Joe McGinniss, a master of reportage, whatever the cost

For the American journalist and author, writing a book required total immersion in the subject – even if that meant becoming part of the story himself

Share

Americans are supposed not to "get" soccer, the game the rest of the world calls football. That is one reason why the passing of the American journalist and author Joe McGinniss demands notice. For, amazingly, he gave us one of the best books about football ever written. But it's not the only reason.

He also produced arguably the most prescient piece of reportage on American presidential politics in the past half-century, not to mention a true-crime classic that many would place in the company of In Cold Blood – and which proved a dozen times more controversial than Truman Capote's masterpiece.

Yes, the coda of McGinniss's career may have generated not glory but near ridicule, with The Rogue, a 2011 biography of Sarah Palin memorable less for the acuity of its observations about the former Republican vice-presidential candidate than for the fact that McGinniss ostentatiously moved next door to the Palins in Wasilla, Alaska, while he was gathering material for the book.

For Todd Palin, Sarah's husband, the whole thing was no more than stalking, an exercise "to satisfy his own creepy obsession with my wife". But that was the McGinniss way. Writing a book, he claimed, required total immersion, physical as well as intellectual, in the subject's world. And if that led to extra publicity, he wasn't going to object. More to the point, the formula worked.

McGinniss was a 26-year-old columnist on a Philadelphia newspaper when he wrote the book that made him a sensation: The Selling of the President 1968, on the great makeover of Richard Nixon from the charmless and rather sinister figure who had lost to JFK eight years earlier. Somehow he talked his way into the Nixon inner sanctum, to produce a first-hand account of how manipulators and spin doctors were taking over presidential campaigns.

It was an uncanny foretaste of the future, of today's vastly expensive exercises that turn candidates from normal humans into performers who never vary from a script, marketed like a cereal or detergent. The book was a smash; McGinniss became the youngest living author ever to top the US non-fiction bestseller list. Throughout he never hid his distaste for Nixon.

In his next blockbuster, McGinniss was truly part of the story. The Jeffrey MacDonald case remains one of America's most lurid 20th-century crime mysteries, revolving around a former US Army doctor whose wife and two young daughters were knifed and beaten to death in 1970, in the family home at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

MacDonald, who was injured in the episode, claimed the crimes were a Charles-Manson type rampage carried out by a group of drug-crazed hippies who had burst into the house. But first military, then civil, investigators came to suspect him, and in 1979 he finally went on trial for murder. By then he had become friends with McGinniss, whom he persuaded of his innocence.

The two struck a deal for McGinniss to write a book about the case, that would presumably exonerate him. But as the trial progressed, and the evidence piled up, McGinniss gradually changed his mind, concluding that the doctor was indeed guilty as charged. But he kept those doubts from MacDonald, maintaining their close relationship even after the latter's conviction. Then Fatal Vision appeared in 1983, in which the relationship between author and his subject was a central strand in a complex, riveting narrative that depicted MacDonald not as victim, but as a psychopath and multiple murderer.

MacDonald sued for breach of contract and eventually the two sides settled out of court. But McGinniss steadfastly defended his conduct, claiming that even if he had dissimulated, he was entitled to do so because the evidence showed – and the jury's verdict confirmed – that the doctor had lied to him throughout. But that was only the start of the controversy.

In 1989, the writer Janet Malcolm published a blistering piece in the The New Yorker, entitled The Journalist and the Murderer, claiming that reporters were no more than cynical manipulators who wormed their way into the trust of their victims, only to betray them. "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on, knows that what he does is morally indefensible," the essay began. Exhibit A for this thesis was Joe McGinniss.

The argument rages to this day. MacDonald, aged 70, is still in prison, still insisting on his innocence, as have two other subsequent books on the case. As late as 2012, DNA appeals were wending their way through the courts. And for some, McGinniss, wounded by the Malcolm piece and the firestorm that ensued, was afterwards never quite the same writer. If you believe that however, you cannot have read The Miracle of Castel di Sangro.

It's about a town of 5,000 people in the poor and mountainous Abruzzi region, and its makeshift football team that somehow wins promotion to Italy's second highest professional league, just one rung below such titans as Juventus and AC Milan. The book recounts Castel di Sangro's first season in Serie B and the moving, sometimes hilarious and always human struggle to stay there and avoid relegation. It is a tale peopled with rogues and innocents, lions and lambs. The ending is sweet, then suddenly and stunningly bitter.

McGinniss was apparently won over to football by the 1990 World Cup in Italy. In a distant past he apparently wanted to be a sports reporter. Quite how he came across the Castel di Sangro story, he never really makes clear. But the story is all the better for his being a central part of it: "l'Americano", the illustrious journalist who, to the delight of his newfound Italian friends, had intended to write a book about the world-famous trial of OJ Simpson, but instead crossed the ocean to chronicle the adventures of a football team no one had ever heard of. The result was a classic – and not the least reason Joe McGinniss will be missed.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'