Dateline’s Keith Morrison

To take a break from superficial things…we sat down with television legend – Dateline’s Keith Morrison – the iconic broadcast journalist who has been in the industry of news media for fifty years. Dateline’s about to celebrate it’s 25th anniversary, and the new season premieres this Friday. If you’re anything like us, you’re somewhat of a crime and mystery addict; needless to say we had to pinch ourselves in sitting down and talking with Morrison.

We covered everything from the importance of storytelling in news and murder narratives, to oatmeal every morning and audiences being the new judge and jury with shows like Making A Murderer or podcasts like Serial. Look no further, your Wednesday read has arrived…

From start to finish, what would be your ideal food day?

Well it’s an old-fart answer, I’m afraid. Ideal? If I were on death row…the same I have every day: oatmeal and blueberries. I like it very thick, and it can’t be microwaved – almost so thick it tastes like a steak. Lunch? You know, pathetically, again, a turkey sandwich, or maybe a chopped salad. At dinnertime, I like some interestingly prepared fish. I like to experiment with things; if it has something on the menu that is not standard issue, I’ll try it.

How do you always start your day on a good note?

The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is have a bizarre kind of tea. It has all kinds of strange additives in it. I take one for me and one for my wife, and then I write for maybe an hour and walk the dog. And after that, the oatmeal. With this job, you’re on the road as much as you’re at home.

Do you try to keep your ritual as much as you can when traveling?

It’s impossible to do. You wake up in the morning at a Hilton Gardens somewhere – but they have a nice little breakfast buffet downstairs. Rarely good oatmeal, though.

What’s your personal definition of good content?

The actual content probably doesn’t matter very much. It’s the subject of the content. After decades – many decades – of pursuing news and whatever is the latest thing and who is screwing who and all those kinds of things, what it comes down to is: What tells a good story? There may be a lot of who ha and yelling about this political development and that new invention, but if it isn’t something with a cogent narrative, with a beginning and an arc, then I’m less attracted to it. Murders always have a great narrative attached to them. That’s why human beings, for the last upteenth thousand years, have been fascinated with murderers and what we do to each other. There’s always a compelling and a very disturbing story that makes us think about what it means to be a human being.

What would you say is the most significant change in news media since you started? 

There was a guy who smoked himself to death, sadly, back in the nineties named Neil Postman, who was a media guru in the Marshall Mcluhan mold. He used to teach that for every new thing you get from technology, you lose something else. And that’s not a bad thing necessarily, it’s just different. You remember the OJ [Simpson] slow car chase? That would probably never have become the cultural iconic moment that it did, except it happened to coincide with the beginning of cable networks being available to most people most of the time, and they were looking for material. CNN was looking to do all news, but what does all-news mean? Can you repeat the same things over and over again – like a half hour newscast – or do you play it in real-time? We watched that play out in real time. Now, we have the never-ending stories that we watch on TV.

Of course the big game changer is the internet, and now everything is different. I used to talk to people for hours, in order to cover one specific thing that happened. Now, I can talk to dozens of people in that time, and that wouldn’t have been remotely possible twenty-five years ago, simply because until the 1980’s, we were on film. If an interview were more than ten minutes, you were spending way too much money, so you’d need to know what you’d want going in.

Has that changed what you do in terms of the amount of time you spend on certain things?

Now, we have a different kind of conversation in the public sphere. The stuff I do, which has developed into mystery and crime reporting, wouldn’t exist without that longer interview forum. That’s why we have Making of a Murderer and Dateline; it’s not just television content. It’s on the computer, and it’s totally different. The facility for making the content is not as all-encompassing. So because the content is different, the story of our lives is different; the way we communicate is different. We become different creatures. Somebody my age looks around and says “Well, I don’t understand people today; it’s all so different.” Well of course it’s different, everything is different.

What do you think about shows like Making a Murderer, the upcoming Amanda Knox documentary, and Serial? Shows that give the public access to be the jury.

It’s another bump up made by the technological ability to do that. I’m attracted to those stories; I think we all are. It takes away some of the filter, the editing and leaving things out. The viewer is really able to become the unconscious narrator of the story when they see it all play out.

Was there a particular Dateline case that affected you emotionally that really sticks out for you?

They’re always so complicated. I have said this a hundred times before probably, but there was one that really did affect me. It wasn’t a crime story at all, and it probably resonates most with the generation that has gone to Iraq and Afghanistan and has this permanent war mentality. It was a soldier who served in Vietnam. To work with the demons that wracked his brain in the decades after, he found it necessary to go back and apologize to the person whose father he killed, and I went along. Being in the weeds does make it all that much more emotional, because you’re talking to these people and you’re in it. They are in a genuine way living those moments again, and that’s what you want, to make the story more true. Going there, being there – like waiting for a jury to come out, to see them emerge after weeks or days of deliberating, everyone waiting, hearts pounding – it’s one of the most dramatic things you can ever experience.

What do you think Dateline will look like fifty years from now?

(Laughs) We didn’t know if it would last five years, but here we are twenty-five years later. In fact, NBC used to joke, we did a new current affairs show every year and each had only lasted about half a season because nobody was watching them before Dateline came along and took off. Fifty years from now? I will guarantee you that it will be a completely different animal, not because people will be interested in different things, but because you’ll have different mechanisms for storytelling.

How does social media play into what you do?

A lot. I’m a little unclear where it is going and what it means. At first it seemed like kind of a silly add on, but social media is so all-encompassing. I don’t quite know what’s happening, but it’s something big. For Dateline, there are thousands of people who tweet with us. It feels like an intimate bunch. I tweet during programs and sometimes in between and read the tweets as they come in, and most are very nice, some a little weird, but very weird is what I’m used to.

Does it bother you when a long-form story gets the attention of 140 characters and nothing more? Do you find social media gives people a shorter attention span?

When I first started getting interested in long-form, it was a major deal for a network to get involved with even a half hour show, and now people do eight or ten hour mini-docu-series, so it’s changing. It’s both a shorter and a longer attention span. The same group of people who communicate in 140 characters are also glued to series and shows like Making a Murderer. No one would watch a show where every episode was a curious love story. The people would like it for an episode, but then would want to go back to the murder.

What was the best advice you’ve ever received and the worst advice?

Among best advice was the very first time I was going on television. I was a nervous wreck, and my boss said “Don’t worry about it, boy, just look down the barrel and talk to your mother,” and I still do. The worst advice is when somebody advises you to go with your gut, and unfortunately your gut is not always the best judge. People go both ways on that. It often seems like the right thing to do, but really it’s not. It says “I think I know this,” but usually you don’t. I think we misinterpret the signals around us all the time, and it’s what makes us human, but it creates so much confusion. When you act on instinct, it can be really, really good or go really, really wrong.

If you could host a dinner party with five people living or dead, who would be there? What would be the topic of conversation?

I’m a religious history freak, so I guess I would have to have the Pope, the Dalai Lama, Bart Ehrman, and John Dominic Crossan. My friend and I did a show called The Editors, and it was a fantasy job, much like this question. We had some regulars, like Howard Dean and Gene McCarthy, and a bunch of fascinating people. I can tell you, it’s like you want to pinch yourself all the time.

Have your read our interview with Tamron Hall? Also check out our interview with The Today Show’s Joy Bauer