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Literary Journalism on Trial

Masson v. New Yorker and the First Amendment

Kathy Roberts Forde

Publication Year: 2008

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, self-damning 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.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xii

This book is no exception. I wish to thank a number of people for helping me think through complex legal and historical issues raised in this book. The first among these is Ruth Walden, James Howard and Hallie McLean Parker Distinguished Professor and former Associate Dean for Graduate Studies at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of...

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Introduction. Journalism, Libel Law, and the Problem of Facts

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pp. 1-21

In late November 1984, Jeffrey Masson filed a libel suit against Janet Malcolm, the New Yorker magazine, 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...

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Chapter 1. Masson v. New Yorker Goes to Trial

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pp. 23-39

In a federal district courthouse in San Francisco, participants in the libel trial of Masson v. New Yorker waited 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...

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Chapter 2. Literary Journalism and the New Yorker

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pp. 40-60

The New Yorker magazine has long had a reputation as a stronghold of literary journalism in American culture. Established in 1925 under the editorial leadership of Harold Ross, the New Yorker was, in the beginning, a humor magazine written primarily for a New York...

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Chapter 3. The Historical Origins of the Masson - Malcolm Dispute

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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 Yorker 1 began long before Masson and Malcolm even met. As we have seen, its roots can be found in the early twentieth century, when contemporary...

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Chapter 4. Libel at the New Yorker

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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...

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Chapter 5. Masson v. New Yorker in the Early Years

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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...

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Chapter 6. Libel Law and the Post modern Dilemma: The Search for Truth

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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 case New York Times v. Sullivan,“against the background of a profound national commitment...

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Chapter 7. The End of the Line for Masson

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pp. 182-202

Masson v. Malcolm is, 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...

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Conclusion: The Meanings of the Masson - Malcolm Dispute

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pp. 203-223

In its simplest terms, Masson v. New Yorker is 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...

Appendix: The Disputed Quotations

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pp. 225-226


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pp. 227-269

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 271-281


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pp. 283-288

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760918
E-ISBN-10: 1613760914
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558496521
Print-ISBN-10: 1558496521

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2008

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Malcolm, Janet -- Trials, litigation, etc.
  • Journalism -- Objectivity -- United States.
  • Literary journalism.
  • Masson, J. Moussaieff (Jeffrey Moussaieff), 1941- -- Trials, litigation, etc.
  • Interviewing in journalism -- United States.
  • Trials (Libel) -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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