When J.M. Means Journalism Muddle. MEDIA COMMENTARY

THE New Yorker magazine is a symbol for urbane sophistication. Yet the magazine has often viewed sophisticates with a bemused outlander's eye. James Thurber, the early New Yorker humorist, was from Columbus, Ohio, and made no bones about it. Among his favorite targets were psychiatry and kindred therapies. More recently Calvin Trillin has upheld this provincial tradition. Trillin has attributed the sanity of his hometown of Kansas City, Mo., to a sign on the highway that - he claims - warns psychiatrists to get their backsides out of town by sundown.

Being both high-toned and in New York, The New Yorker is not immune to the kind of psychological pedantry Thurber used to parody. A recent example is the series by Janet Malcolm, a staff writer, on how journalists betray the people they write about.

The series set off a minor fracas in Eastern journalistic circles. The New York Times was running Op-Ed pieces weeks after the articles appeared. Malcolm recounted how another writer, Joe McGinniss, conned the subject of a book he was writing into cooperating with him.

The subject, a former Army doctor named Jeffrey McDonald, had been convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two children. McGinniss professed belief in McDonald's innocence while pumping him for information about the case. Then he portrayed him as a mentally deranged killer in a best seller called ``Fatal Vision.''

It's hard not to agree with Malcolm that McGinniss did something pretty bad. But she goes further, and calls the case typical of all journalism. ``Every journalist,'' Malcolm begins, ``who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on, knows that what he does is morally indefensible.''

That raised the hackles of a lot of journalists, as Malcolm probably hoped it would. (Every journalist, as she might put it, succumbs to the temptation to hype a lead now and then.) There was just enough truth to touch a nerve. People who deal often with journalists tend to watch their words, with good reason.

Yet there was not enough truth to justify Malcolm's accusatory high horse. In the workaday world of journalism, for example, readers get betrayed as often as subjects do. Beat writers tend to go easy on the people they cover so they can return tomorrow for another quote.

Most people don't worry about such things nearly as much as journalists do. What got lost in the shuffle was the way Malcolm used psychiatry to skewer her foe. This is a pervasive and unfortunate literary trend. It gave her article the kind of jaundiced and pontifical certitude that a Thurber would have had fun with.

According to New York Magazine (no relation to The New Yorker), Malcolm is ``steeped in the mysteries of psychoanalysis.'' Her father was a psychiatrist, and she has written two books about psychiatrists. Sometimes she seems to know just about everything about everybody.

She knows, for example, exactly why people write letters. (``It is with our own epistolary persona that we fall in love, rather than with that of our pen pal.'') She reads the hearts of the lovelorn and rejected. ``Every hoodwinked widow, every deceived lover, every betrayed friend, every object of writing knows on some level what is in store for him, and remains in the relationship anyway.'' Hmmm.

ONE can understand why The New Yorker's legendary fact-checkers might have thrown up their hands. But what about this one. ``No one flaunts bad behavior. Everyone tries to hide it.'' They could have rejected it simply on the basis of recent gubernatorial campaigns in Louisiana.

After one five-hour session, McGinniss declined to talk further with Malcolm. Undeterred, she psychologizes him as well. The reason he likes to tell inside stories (his previous best seller, ``The Selling of the President,'' was an inside account of Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign) is that he never outgrew the ``voyeurism of childhood.'' A well-adjusted adult presumably would have taken the Nixon campaign at face value. Malcolm does offer some valid and even penetrating insights, as when she observes that psychoanalysts seek to restore ``the freedom to be uninteresting.'' Then, too, one hopes that not too many interesting and funny people get on that particular bandwagon.

Several years ago, it seems, Malcolm was sued for betraying a subject in much the way she accuses McGinniss of betraying McDonald. Giving Malcolm a taste of her own medicine, New York Magazine concludes that in chastising McGinniss, Malcolm was really chastising herself. You make your couch, you better be ready to lie on it.

That goes for just about everybody involved in this tedious affair. McGinniss psychologizing McDonald. Malcolm psychologizing McGinniss. New York Magazine doing the same to Malcolm. Psychology as a tool of literary one-upmanship, illustrated on a mass scale.

The Nation magazine noted that all the principals have the same initials - J.M. Even the psychiatrist who sued Malcolm is named Jeffrey Masson. That's probably the most useful comment to date. These people take themselves and their psychiatry too seriously. Where's Thurber when we need him?

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