(The film Spotlight won Best Picture and Best Screenplay at the Oscars last night. Here’s why this movie is so meaningful for boomers.)
As boomers came of age, Watergate was a defining moment, especially for those of us in journalism school as the scandal unfolded. There was almost a daily sense that the news media mattered then, because it was holding government, a president and his administration to account.
But that was then and this is now.
The State of Journalism Now
Today, as newspaper ad revenue and circulation decline, as media layoffs and buyouts are the norm, as network news desperately lures eyeballs with viral videos and as news websites use sensational stories as clickbait, it’s easy to get depressed with the feeling that journalism has lost its way.
So when the low-budget film Spotlight about the 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal racked up multiple Oscars at the Academy Awards and won a boatload of other statues during awards season, the timing couldn’t have been better.
The story of the Globe's investigation into the Church’s sexual abuse scandal is, in some ways, more important than Watergate.
The film reminds those of us in our 50s and 60s what can still happen when reporters are unleashed to uncover the truth about a powerful institution — maybe the first one since All the President Men 40 years ago (the story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Washington Post investigation into Watergate).
Why ‘Spotlight’ Was Made
“We made this film for all the journalists who have and continue to hold the powerful accountable, and for the survivors whose courage and will to overcome is really an inspiration. We have to make sure this never happens again,” said Spotlight director and co-screenplay writer Tom McCarthy in his Oscar screenplay acceptance speech.
These are tough times in newsrooms. Morale is down. And real pressures from the business side don’t always make for the best editorial decisions. Indeed, Kevin Spacey, who plays Machiavellian President Frank Underwood in House of Cards, recently offered a group of political journalists a scathing critique of the relentless, over-the-top coverage of real-life presidential hopeful Donald Trump. “Edward R. Murrow warned us in 1964 that when news divisions decide that the news has to make money, and has to get ratings, it’s no longer news — it’s entertainment. So if people are bothered by the fact that we seem to be having entertainment as news, it’s because the news divisions decided that money and ratings were more important than reporting,” said Spacey.
McCarthy played one of Murrow’s colleagues in the film Good Night and Good Luck. When I asked him why he wanted to make Spotlight, he said:
“Given my Catholic background — I went to Boston College — maybe I was the right person to tell this story, because there are two sides. There are a lot of wonderful people, both clergy and civilian, working within the Catholic Church. My family is very Catholic, so yeah, I feel connected to the material. It’s not just a Church-bashing story. It’s really a story about the journalists who broke the story and how they did it.”
More Important Than Watergate?
The story of the Globe’s investigation into the Church’s sexual abuse scandal is, in some ways, more important than Watergate, because it revealed a systemic effort to cover up the crimes by priests in Boston and repeated throughout the world. Within a year or two of the initial Globe story, articles began popping up in other cities about similar cases of sexual abuse and cover-ups.
David Simon, who worked for the city desk at the Baltimore Sun and created HBO’s The Wire, was almost giddy as he moderated a Washington, D.C. panel last fall of the Globe reporters and editors responsible for the investigation. “Having been a newspaperman for 13 years, Spotlight was porn — in the best way possible,” he said.
That line elicited laughs in the room filled with Washington journalists who know the pressures the news media is under to deliver more content with fewer staffers.
“Investigative reporting is in danger,” acknowledged Globe reporter Michael Rezendez, played by Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight. “But there are papers still doing it.” Rezendez now works on an expanded Globe Spotlight team.
Investigative journalism may be an endangered species, given the changing business model of the media, but “it’s an expectation of our readers,” said Marty Baron, the editor of the Globe who pushed the Spotlight team to look into the Catholic sexual abuse story and now is editor of The Washington Post. (You might have seen him at the Oscars ceremony.)
“Every time we would run an investigative story, I would notice I would get e-mails from readers saying, ‘Thank you for doing this. If you hadn’t done this story, no one else would have done it. This is why we need newspapers.’” Baron recalled. “I remember telling our metro editor at the time, I want more emails like that.”