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July 29, 2008
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v2.1 Reference

Literary Journalism on Trial

Masson v. New Yorker and the First Amendment

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.

About the Author

Kathy Roberts Forde is assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.


"Kathy Roberts Forde has chosen a fascinating case, Masson v. New Yorker, through which to analyze the history and theory of libel law in the United States, and she has identified and convincingly articulated the critical epistemological issues inhering in legal treatments of journalistic speech in that area. The writing is lively and engaging, and the legal analysis impressive in its mastery and logic."—Martha Merrill Umphrey, coeditor of The Place of Law

"Literary Journalism on Trial makes an important contribution to our understanding of First Amendment law, an understanding reflecting the historical tension between objective and literary journalism that plays out in the court room. . . . The chapter dealing with the history of libel claims and lawsuits against the New Yorker alone is an original contribution. But in addition, Kathy Roberts Forde delivers on her promise to provide the cultural history that laid the groundwork for the confrontation between Jeffrey Masson and Janet Malcolm."—John Hartsock, author of A History of American Literary Journalism

"Forde has written a deft "microhistory" of a landmark First Amendment case that occurred within the larger context of competing journalistic models. . . . Forde's book will appeal equally to scholars in law and communications. Highly recommended."—Choice

"Kathy Roberts Forde, a professor at the University of Minnesota, leads the way with surprising clarity through the tortuous proceedings. She also describes significant dramas playing out behind Masson. . . . Forde's discussion of these matters is consistently engaging."—Columbia Journalism Review

"The book provides a feast of behind-the scenes minutiae, meticulously tracking in particular the labyrinthe legal developments set in train when Masson filed his libel suit, triggering a dispute that would occupy the federal court system for 12 years. Forde argues persuasively that besides fueling the ethics debate, the case led to interpretations of libel law that would have significant implications for the defense of robust democratic debate."—Australian Journalism Review

"A clearly written but rigorously sophisticated elucidation . . . on truth, objectivity, First Amendment theory, and the history of narrative journalism and modern libel law, this book offers a stimulating account that will challenge scholars in the field to push beyond their conventional intellectual boundaries."—Communications Booknotes Quarterly
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9781558496538 : literary-journalism-on-trial-forde
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