Errol Morris and the Power of the Narrative

One of the greatest documentary film-makers since the Maysles Brothers is Errol Morris. Famous for films about oddball characters such as people who run pet cemeteries in Gates of Heaven and small town eccentrics in Vernon, FL., he’s also done political films such as a study of Robert S. McNamara in Fog of War and perhaps his most famous work The Thin Blue Line which led to the release of an alleged cop killer.

Morris, like most in the entertainment industry, is a political liberal. He supports President Obama and has directed a series of political ads for MoveOn.org. However, Morris recently has developed a new passion for journalism, looking at what it is and what it isn’t. Unable to secure funding for a documentary film on his latest idea, he instead has written a book about the convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and the man he believes has denied MacDonald justice, journalist Joe McGinniss. Does that name ring a bell? Yes, he’s the guy that rented a house next door to Sarah Palin in Alaska while working on book about the conservative icon.

What’s interesting about Morris’s new project is the general theme as related in this review of the book by Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University:

Morris seeks to knock down McGinniss’s narrative by offering not a counternarrative but, rather, an antinarrative. A Wilderness of Error is not so much a book as a scrapbook—transcripts of interviews, newspaper and magazine clippings, charts, diagrams, and the like. The technique is reminiscent of The Thin Blue Line. It makes for tedious reading, but it gives Morris’s story much of its power. Through the careful and overwhelming accumulation of detail, Morris attempts to show that the narrative you think you know—that MacDonald was driven to unspeakable crimes by amphetamines and a long-suppressed hatred of women—is false: a figment of McGinniss’s imagination, concocted to explain the unexplainable.

And this is highly relevant to our modern times. Journalism is no longer about running through a brick wall to get at the truth, it’s about sculpting the facts to fit the narrative, i.e. the story line that fits the world-view of the journalist. Look at the top story of the past weeks: the fiscal cliff. How much attention is being paid to facts like raising taxes on top earners won’t lead to increased government revenue? On the blogs and Glenn Beck’s network, sure, and maybe on Fox, but for the rest of the MSM, which let’s face it, is where most people get their information, this is not part of the narrative. The narrative with the MSM is that the rich (defined as earning $250,000+) pay very little in taxes, the middle class and the poor are paying the lion’s share and Obama is the Alpha and Omega. Simple. Easy. Narrative.

Says Morris:

“What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the pursuit of truth. This applies to the law, as well. The real story is in our attempt to separate fact from fiction. The real story is in our attempts to find out what really happened—no matter how difficult that might be.”

Dan Kennedy continues:

This is Morris’s purest statement of why journalism matters. Because if narrative has indeed imprisoned MacDonald, it is truth that may set him free. “There is an escape from narrative,” Morris said in an interview on NPR’s On the Media. “Any investigator believes that evidence can lead us out of a narrative prison to the world out there.” The purpose of journalism is not to craft a narrative. Rather, narrative is just one tool in a journalist’s kit, to be used—or not, as in the case of Morris’s book—in order to advance the truth. For a journalist, I can think of no higher calling.

Uh huh. The problem is many “journalists” don’t believe they are crafting narrative. They believe they are presenting the “truth.” Some journalists are devious and know exactly what they’re doing and some are so delusional that they’ve brainwashed themselves into believing what they’re presenting is journalism. Were I to sit down with Errol Morris and/or Dan Kennedy, I bet we’d disagree on who belongs in those categories.

Nevertheless, half a loaf is better than none. If Morris can expose the evil that is the journalistic narrative, maybe a handful of people can see the light and reject it.

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