A Non-Story About Errol Morris in the Times

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has just made a movie where he interviews some of the small fry who took the fall for Abu Ghraib. The New York Times today has a "related story" about whether some of the interviewees spoke for posterity or cash. You have to read pretty far into it to figure out who is complaining about this. It appears to be a manufactured, or prophylactic, scandal. Here is the lead sentence of the article, "Film on Abu Ghraib Puts Focus on Paid Interviews":

Errol Morris, the Oscar-winning filmmaker whose latest documentary, “Standard Operating Procedure,” examines the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, is being pressed* about a procedure of his own: paying interview subjects.

*Jesus, pressed by whom? Times writers Michael Cieply and Ben Sisario appear to be doing most of the pressing. The writers interview half a dozen people about the topic of paying interview subjects, but why? Who raised a ruckus? Bush? Donald Rumsfeld?

Here is the "nut graf," as we say:

In his statement earlier this week defending his practices, Mr. Morris said, “Without these extensive interviews, no one would ever know their stories.” The statement came after the Web site andthewinneris.blog.com noted Mr. Morris’s admission at an early screening of the film that he had paid for some of the interviews.

(Mr. Morris regularly discusses the complexities of the documentary craft in a blog on the New York Times Web site at morris.blogs.nytimes.com.)

Cieply and Sisario quote but do not publish the "statement" from Morris; possibly it's just a written response to their questions. They link to his blog which was last updated over two weeks ago--i.e. no statement there. They link to the "Web site" andthewinneris.blog.com (an Oscar predictions blog) but not the post about interviewee payments itself (how tiresome--can't they find the permalink, or do they just not want us not to?). Here is the relevant excerpt from the post, which mostly praises the film after an early screening at Brandeis:

A side note: I was a bit surprised by the answer Morris gave to a question about the interviews after the film. The questioner, a noted journalist, asked Morris how he convinced these individuals to agree to be interviewed, and specifically if he paid them at all, "which is not okay in my profession." Morris eventually acknowledged that he did, in fact, pay his interview subjects, jokingly explaining that he did so because "I have a lot of money and want to share it." (He did not disclose an amount of money or if this is his standard practice.) I, frankly, don't really have a problem with this—it got these people to sit down and talk about their behavior, and I don't see how it would in any way encourage them to speak anything other than the truth—except for the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, this compensation was not openly acknowledged, as it should have been since this is a documentary that purports not to have any agenda other than seeking the truth, and in my estimation does not. I worry that because Morris did not do so, those who wish to disparage SOP, for whatever reason,may latch onto this as evidence of some secret agenda, just as they do in response to the use of re-enactments in his films, including this one. But back on point...

Hardly a thundering complaint, but rather a secondhand account of an unknown "noted journalist" asking Morris about paying interviewees and Morris's "eventual" acknowledgement that he did that. The blogger "worries" Morris will be hurt by it. Cieply and Sisario talked to several editors and experts but evidently couldn't be troubled to find out who the "noted journalist" was; they relied on blogger hearsay for their controversy.

The genesis of Cieply's and Sisario's non-story possibly lay with the Times' editors, trying to head off criticism of a filmmaker who "blogs" for them and create a little swirl of fake contention around the film. Or to get people talking about the "paid interviews" rather than Morris' practice of staged "re-enactments," a technique he uses again in his Abu Ghraib film. But who knows?

In any case, such stupid things for the Times and Morris to be talking about, when the admitted architects of U.S. torture policies are still in high office or walking around loose. Who gives a shit about Lynndie England at this point?