writer for the New Yorker knowingly placed false, selfdamning words in her subject's mouth? In Literary Journalism on Trial, Kathy Roberts Forde explores the implications of Masson v. New Yorker in the context of the history of American journalism. She shows how the case represents a watershed moment in a long debate between the advocates of traditional and literary journalism and explains how it reflects a significant intellectual project of the period: the postmodern critique of objectivity, with its insistence on the instability of language and rejection of unitary truth in human affairs. The case, Forde argues, helped widen the perceived divide between ideas of literary and traditional journalism and forced the resolution of these conflicting conceptions of truth in the constitutional arena of libel law. By embracing traditional journalism's emphasis on fact and objectivity and rejecting a broader understanding of truth, the Supreme Court turned away from the First Amendment theory articulated in previous rulings, opting to value less the free, uninhibited interchange of ideas necessary to democracy and more the “trustworthiness” of public expression. The Court's decision in this case thus had implications that reached beyond the legal realm to the values and norms expressed in the triangular relationship between American democracy, First Amendment principles, and the press.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-091-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Law, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Introduction: Journalism, Libel Law, and the Problem of Facts
    (pp. 1-22)

    In late November 1984, Jeffrey Masson filed a libel suit against Janet Malcolm, theNew Yorkermagazine, and the publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.,¹ initiating a dispute that would make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and occupy the federal court system for almost twelve years. Masson accused Malcolm of libeling him by fabricating quotations attributed to him in a profile she wrote for theNew Yorkerabout his career as a Freudian scholar and administrator of the Freud Archives.² Malcolm denied fabricating any quotations. Both maintained their positions throughout the long, tumultuous life ofMasson v. New Yorker...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Masson v. New Yorker Goes to Trial
    (pp. 23-39)

    In a federal district courthouse in San Francisco, participants in the libel trial ofMasson v. New Yorkerwaited for the jury’s verdict.¹ Journalists and spectators crowded U.S. District Judge Eugene Lynch’s seventeenth-floor courtroom, some standing in the back, others sitting in the aisles.² It was Thursday, June 3, 1993—the third day of jury deliberations. The high-profile trial, held more than nine years after the first complaint in the case was filed, had lasted almost a month. It was contentious from the beginning, as a prominent New York City libel attorney had predicted. “The charges are so stark and...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Literary Journalism and the New Yorker
    (pp. 40-60)

    TheNew Yorkermagazine has long had a reputation as a strong-hold of literary journalism in American culture. Established in 1925 under the editorial leadership of Harold Ross, theNew Yorkerwas, in the beginning, a humor magazine written primarily for a New York City audience. The magazine aimed at sophistication, interpretation, and wit in its coverage of contemporary events, people, and the arts. It also published fiction, verse, and cartoons, intending from the very beginning, before the first issue was even published, to distinguish itself with its humorous illustrations.¹ It still distinguishes itself in this area, as anyone with...

  7. CHAPTER THREE The Historical Origins of the Masson-Malcolm Dispute
    (pp. 61-86)

    To a historian looking for meaning in the interaction between events and texts and their cultural and social contexts,Masson v. New Yorker¹ began long before Masson and Malcolm even met. As we have seen, its roots can be found in the early twentieth century, when contemporary structures and ideologies of the American press, democracy, and First Amendment law were initially cast in their modern forms. Like many significant public controversies, the Masson-Malcolm dispute was less a matter of historical accident and more the product of a reactive compound produced by historical action. Of the many elements in this compound,...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Libel at the New Yorker
    (pp. 87-121)

    In the history of American journalism, the power of libel law to chill press expression has been a notable constant in a sea of change. In the late nineteenth century, at the very moment the press began to professionalize, libel suits against the press began to proliferate. Appellate courts, in turn, increasingly supported plaintiffs. As a result, newspapers came to see libel law as a substantive threat to their freedom and financial stability.¹ As early as the 1890s, large newspapers in the United States began hiring their own lawyers to review copy for possible defamation and to consult on various...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Masson v. New Yorker in the Early Years
    (pp. 122-151)

    When Jeffrey Masson filed his first complaint against Janet Malcolm in 1984, it was simply one in what many scholars have characterized as an unusual explosion of libel cases in the 1970s and 1980s.¹ A number of social and cultural forces produced this marked shift in the arena of libel law.

    According to defamation scholar Rodney Smolla, the proliferation of libel suits was in part a reaction to “a new legal and cultural seriousness about the inner self.” Historically, libel law was meant to redress wrongful damage to what Smolla terms a plaintiff’s “relational interest” in maintaining a good reputation...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Libel Law and the Postmodern Dilemma: The Search for Truth
    (pp. 152-181)

    In 1964 the United States Supreme Court articulated a First Amendment theory famously protective of free expression: “We consider this case,” Justice William Brennan wrote in the landmark libel caseNew York Times v. Sullivan, “against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”¹ This theory guided both constitutional jurisprudence and the operation of the press in the American public sphere for decades. But the Court eventually lost some of its passion forSullivan’s protective spirit, first with its decision inMilkovich v. Lorain Journalin 1990,²...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN The End of the Line for Masson
    (pp. 182-202)

    Masson v. Malcolmis, in the end, a story about truth. Who was telling the truth about whether Masson uttered the self-incriminating remarks that were the subject of the case—Masson or Malcolm? How can we determine whether a speaker’s words are truthfully represented in press expression? At what point does the alteration of a quotation materially change the speaker’s meaning and thus become something other than the truth? What constitutes truth in First Amendment libel jurisprudence, and whatshouldconstitute such truth? Is it possible, given the vicissitudes of memory and utterance, that sometimes the truth is simply not...

  12. Conclusion: The Meanings of the Masson-Malcolm Dispute
    (pp. 203-224)

    In its simplest terms,Masson v. New Yorkeris a story about two competing conceptions of what makes a truthful report of the world. It is the story of two forms of reporting in American journalism—the traditional and the literary—and the continuities and ruptures in their respective development across the twentieth century. At its most complex, it is the story of the continued decline ofNew York Times v. Sullivan’s First Amendment promise of robust protection for public discourse, a diminishing judicial vision of the role the press should play in sustaining democracy and a vibrant public sphere....

  13. Appendix: The Disputed Quotations
    (pp. 225-226)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 227-270)
  15. SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 271-282)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 283-288)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 289-290)