MM: Parts of Standard Operating Procedure show outrage and disgust toward a heavily politicized situation. Where do you draw the line between agitprop and what you are trying to do with this film?
EM: Agitprop as I conceive it is not particularly concerned with the truth at all. It’s merely concerned with advancing an agenda of one kind or another, right or wrong. To me, journalism is an attempt to recover reality. We take in evidence, and on the basis of what we learn, what we read, what we see, we try to figure out what is out there. It may sound horribly grandiloquent and pretentious and pompous, but the issue is what is out there—what is true, what is false, what really happened. That is different than agitprop. The desire to uncover the world, to find out what is true and false—well, propaganda does not have that agenda in any way, shape, or form.
MM:Do you think that making an argument in a documentary is at cross-purposes with presenting the truth?
EM: I keep going back to The Thin Blue Line. I go back to it because I’m proud of it, certainly, but I go back to it because it’s simple. People’s intuitions are pretty clear, you know? Somebody comes up to you and says, “I’m a postmodernist; I don’t care about truth; it’s subjective.” My answer is, “So it doesn’t matter who pulled the trigger? It doesn’t matter whether someone committed murder, or whether someone in jail is innocent or not?” I believe that it does matter. What happens in the world matters a great deal. Why did they destroy the Zubaydah tapes? You know, John Yoo can write a thousand memos redefining torture. He can say, “I’m going to define torture in such a way that nothing’s really torture, so everything is okay.” But then people are going to look at the [Zubaydah] tape, and they’re going to say, “Why are you torturing that guy?” Now, maybe the tape’s going to deceive people. Maybe something is going on, and you need to know more about the tape, blah, blah, blah. But they destroyed it because they were afraid people were going to look at it and say, “Why are you torturing him?”
MM: So again, are you confident that journalism can recover reality in this way?
EM: Our vision is incomplete in every respect. We try to find out about the world by collecting evidence, by thinking about things, by looking at things. You use every means at your disposal. We owe a debt of gratitude to those [soldiers at Abu Ghraib] for taking those photographs. In some odd way, they are journalists. They have provided us with evidence, and a picture—literally a picture—of things that we would otherwise not have. We all live in a kind of web of lies, in a world of fantasy. And that’s the role of evidence. It can sometimes shock us out of that world of fantasy and suggest that maybe you have to reconsider what you believe to be true.