‘Spotlight’ Celebrates Heroes of Investigative Reporting — and Democracy

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Still from Spotlight. (Kerry Hayes)

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery in Spotlight. (Photo: Kerry Hayes)

Long before I ever set foot in an actual, working newsroom, I was a sucker for movies and TV shows about journalism and reporters: the snappy dialogue, the nose for a scoop, the determination to get at the truth and expose the bad guys.

I never miss Citizen Kane, All the President’s Men or His Girl Friday (the great, screwball remake of that classic play, The Front Page). And when I entered the world of journalism for real, briefly working as a freelance feature writer for a now-deceased, great metropolitan newspaper and then for years in television news and public affairs, I discovered that there really were people in the business as funny, dedicated and talented as the characters on film (some stinkers, too, but that’s for my future, sure-to-go-straight-to-remaindered memoir).

If you haven’t already heard, to the list of superb movies about the trade, you can now add Spotlight. The riveting account of the Boston Globe’s investigative team exposing the cover-up of widespread pedophilia in the city’s Catholic Church – and beyond — stars a roster of big name talent that without ego works together seamlessly as an ensemble: Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci, to name just the top of the cast.

Directed by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) and written by McCarthy and West Wing alum Josh Singer, it’s a Hollywood movie that’s really about something, the story of dedicated, scrupulous reporters going up against a seemingly indomitable institution and discovering a scandal beyond anything they imagined.

They started investigating in 2001 and by the end of 2002, the Globe’s Spotlight team published nearly 600 stories about the Church and 249 priest and brothers in the Boston archdiocese had been publicly accused of sexual abuse. The archdiocese teetered at the edge of bankruptcy and in December, Bernard Cardinal Law, Boston’s archbishop, resigned (although he was transferred to Rome’s influential Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore).

What’s more, the filmmakers note, “major abuse scandals” have been discovered in more than 100 other American towns and in another 100 places worldwide. In the words of producer Blye Pagon Faust, “Spotlight took on this institution that had power, money and resources, and showed people that nobody is untouchable.”

Tom McCarthy was quick to add, “I was raised Catholic so I have great understanding, admiration and respect for the institution. This story is not about Church bashing. It’s about asking ‘How does something like this happen?’ The Church performed, and in some cases continues to perform, acts of institutional evil not only as an abuser of kids but also through the cover-up of abuse. How could this abuse go on for decades without people standing up and saying something?”

The movie Spotlight is a celebration of investigative journalism and a reminder that it could be a dying art. “I’m extremely concerned with how little high-end investigative journalism is out there right now compared to what we had 15 years ago,” McCarthy said. “I saw this movie as an opportunity to show by example: Here is the kind of impact that can happen when you have well-funded journalism done by experienced professionals. I mean, what could be more important than the fate of our children?”

When I asked McCarthy at a recent screening of the film whether Spotlight may be more of a eulogy than a love letter, he pointed out that among young people, the 1976 release of All the President’s Men, the movie version of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book on the Watergate affair, spurred renewed interest in journalism as a career. He hopes Spotlight might have a similar effect.

We both noted that despite fewer investigative units at major metropolitan newspapers there are a number of independent, non-profit organizations doing great work like ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting; such publications and websites as Mother Jones, In These Times and Truthout; and reporters like Lee Fang at The Intercept, David Sirota at International Business Times, Ari Berman at The Nation and Andy Kroll at National Journal, to name just a few. Not to mention recent work like Matea Gold, Tom Hamburger and Anu Narayanswamy’s exhaustive digdown at The Washington Post into four decades of campaign and charitable contributions to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Of course, contributing to the problem in this Internet age is the slashing of press revenues that fund in-depth investigating, plus the sheer glut of information and data unaccompanied by knowledge or wisdom. Tom McCarthy thinks the problem’s especially critical at the state and local level, where money for investigative journalism is scarcest but where some of the worst corruption occurs in dark corners unilluminated by the kind of reporting that makes Spotlight so remarkable.

The slogan on the movie’s poster is, “Break the story. Break the silence.” Journalist Ben Bradlee, Jr., played in the film by John Slattery, told the Annenberg Media Center’s NeonTommy blog, “The movie underscores the importance of investigative journalism in a democracy.” And in a recent interview at Salon, Tom McCarthy said that this kind of reporting is, “so essential to a free and healthy press in our country. The fact that it is eroding should really be a great alarm to people, as much as the ice caps are eroding. We should be really a bit worried about the state of journalism, and not just for the journalists but for us, because that’s who it will impact most.”

He told another interviewer, “I want to ring the bell about how essential this kind of journalism is, because to me, these reporters are straight-up heroes.”


Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.
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