Janet Malcolm Is Shaking

Janet Malcolm Is Shaking
Photo:Kevin Hagen (Getty Images)

Like everyone else who’s read the viral story, I’m still recovering from the extreme shock I’m in after swan-diving into Elle’s report on Christie Smythe, a former Bloomberg News journalist who fell in love with her subject, asshole Pharma bro Martin Shkreli.

In brief: Smythe was a reporter who started covering Shkreli in 2015, when he was a little-known pharmaceutical exec under federal investigation for securities law violations. Smythe broke her first story about Shkreli that year, and stayed on the beat as Shkreli created the cartoon villain version of himself we know now.

OK, so far, pretty normal—a journalist keeping in touch with a source who has become a national news story. But the typical reporter-source relationship begins to breach ethical boundaries fairly quickly. Early on in her reporter on Shrekli, Smythe said he asked her for advice about finding a new lawyer. Smythe remembered feeling “flattered.”

“It really felt like he didn’t have anybody to talk to that he could bounce ideas off of,” Smythe told Elle. “I was like, ‘All right. I guess I can do that.’ ”

Smythe was intent on profiling Shkreli, which meant she would need to spend more time with him. Shkreli dangled the promise of access in front of her like a carrot, never giving in. Later, when she showed Shkreli an essay she wrote about him for a class at Columbia—about how adept he was at manipulating reporters—he encouraged her to write a book about him. Despite being aware on some level of how fraught their relationship had become, Smythe, whose childhood dream it was to be a published author, decided it was a good idea.

Here’s where things really escalate. At one point, Smythe attends an event where Shkreli lavishes praise on her reporting. Smythe told Elle she recalled feeling like a “political wife” that evening. After that, she became even more invested in Shkreli, publicly defending him, criticizing other reporters’ coverage of his case, and corresponding with him in prison. She loses her job at Bloomberg News; her marriage crumbles. Soon she is visiting Shkreli in prison and telling him that she loves him. They share a kiss; they begin planning a future together; she freezes her eggs.

There are tons of quotable moments in the story, as one can imagine, but this is no. 1 for me: “These are incremental decisions, where you’re, like, slowly boiling yourself to death in the bathtub,” Smythe said.

At the end of the piece, Smythe told Elle that she hasn’t heard from Shkreli since he found out she was talking to the magazine about their relationship. She said she’ll continue to wait for him while he finishes serving his sentence.

The story seems to me to be a sort of Rorschach test for its readers, or, perhaps more aptly, a kind of optical illusion where one begins to see something completely different the longer one looks. The title of the piece is “The Journalist and the Pharma Bro,” a reference to Janet Malcolm’s long-form piece “The Journalist and the Murderer,” which first ran in The New Yorker in 1989. In it, Malcolm tells the true story of a journalist who is sued by his subject, the convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, for writing a book that portrayed him negatively after sustaining what MacDonald believed had been a genuine friendship with him.

Malcolm uses the unusual case to make a larger argument about the slipperiness of the journalist-subject relationship, and to examine the power dynamics endemic to it. In the opening paragraph to the book, she famously writes:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. … Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

When I first read the Elle piece it seemed obvious to me that Smythe was being “charmed by a master manipulator,” as she herself admits might have been the case, and as many others warn. Shkreli wants publicity, and he found someone willing to give it to him. But when I re-read it, the part that stuck out to me was Smythe’s determination to write about Shkreli, and her feeling that she could “maintain control” of the situation in order to achieve that end. And then it seems to me that Smythe may begin to fit the role of the journalist as Malcolm imagines it. But then the power valence shifts once more, because we realize Smythe has failed to control the situation, and she seems to be the victim again.

In some ways, this last interpretation might be the best possible one Smythe could hope for, but she vehemently contested it on Twitter Sunday night, shortly after the piece ran.

“I realize it’s hard for many people to accept that 1. Martin is not a psychopath, and 2. a woman can choose to do something with her life (which does not affect you) that you in no way approve of,” Smythe wrote. “But that’s OK.”

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