< Errol Morris on Tabloid


Friday, November 25, 2011

PETER TORY: Kinky sex, religion, a beauty queen, Mormon missionaries, kidnapped at gunpoint. There was something in that story for everyone. It was a perfect tabloid story.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 1977, a young American Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson, studying in England, vanished and resurfaced a few days later with a remarkable story. He said that Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming whom he’d dated, had followed him to London, kidnapped him at gunpoint, chloroformed him, imprisoned him in a cabin and raped him. McKinney claimed that she and Anderson were in love, a love he had disavowed because of Mormon brainwashing.

It was the perfect tabloid story, and the British tabs dove in, siding either with Kirk or with Joyce. Director Errol Morris, who had freed an innocent man on death row with his documentary The Thin Blue Line and probed the psyche Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, has attempted to get to the bottom of the McKinney scandal in his latest documentary, Tabloid.


When we spoke to him last summer he told us that he interviewed McKinney at length and found her views unchanged after 33 years.


ERROL MORRIS: Do you think a woman can rape a man?

JOYCE McKINNEY: No. I think that's like puttin’ a marshmallow in a parkin’ meter. I don’t – a guy either wants to have sex or he doesn’t. He has an erection or he doesn’t.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Morris doesn't ever solve the mystery of what happened in that cabin in Devonshire. Instead, he serves up a series of conflicting narratives tracing the events of those days long ago.

ERROL MORRIS: Someone said I should call it Rashamormon.


I've resisted that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you haven't actually opted to get to the bottom of it but simply to offer different layers of it.

ERROL MORRIS: I may not have gotten to the bottom of it but I don't think it's quite fair to say that I haven't tried.

In history, we depend on evidence, whether it's first person accounts of what happened, documents, et cetera, et cetera But what if pieces of evidence are just missing, what do you do?

Now, this story concerns an alleged kidnapping and rape in a rented love cottage off the coast of England. Did Joyce McKinney rape her ex-boyfriend Kirk Anderson? There were three people who were in that love cottage, Joyce McKinny's close friend K.J., who died a number of years ago, Joyce and Kirk Anderson. Only one person [LAUGHS] has talked to me.

Missing files, photographs. This was a big court case in England. You would think that there would be court records, police files that I could lay my hands on. A lot of stuff, for whatever reason, gone.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why did you choose this story?

ERROL MORRIS: I don't know if I choose any of the stories that I've pursued. They -  choose me.


ERROL MORRIS:Okay, let's try it a second time.


I'm a promiscuous reader. I saw an AP wire service story in The Boston Globe. It starts off with dog cloning. Bernann McKinney has cloned her beloved pit bull Booger and produced five mini-Boogers, as she describes them.

I get to the bottom of the article and there’s a brief mention of the possibility that Bernann McKinney is Joyce McKinney, Joyce McKinney, the subject of a tabloid war in the late 70s in England.

So it's that combination of A and B, sex and chains, dog cloning.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What did you learn about tabloid journalism?

ERROL MORRIS: I feel deeply conflicted [LAUGHS] when I hear the word “tabloid journalism” because I love tabloid journalism. A lot of my stories really have come out of tabloid-like stories.

Does tabloid journalism have to be bad journalism? Does it have to be destructive journalism?  Does it have to be criminal journalism?

I would argue no. The scandal that we're looking at today with News of the World, yes, the News of the World is a tabloid, but what they did goes so far beyond what we’d imagine any journalist doing. They have involved themselves in actual criminal behavior.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fundamentally, what you're saying is that this whole News of the World scandal is giving tabloid journalism a bad name.

ERROL MORRIS: Well, it always had a bad name.


It’s giving it a worse name. Whatever journalism is, and I'm not altogether sure about what it is, but I do know one thing. On some level it has to have a concern with the truth. In the movie that I just made, I'm left with the feeling that this tabloid war got completely out of hand.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Between The Express and The Mirror.

ERROL MORRIS: And The Sun. Let's not leave Murdoch completely out of this.

One of the journalists – it’s perhaps my favorite line in the movie — Peter Tory says at one point:


PETER TORY: He was taken in and chained to - Joyce claims it was ropes, not chains, but chains sounds better. Anyway, he was allegedly…


ERROL MORRIS: What is this telling us? It’s telling us that there is this narrative pull, the need to sell newspapers, the need to come up with a good story versus what actually happened.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And if that's the case, you have said that the Joyce McKinney story has been told many thousands of times, the general shape of the story. You liken it to The Aeneid. And so, give us those ultimate narrative elements that you see again and again that you explored in that.

ERROL MORRIS: Well, certainly [LAUGHS] the narrative of hopeless love that runs through this entire story. Joyce, in this amazing footage that I discovered, she had shot part of a film some 30 years ago. 


And she’s narrating a fairy tale, a fairy tale that she has written about herself.


JOYCE McKINNEY: Once upon a time there was a little princess, the most beautiful little princess in all the land. But the little princess was unhappy, for she was lonely. Someday she would find her kind handsome prince and he would sweep her up on a big white horse…


ERROL MORRIS: Everything that she imagined coming true has come true, as if she’s followed some strange narrative script of her own devising.

So many competing stories here. The tabloid war decided that they were going to play out the Joyce McKinney story in different ways. One paper decided that she was a virgin. [LAUGHS] The other paper, they decided she was a whore. No interest anymore in Joyce McKinney. She becomes fodder for competing narratives.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Biographers are sometimes subject to a kind of Stockholm syndrome, where they – I won’t say fall in love with their characters, but they get inside their characters’ skin. Do you find that that's a problem?

ERROL MORRIS: No - and yes. I would have to say that I embrace the Stockholm syndrome. I’m getting myself into trouble, but why not? And here’s why:

We know there are endless styles of journalism, endless ways in which one person can interview another person. We’re all familiar with the Mike Wallace school of interviewing. You try to trap the person interviewed into a set of contradictions.

I look at what I do as being the exact opposite. I try to learn something about the person I'm interviewing. I try to capture them and how they see themselves in the world.

I also can't really interview people that I don't like, on some level. If I can't see myself in them, I can’t do it. Now, maybe this makes me a bad journalist, but I truly believe it's at the heart of my art.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how does it feel when Joyce McKinney runs around saying, “this is a travesty”?

ERROL MORRIS: Well, the phrase I’m particularly fond of,  she called my movie Tabloid “a celluloid catastrophe.”


And she is certainly [LAUGHS] entitled to her opinion. I believe that this is a truly loving portrait. Most people come away from this movie really liking her and identifying with her even, in some cases.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, you have a grudging admiration for her persistence, but she's definitely a fruitcake.

ERROL MORRIS: Haven't you ever been involved in some kind of obsessive love?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [BREATH INTAKE] Ah, well, if so, nothing that calls to mind what Joyce McKinney was involved in.

ERROL MORRIS: She may have taken it to [BROOKE LAUGHS] a

new kind of extreme, but I think we all – I can — recognize themselves in this story.

And what is the essence of a tabloid story? I think it's the thought, ‘This could have happened to me, and I’m so glad it didn’t.’

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Errol Morris, thank you very much.

ERROL MORRIS: Thank you very much.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Errol Morris' new documentary is Tabloid.