Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and other select nonfiction writers, while producing thoroughly readable and much-loved works, really made a mess of defining journalism. The ambiguous term frequently slapped on their work, "literary journalism," often provides authors just enough legal and professional cover if, say, it's discovered that they misquoted a source or blatantly advocated for people in their work. But defining how far journalists are allowed to go in their embellishment and liberal quoting was never decided professionally, which left the courts some jurisdiction when the much-exalted New Yorker was sued for $10 million in a 1984 libel case. At the heart of the issue was whether highly respected writer Janet Malcolm attributed quotes to psychoanalyst Jeffery Masson in a profile she wrote about him. In the piece, he is supposed to have bragged about how many women he's slept with, and compared himself to Freud. After years of fighting it out in the legal venues as high as the Supreme Court, a jury eventually decided that, even though she could not provide notes or tapes of everything she quoted Masson as saying, Malcolm didn't libel the doctor. In her first book, Literary Journalism on Trial: Masson v. New Yorker and the First Amendment (University of Massachusetts Press), U of M assistant journalism professor Kathy Roberts Forde uses the case to take a hard look at what journalists are allowed under the First Amendment to write, and what the wiggle room afforded by the literary journalism genre means for writers and subjects alike.
Thu., Feb. 5, 4 p.m., 2009