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Keith Morrison’s voice sounds like how it feels to be tucked in under a weighted blanket and dosed with unregulated CBD oil. It’s a warm and rhythmic baritone that produces the same chemical effect in the brain as testing out a mall-stand scalp massager, or watching that moment in a commercial when a candy bar is split in half and the caramel interior pulls apart and suspends in midair. It’s a voice that can say something like “The killer was having a virtual dungeon built in his basement—he burned, we still don't know exactly what parts of her, in his backyard” while you’re eating lunch at an airy New American restaurant in Manhattan, and you will ingest that information and nod and keep right on chewing your food.
When Keith Morrison speaks publicly, it’s usually about murder. He’s been a correspondent on the true-crime docuseries Dateline for 25 years, during which he’s emerged as the show’s biggest name. The mild-mannered Canada native counts pop stars Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift as Dateline fans, has been gushed over by actress Kristen Bell, and was regularly impersonated on Saturday Night Live by comedian Bill Hader. (He thinks the latter is funny but insists, “I can swear to God, I've never said that pesky DNA.”) An Instagram account with 19,000 followers called Keith Leans on Things exists solely to document his habit of reclining against stationary objects during broadcasts. Morrison is bemused, if entertained, by his popularity. “If you make it through an airport with fewer than ten selfies with somebody, you're lucky,” he jokes. “I pinch myself. An old geezer, and I still get the selfies.”
Morrison is the granddaddy of true crime. It’s a peculiar kind of fame, made possible by America’s seemingly bottomless appetite for the genre. Aside from Dateline, there is a glut of shows that run the gamut, from the prestigious—Making a Murderer, The Jinx, The Staircase—to the unabashedly pulpy—Snapped, Nurses Who Kill, Killer Women with Piers Morgan. There are conventions like CrimeCon, where hordes of obsessives gather to indulge their enthusiasm for the macabre. There are countless strangers, overwhelmingly women, who are forever bonded by tattoos scrawled on their wrists and forearms that read SSDGM or STAY SEXY. DON'T GET MURDERED, the catchphrase from My Favorite Murder, an irreverent podcast with a fanatical following. In fact, as of this writing, half of the top ten podcasts on Apple are about true crime. Dateline has entered that arms race, too, with a podcast called The Thing About Pam that launched earlier this month. Hosted by Morrison, it delves into the case of a convicted murderer who was, bizarrely enough, trying to pass herself off as a Dateline producer. It hit number one on the charts after the trailer was released.
But Dateline has been a true-crime mainstay and ratings juggernaut long before everyone and their mother was getting into the business. It’s also for everyone and their mother: I can say with confidence that it’s the only show that my Middle Eastern mother, my Midwestern mother-in-law, my 84-year-old grandmother, and I all watch. I stockpile DVR-ed episodes for nights when I’m exhausted from work, knowing, somewhat uneasily, that it will serve up reliable television comfort food.
Still, even after all this time, after all the many murders he’s covered and all the grieving family members he’s spoken to and all the convicted killers he’s interviewed behind bars, Morrison goes into every story with the same particular feeling. Call it a kernel of self-doubt. “This is somebody's…the most painful thing that could ever happen to them,” he says. “They're happy to sit down and talk with us, even though they know we're going to put it on television and people will look at it as entertainment. It gives you a few moments of, Should we really be doing this?”
“You realize that nobody comes on our show unless they want to, and it can be cathartic for people, so, fine,” Morrison continues. “But you still have that moment.”
“Do you know about this, sugar babies and sugaring?” Morrison asks. “I had no idea.”
In between bites of a mushroom–black bean burger, Morrison is talking about the next story he’s pursuing. “Uh-huh,” I respond, but what I really mean is, Come on, Keith. Of course I know about sugar babies. It’s 2019, everybody knows about sugar babies! “You didn’t?”
“Look at me,” he deadpans, gesturing to himself.
Morrison is 72 years old and the very portrait of wholesome authority. The day we meet, a scorching late-August afternoon, he’s wearing his trademark navy laceless Converse sneakers with jeans and a sky blue denim button-down (yes, a Canadian in a Canadian tuxedo). With his lanky frame and full head of impeccably coiffed white hair, he could moonlight as an actor in a Centrum Silver commercial, so yeah, fair point about the sugar babies.
Morrison’s life started in the small city of Lloydminster, Canada, where he was the second-youngest of five children raised by a father who was a minister for the United Church of Canada and a music teacher mother. To hear Morrison tell it, he was constantly getting into trouble, a habit that followed him to college, where he intended to become a lawyer but flunked out instead. At 20, he was at a loss for what to do next, when his dad hooked him up with a gig as a summer fill-in minister in a tiny Saskatchewan prairie town.
One of his first experiences involved helping an elderly woman whose farmer husband had just died. (He was even set to officiate the funeral, but another local minister ended up taking over.) “It was one of those unforgettable moments when you understand this is real and you better shape up and grow up, because this 80-something-year-old woman is leaning on me for advice and support,” he recalls. “That was probably the moment I realized I shouldn't do this.”
Next up was running errands for a neighbor, who was the editor of a local paper. When that neighbor went over to a radio station, he hired Morrison on as a reporter. Morrison was hooked by “the intensity,” he says, and one thing led to another, until he found himself working as a political reporter and anchor for CTV National News. It was at that job that he met his wife, Suzanne Perry, who was the press secretary for then prime minister Pierre Trudeau. More accurately, he first caught a glimpse of her walking beside Trudeau in a video. “Everyone probably thought I was an idiot, but I kept playing it back,” he reminisces. “I never would've believed that a person could know by simply looking at a video, but I did.” Today, Morrison and Perry have four children and a handful of grandchildren together—and, in a bit of supremely underrated celebrity trivia, Morrison is also stepdad to Friends actor Matthew Perry.
NBC lured Morrison to Los Angeles in 1986 to cover the nightly news, which he did for a few years on a lark. He still receives monthly $10 royalty checks from when he briefly appeared as a newscaster on a Seinfeld episode during that period, reporting that Kramer had been arrested as a serial killer. He returned to the motherland in 1992, where he was widely believed to be the next in line to take over the top job at CTV. Instead, he was axed three years later amidst a tangle of network drama that reportedly involved the head anchor not wanting to step down. “Nothing focuses the mind, quite frankly, than having your firing announced in big headlines and photographs and stories in the weekly news magazines,” Morrison recalls. He had been freelancing for Dateline on the side, and they’d made overtures to hire him in the past. So right after he was fired, he called Dateline and told them he’d be interested in joining the show full-time. The very next day they flew him down to Pittsburgh for a story. “They kind of saved my life,” he says. “Or at least my career.”
Though Dateline debuted in 1992 as a general human-interest newsmagazine, about a decade into its run it transitioned to primarily covering true crime, as it became clear that that resonated with viewers the most. If Morrison didn’t feel as if he was up to comforting that farmer’s widow back when he was 20 years old, he was now faced with the task of not only regularly engaging with people in mourning, but broadcasting their stories to millions. But from the accounts of colleagues I spoke to, he possesses an exceptional skill for forging those connections. Part of that involves undoing some of what he’s learned as a reporter over the years. “You back away for a little bit from the traditional journalistic habit of staying totally emotionally separate,” Morrison says. “If you don't allow yourself to get more emotionally involved, I don't think you can understand it.”
Take what producer Vincent Sturla, who’s worked with Morrison for twenty years, told me. “He has a great deal of empathy for people, and he doesn't think he's above it all,” Sturla said. “He's very sincere…kind of like the Mister Rogers of murder.”
Though true crime has been Morrison’s bread and butter, and so lucrative that it’s more like sourdough miche slathered with Echiré, he was never interested in it to begin with. If anything, the subject actively repelled him. “I thought it was kind of tabloid-y,” he says. “I felt it took advantage of people's pain.”
With true crime’s ever-increasing popularity, so comes increased scrutiny of the genre and the way we collectively consume it, including in recent books like Savage Appetites by Rachel Monroe and Dead Girls by Alice Bolin. Along with the same critiques that initially gave Morrison pause, there’s the fact that true crime fixates primarily on dead women—specifically, dead young white women from a certain class background—while ignoring those from marginalized communities. (Bolin, for instance, writes about the focus on the "perfect victim, effacing the deaths of leagues of nonwhite or poor or ugly or disabled or immigrant or drug-addicted or gay or trans victims.”)
Morrison claims that sort of examination is happening in the Dateline production rooms, too. He tells me about a story he worked on involving a California detective who doggedly pursued the cases of multiple sex workers of color who were all murdered by the same man. “It was so powerful to me that somebody cared about the ones who supposedly don't count,” Morrison tells me. Ultimately, though, he says the episode didn’t do very well in the ratings. “It's the sad fact of life. What does that say about us?”
"He's very sincere…kind of like the Mister Rogers of murder."
I think of an old interview from the early nineties in which Morrison says he “despises” the television-news business. When I bring this up to him, he lets out a spontaneous “Oh, Lord." "I think I was going through a midlife crisis or something. I went through a time for a few years where I just felt pretty negatively,” he says. “I didn't know whether I was doing a good thing or a bad thing or what.”
“You get past the point where you think, Okay, I'm not here to change the world,” he continues. “I'm here to tell stories.”
Morrison wants to keep telling those stories until someone at the network decides he’s too old to keep going. He writes, or at least punches up, many of his own scripted introductions, which are prone to folksy turns of phrase and a specific brand of suspenseful gravitas. (He tells me he’s conscientiously made an effort to stop using certain Keith-isms—like following a statement with a veering, ominous “...or did they?”—after realizing how ripe they were for parody.) When he’s not traveling for work, which he does for about 40 weeks out of the year, he opts to relax with his wife at their Laguna Beach, California, home. In his spare time, he’s especially fond of reading detective novels or, as he puts it, “untrue crime.”
Despite constantly having to confront humanity’s darkest impulses, Morrison identifies as an optimist. When I interviewed him for a wellness column at a previous job, where I mostly covered pop culture and internet inanities, I was struck by how much less stressed he seemed by his job, where he mostly covered murder. I go back to that, asking Morrison to tell me how he maintains his attitude. He chalks it up to his natural constitution, and taking the time to read philosophy from thinkers like Seneca and Heraclitus.
“Contemplating death is terrifically helpful,” he tells me. “Looking fear in the face and taking it seriously. Thinking about what it means to be alive, what it would mean to be dead—which is to say, nothing. It helps a person feel calm about life.”
The new season of Dateline premieres this Friday at 9 P.M. EST.
Gabriella Paiella is a GQ staff writer.
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Originally Appeared on GQ