Film Legend Errol Morris Salutes New Graduates At 2010 Commencement

May 10, 2010

Graduating class of 2010
Photo by Diana Jou (’11).

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Commencement Address:

There has been some talk about the profession of journalism. I am sure that that for many it is a profession, but for me it has been more of an obsession.

When I was first asked about the possibility of giving a commencement address at the UC-Berkeley School of Journalism, I thought why me? I seem to be an odd choice. Because I have never seen myself as a journalist – that is, not until recently. Maybe, it was because I was recently hired to work for The New York Times. (If you work for The Times, don’t you have to be a journalist by definition?)

And then, I started to reflect on what I have been doing for the last thirty years or so. And I started to think – maybe, just maybe, I am a journalist.

Film noir. I started out around the corner from here at the Pacific Film Archive, a part of the University Art Museum. And I started going to films and thanks to the kindness of Tom Luddy, who ran the PFA, started programming films, particularly film noir.

There are many things I liked about noir. But in particular, there are images of one benighted character after another struggling to make sense of the world – and sometimes failing in the effort. [Their failure could be chalked up to many things. But most severe among the possibilities, was the thought that the world might be intractable. That you can never figure out how it works, what makes it tick. A terribly, sad thought. There has to be, there just has to be the presumption that you can figure things out.]

There is a line in a Robert Mitchum film noir, Out of the Past, where Mitchum says something to the effect, “I could see the frame, but I couldn’t see he picture.” Well, that just about sums up journalism for me. But I would put my own interpretation, my own spin on it. For me, Mitchum is saying, “I could see there was something wrong, but I wasn’t sure what it was.” It’s the detective’s intuition that the story doesn’t add up, doesn’t make sense. That something is missing. It’s the Humpty-Dumpty dream of putting the world back together again, to make sense of it.

Investigative Journalism. I have often wondered why we need the phrase investigative journalism. Isn’t all journalism supposed to be investigative? Isn’t journalism without an investigative element little more than gossip? And isn’t there enough gossip around already?

I became involved in one investigation after another – even on occasion working as an actual private detective. (And yes, journalists are detectives, and vice versa, as well.)

But despite the job descriptions – filmmaker, detective, journalist – the enterprise that I was involved in was always similar. Asking questions: What is going on here? What does this mean? What really happened? Other journalists have expressed similar thoughts to me over the years. Recently, I interviewed Josiah Thompson, an ex-Kierkegaard scholar at Haverford and Yale, who became obsessed by the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination. He quit his job in philosophy and wrote an exceptional work of journalism, Six Seconds in Dallas. And subsequently became a private detective. But it all started with his puzzlement over details – details that didn’t make sense. To me, he is the quintessential journalist-investigator. I have had many similar experiences. When I first became involved with Randall Dale Adams, who was sentenced to death for the murder of a Dallas police officer, I knew there was something “wrong” with the story. There were pieces missing. (It was exactly like Mitchum’s quandary in Out of the Past.]

And the missing pieces concerned David Harris, the sixteen year-old kid who supposedly witnessed the murder. It was David Harris's account of the night of November 28th 1976, the night the police officer was killed. The Dallas police had made their entire case from the “eye-witness” testimony of David Harris, but who was this man? And how credible was his story?

This was the beginning of a three-year odyssey to determine what actually happened that night – and culminated with a confession from Harris and enough evidence of perjury from the prosecution witnesses to secure Adams’s release from prison.

Evidence. I know that many of this graduating class are involved with documentary-filmmaking. That’s terrific. There is something you should know. When I first started working on The Thin Blue Line, I thought the camera was an obstacle in a real investigation. It turned out to be one more tool among many. And surprisingly, a very powerful tool for gathering evidence. How could I have predicted that in the course of an interview, one witness after another would give evidence that they had committed perjury? This evidence could have been produced with a notebook and a pen, but there was something powerful and arresting about seeing it on film. There is no correct way to pursuing the truth. You just have to pursue it the best way you know how.

A scientist tries to come up with general laws, but there are no general laws to be found in the chaos of everyday life. We are forced to make sense of experience the best we can. A scientist can repeat an experiment over and over and come up with the same results. Human events are “one-offs.” They occur only once, and the effort to repeat them never comes close to the first time around.

And this brings me to the central problem of journalism. We often do not realize that history is perishable. It depends on evidence. There are countless stories where evidence is lost, corrupted or hidden, and hence, our attempts to re-assemble a picture of reality are doomed at best. If we lose all the evidence of the Battle of Hastings, what then can we say about it? Journalism may be the first draft of history, but sometimes it’s the only draft. It is often the journalist who collects evidence before it is lost.

Truth. It has become fashionable nowadays to speak of the subjectivity or the relativity of truth. I find such talk ridiculous at best. Let’s go back to Randall Dale Adams. He found himself within days of being executed in “Old Sparky,” the electric chair in Walls Unit, Huntsville Texas.

There is nothing post-modern about the electric chair. It takes a living human being and turns him into a piece of meat. Imagine you – you the young journalists of tomorrow – being strapped into an electric chair for a crime you didn’t commit. Would you take comfort from a witness telling you that it really doesn’t make any difference whether you are guilty or innocent? That there is no truth? “I think you’re guilty; you think you’re innocent. Can’t we work it all out?”

Well, the answer is: No. We can’t. There are facts. There is a world in which things happen and the journalist’s job is to figure out what those things are. Anything less, is giving up on the most important task around – separating truth from illusion, truth from fantasy, truth from wishful thinking.

Pariahs. I have developed over the years an interest in and possible affection for pariahs – social outcasts, murderers of one kind or another, an electric chair repairman who became involved with neo-Nazis, insurance scam artists, the photographers of Abu Ghraib, and Robert S. McNamara. Often there has been an incredible tension between what people want to hear, and the stories that I have presented. I remain unapologetic. Part of journalism is extending sympathy to people where it has rarely been extended before. And part of it is telling stories that have been overlooked and never told. At the center of “The Fog of War” is the question of whether Robert S. McNamara is a war criminal. But I discovered it is also a question McNamara asks about himself. I have often found that the movies I have made and what I have written is only a small part of the whole. After I finished “The Fog of War,” I continued interviewing McNamara for several years, accumulating hours of interviews. It’s hard to know where to stop.

Working at my new job at The Times, I wondered whether this was any way to earn a living. I told my editor, “This seems like a job at a fast-food restaurant. But at least I don’t have to wear a hair-net and there’s no drug testing.” And he answered, “Well… So far. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Obsession. As I said at the beginning, journalism is not just a job, but an obsession. It’s about pursuing stories beyond the dictates of common sense, about disappearing down rabbit-holes, but always in the pursuit of truth. It’s essential. We can’t do without journalism. And we can’t do without journalists. How else are we to figure out what’s going on in the world?

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