Errol Morris is in familiar form with his darkly comic non-fiction movie “Tabloid,” which opens in limited release this week. The bizarre tale follows Joyce McKinney, the colorful Midwestern woman convicted of kidnapping her Mormon ex-lover in the U.K. in the late 1970s. McKinney became a tabloid fixture during the height of that scandal and Morris’ movie puts nearly as much focus on the media obsession with his subject as he does on McKinney herself. That gives Morris, a restless mind no less colorful than one of his subjects, unique insight into one prominent recent media story–namely, The News of the World.
In this initial entry of a two-part interview, the Oscar-winning documentarian talks to indieWIRE about his unique love for tabloid stories and why modern media would have prevented his groundbreaking 1988 exposé “The Thin Blue Line” from having the effect it did.
“Tabloid” isn’t just a story about a person; it’s also about the way the media works. What are your thoughts on the demise of The News of the World?
There are all kinds of tabloids: News of the World, National Inquirer, Weekly World News, New York Post, and on and on. There are all kinds of tabloid stories. You could argue that there’s a slippery slope from this particular tabloid story of the seventies and what’s going on in Britain today with News of the World.
There has been a tremendous amount of hostility toward The News of the World in the past few weeks, as if people suddenly felt freer to express their contempt for it. Do you think it signals the end of an era for this type of journalism?
Well, when you say “They hate it,” what’s “it”?
I think it’s contempt for a publication that uses the principles of a free press as a safety valve for reporting on stories that have little or no value for society.
I think that misses the point. This is not an issue of good taste versus bad taste. First of all, tabloid stories are some of the richest and most important stories that we have. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with tabloid stories.
If they’re well-done, maybe.
Forget the “well-done.” There’s nothing wrong with tabloid stories, period. If you’re a journalist–and I think, on some level, I’m a journalist, and proud to be a journalist, or a documentarian, however you want to describe it–part of what I do has to be the pursuit of the truth. I can’t guarantee that I’m going to come up with it, but certainly part of how I see myself is in pursuit of some underlying reality. When journalism becomes severed from that, and it doesn’t matter if it’s tabloid journalism or any other kind of journalism, for that matter–if it becomes severed from pursuit of the truth, it’s no longer about journalism. I think it’s a bad thing that people think this is an outcry against tabloid journalism per se. A lot of the themes of my movies, the actual stories, come from tabloid stories. What happened in Britain is that people no longer cared about the truth. They just didn’t care at all. It’s just a device for selling newspapers, a way of increasing circulation and attracting interest. Facts were irrelevant. It crossed yet another line where you start manufacturing things.
Do you see that as an act of desperation?
No, I see it as a felony. It’s a criminal act. I don’t know why it was done. Maybe it’s some other kind of motivation altogether. I won’t even say what I think the actual motivation is. Obviously, the goal is to increase circulation, get more readers, make more money. But when you start hacking into the phone of a girl who was murdered, while her parents are wondering if she’s alive or dead, that’s not about tabloid journalism. That’s about committing a crime in the interest of selling newspapers. Don’t blur it.
Do you think there’s even a dichotomy, then, between tabloid journalism and everything else?
A lot of stories that have fascinated me are tabloid stories that have come from other newspapers, like The New York Times. The story of Fred Leutcher, the electric chair repairman in “Mr. Death,” came from page one of the Times. Is there a tabloid element to it? Yes. The movie that I’m about to make is with Ira Glass; it’s a feature film, a narrative film based on Bob Nelson, the guy who froze the first man for resuscitation, the first cryonic freezing. He wrote a book called “We Froze the First Man.” Is that a tabloid story? Yes. It’s not necessarily appearing in the New York Post or the Inquirer, but it’s a tabloid story as I imagine tabloid stories to be.
So tabloids make your work possible.
With my first movie, “500 Dead Pets Go to Napa” was the headline for the article in the San Francisco Chronicle that led to “Gates of Heaven.” It’s not the tabloid story alone, but I find many of them interesting, and I’d like to think I’ve gone deeper into them, taking what might have been a surface story and found out new things, new levels of complexity in it. Did the tabloids destroy Joyce McKinney’s life? I think they did bad things to her. Don’t get me wrong. But I don’t look at her as a completely innocent party in all this. They did take a story they found irresistible and run with it in crazy ways.
Last month, it was announced that the subject of “The Thin Blue Line,” Randall Dale Adams, died in 2010. Your movie exonerated him from murder charges. Do you think it would have done the same thing if you made it today?
Well, explain that to me, because it’s an interesting question.
A big part of the movie is that, through certain interviews, you were able to do the legwork that no journalist had done. Right now, there’s such an abundance of media that virtually every story receives much more scrutiny than ever before.
Yes. I think that’s absolutely true. It’s different today than it was 20 years ago. Randall Adams’ death is so interesting to me. In fact, I tweeted that he was dead. I knew that he was dead last year and did not write about it or tweet about it. Why I did all of a sudden–somebody had asked me a question about him and I thought, maybe I should say something. So I tweeted it. Then, all of a sudden, the newspapers picked that up, and I started getting interview requests from people who thought they were telling me about it, but they had heard about it from me. I was the source. It took on a kind of surreal quality. Here’s one way I would describe it: When natural selection put our brains together, there were no pigeonholes for where we got information. Well, except maybe Caveman A versus Caveman B. But today, do you remember if you read something in The Weekly World News, the Inquirer, The New York Times, Fox News, Harpers, or indieWIRE? Now, there are so many sources of information that you lose track. You really do. I don’t know how else to describe it. Maybe other people can deal with this glut of information differently, but I forget now where I heard things. I know that I read this somewhere, but where? There’s a hall of mirrors where people are reporting on other people reporting on other people reporting. The connection of all this sea of information, this glut, to reality, is sometimes lost. Where did all this stuff originate?
In other words, the lack of media saturation made “The Thin Blue Line” possible.
I think you’re absolutely right. When I stumbled on the Adams case, that was a complete accident. No one was writing about it. No one cared about it. I did use movies in a different way, I think, than they had been used before. Someday I’ll write a book about “The Thin Blue Line,” because it’s really interesting and no one really knows about it. I investigated a murder with a camera–an oddity in and of itself, it was not telling a story about a murder investigation, it was the investigation–and evidence was accumulated with that camera. I had finished an editorial for the Times, but I didn’t send it in, because I had just been doing too many things. One of the lessons about the Adams case is that, if it had happened now instead of 1988, when the movie came out, Randall Adams would in all likelihood have been executed. Even if he hadn’t been executed, he wouldn’t have gotten out of prison. Supreme Court cases in the intervening years have made it much, much more difficult to appeal death penalty convictions and life imprisonment convictions. What “The Thin Blue Line” did was combine an investigation with a way to bring it to public attention at a much earlier time when we had fewer vehicles for creating that kind of media hoopla. It is still one of the defining accomplishments of my life. I’m very proud of it.
Stay tuned for the second installment of indieWIRE’s interview with Errol Morris, in which he discusses his new movie in detail.