Tuesday, November 24, 2015

'Spotlight' -- more than a great newspaper story -- Nov. 24, 2015 column


One of the best movies of the year portrays an unlikely hero, a newspaper.

“Spotlight” is based on the true story of The Boston Globe’s painstaking investigation, starting in 2001, into child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Boston that was covered up for decades by local church leaders.

While not a documentary, the movie uses real names and works for verisimilitude. It keeps its focus on journalism and on how three hard-working reporters – Sacha Pfeiffer, Mike Rezendes and Matt Carroll -- and editor Walter “Robby” Robinson doggedly pursued the truth and a story that was bigger than anyone imagined.

While it does not show abuse, “Spotlight” is rated R and contains what The New York Times review called “graphic descriptions of despicable acts; language not fit for print.”

It’s being compared to “All the President’s Men.” That 1976 movie about dashing young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s uncovering the truth behind the Watergate break-in for The Washington Post was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four. It inspired a generation of reporters.

Those still working at newspapers have seen their newsrooms shrink around them like melting ice floes as newspapers struggle to survive in the digital age. Many papers have shut down their investigative staffs to cut costs. Surveys, though, show readers want in-depth reporting.

Perhaps coincidentally, trust in newspapers has ebbed to near-historic lows, Gallup reports. Could a movie turn that trend around? Probably not, although the Los Angeles Times announced this month that it’s restarting its investigative team.

“Spotlight” takes place 14 years ago as the Internet is just taking off. A billboard over the Globe’s parking lot trumpets “AOL Anywhere.”  When the Globe gets a new top editor, Marty Baron, reporters worry about layoffs.

Baron reads a local column about a pedophile priest and puts the Spotlight team on the story. The movie traces the team for five months as the reporters and editor work the old-fashioned way. 

They comb through stacks of paper clips from the newspaper “morgue” and check names by hand in old diocesan directories. They knock on doors that sometimes slam in their faces. They track down sealed court documents.

Instead of a few isolated cases, they discover that up to 90 pedophile priests in Boston have been protected by the church over the years.

The movie ends with publication of the first story on Jan. 6, 2002, about one predatory priest and the extensive cover-up. The Globe expanded the team and wrote 600 follow-up stories on the scandal that year, detailing how priests were shuffled from parish to parish, and victims’ families were given secret payments in return for silence.

More than 250 priests and brothers in Boston have been accused of abusing minors.
The paper won a Pulitzer Prize for public service for its “courageous, comprehensive coverage.”

“Spotlight” doesn’t flinch in showing how the Globe earlier missed what became its biggest story. Years before, a victim gave information about abuse, but the paper downplayed it until Baron, who was neither from Boston nor Catholic, unleashed the investigative team.  

The team could have done nothing, however, without the courageous abuse victims who, one by one, agreed to share their horrifying stories in print. The paper also posted church documents online, so that readers could see the cover-up for themselves.

The Globe’s work led to the resignation of Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law and the uncovering of a worldwide scandal that still continues. At the end of the movie, several screens list hundreds of cities and towns here and around the world where sexual abuse by priests has been reported. Among them is Richmond, where the Times-Dispatch has reported on cases.

To learn more, www.Bishop-Accountability.org tracks cases of sexual abuse by priests.

When Pope Francis visited the United States in September, he met with a small group of victims of child sexual abuse and said “God weeps” for them.

“Spotlight” reminds us of the timeless value of investigative reporting by newspapers that are still doing this important work. And they’re not all metropolitan papers like the Globe.

The Bristol Herald Courier won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2010 for a series on natural gas companies withholding royalty payments from Southwest Virginia landowners.  

In the deadline-driven Internet age, we’re fortunate that independent nonprofits such as ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity have taken on the mission of investigative journalism. We need comprehensive reporting that takes time. We need the truth.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Finding kindness in perilous times -- Nov. 19, 2015 column


Every year on World Kindness Day -- Nov. 13 -- people in about two dozen countries help oldies cross the street, hold doors for one another and think warm thoughts. How nice.

This year, though, terrorists attacked Paris, killing at least 129 people.  

The horrific acts left us all reeling. But the thugs did not kill kindness. Kindness is so much more than the occasional display of good manners.

Three days after the Paris attacks, an inspiring news story involving a brave first responder, a dedicated surgical team and a grieving family rocketed around the world. 

What connected the three was robust, life-changing kindness.

On Sept. 5, 2001, Patrick Hardison, then a 27-year-old volunteer firefighter in Senatobia, Miss., was trying to rescue a woman from a burning house.

“Just like every other fire…we went in looking for a lady,” he told ABC’s “Nightline.”
This time, the roof collapsed onto his head, knocking off his helmet. He felt his mask melting.

He lost his eyelids, ears, lips and most of his nose as well as his hair and eyebrows. His appearance frightened his own children. And the woman he’d been told was trapped inside the burning house? She was fine – not even home at the time.

After enduring more than 70 surgeries that still left him badly disfigured and in pain, he had all but given up when he was referred to Dr. Eduardo D. Rodriguez, a pioneering reconstructive surgeon. He is now chairman of the plastic surgery department at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.  

Rodriguez, a Miami-born child of Cuban immigrants, started out as a dentist and attended medical school at Virginia Commonwealth University before graduating in 1999.

He evaluated Hardison for a face transplant and found him an excellent candidate. Hardison was more than willing, even with only a 50-50 chance of surviving the operation. They needed a face.

Then came a remarkable act of kindness by strangers.

David P. Rodebaugh was just 26 when the bicycle he was riding in Brooklyn, N.Y., slammed into a pedestrian and he was thrown to the ground, hitting his head. Rodebaugh was not wearing a helmet.

Rodebaugh was an artist and bicycle mechanic. “A free spirit,” his mother called him. He had signed an organ donor card, but the operation is so rare that few of us ever imagine our face might be transplanted. His mother recalled that her son had always wanted to be a firefighter and gave her permission.

The family donated his liver, kidneys and both eyes to help other patients. 

Rodriguez’ team -- doctors, nurses, tech and support staff – had practiced for a year to hone their skills before attempting the heroic surgery. Using Rodebaugh’s face, Rodriguez and a medical team of more than 100 performed a 26-hour surgery, the most extensive face transplant surgery ever, on Aug. 14.

Its success was announced Nov. 16 at a news conference at NYU Langone, which paid for the transplant operation, estimated at $850,000 to $1 million.

“You only have one chance to land the Rover. The same goes with the face,” Rodriguez told Reuters, referring to NASA’s landing of the Rover spacecraft on Mars.

Because of the kindness of Rodebaugh’s family and the dedication of Rodriguez and his team, Hardison has a new face. After years of wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses, he can finally walk outside without being stared at.

He’s still having rehab therapy but hopes to be home in Mississippi for Thanksgiving, he told the Associated Press. His next goal, if he regains his sight as another benefit of the surgery, is to start driving again.

In a time of sorrow in Paris and fear in the United States and around the world, the story reminds us that human kindness is indomitable.   

“I am deeply grateful to my donor and his family,” Hardison said in a statement. “I hope they see in me the goodness of their decision.”

This Thanksgiving, thank a first responder. A police officer.  A member of the military. A doctor, nurse or another medical professional. They deserve our thanks and appreciation every day.

Terrorists may strike, but they cannot murder kindness unless we let them. And we don’t need Kindness Day to be kind or Thanksgiving to be grateful.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Protecting consumers' right to gripe -- Nov. 12, 2015 column


Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, had a pillow in her upstairs sitting room embroidered with the invitation, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

Today, the Internet sits right by all of us, churning out critiques that are far more than juicy gossip. Irate consumers who once spouted off only to friends and family about haphazard customer service, shoddy products and careless workmanship now have, at their fingertips, a megaphone to the world.

Customers are empowered by the wisdom of the crowd as online reviews help us choose everything from donuts and dog walkers to dentists and vacation destinations.  

We take some reviews with a shaker of salt, knowing that some are fake, posted by unscrupulous competitors. We can ignore unsigned rants, but people who sign their reviews should have a right to air their opinions.      

Unfortunately, more and more companies and even medical professionals want to stifle complaints with gag or anti-disparagement clauses. These provisions show up in “Terms and Conditions” boilerplate and form contracts. Since most people rarely read the fine print, they don’t realize they’ve agreed not to share negative comments until they’re threatened with warnings, fees and lawsuits.  

Such intimidation should not happen, and, the old joke aside, Washington actually may be here to help.

The Federal Trade Commission in September sued marketers of a line of weight-loss products alleging that they made false claims for their products and then threatened to enforce a gag clause to stop consumers from posting negative reviews and testimonials online. 

A federal judge last month issued an injunction, stopping Roca Labs from telling customers they can’t post bad product reviews.

California last year passed a law prohibiting companies from inserting language in contracts that waives a consumer’s right to make “any statement” about goods and services. But individual lawsuits and separate state laws take time.

Congress is considering a federal law to eliminate confusion about what’s allowed where. The Consumer Review Freedom Act would ban non-disparagement claims in form contracts while still allowing companies to pursue defamation cases in court. The bills in the House and Senate have bipartisan support as well as backing from Angie’s List and Yelp.

A Senate Commerce Committee hearing Nov. 4 featured a victim of a gag clause, Jen Palmer of Utah. Her husband, John, bought a key chain and desk toy that together cost under $20 as Christmas gifts in 2008 from online retailer KlearGear.com, but the items never arrived.

After the couple couldn’t reach anyone at the company by phone, Jen Palmer wrote a negative review on RipoffReport.com. Three years later, KlearGear contacted John Palmer, insisting that his wife’s negative review be taken down or that he pay a $3,500 fine for violating a non-disparagement clause. KlearGear claimed the items were never paid for.

RipoffReport.com has a policy of not removing reviews. Plus, the Palmers said the non-disparagement clause wasn’t part of KlearGear’s fine print until well after the purchase. When Palmer did not pay the penalty, KlearGear reported an unpaid debt of $3,500 on his credit report, resulting in delays getting loans and financing for a furnace.

Unable to repair the credit score, Jen Palmer finally asked a television station in Salt Lake City for help. Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization, saw the story and took the case. KlearGear did not respond to the lawsuit, and a federal judge awarded the couple more than $300,000. KlearGear, however, is based in France and has not paid a penny.

A KlearGear.com spokesman said the company’s contracts are enforceable in the United States because business transactions are exempt from First Amendment rights, adding, “If a customer disagrees with any of a merchant’s policies, they are free to shop elsewhere,” the Associated Press reported.

“The only two things we wanted,” Jen Palmer told the senators, was “my husband’s credit to be cleaned, and we wanted to make sure this would never happen to anyone else.”

She’s right. Companies should not be allowed to bully or silence consumers who have suffered bad service or products. Congress should act to protect consumers’ right to gripe, especially as we rely on the Internet to help us decide what to buy and where to shop, eat and stay.

We all should be able to discover the good, the bad and the ugly before we spend our hard-earned money.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Honoring Jefferson's vision for the next 200 years -- column of Nov. 5, 2015


Before we relied on smart devices to answer our questions, people became smart by reading books.

Many still do, of course, on paper and screens, but few read or collect books the way Thomas Jefferson did, almost compulsively. He was a human Google, a genius whose vast knowledge and interests reflected his appetite for learning.   

During the five years he lived in Paris as a diplomat, Jefferson wrote later, he spent his free afternoons in bookshops, “turning over every book with my own hand, and putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science.”

Jefferson, who read six languages and spoke four, amassed a library at Monticello of more than 6,000 books in 33 languages. He sold his library to Congress in 1815 to replace the 3,000-volume Library of Congress burned by the British the year before.

Congress could set the price, Jefferson said, but he insisted that it take the collection in its entirety, not choose among the volumes.

Amazingly, the decision to buy the trove was not the 19th century equivalent of a slam dunk. Then, as now, Congress fretted about spending in a time of bitter partisanship.     

Some legislators thought the price -- $23,950, estimated to be $265,500 in today’s dollars -- was too high. Some argued there were higher spending priorities than a grand library and that the government needed to economize.  

Others found fault with Jefferson’s expansiveness -- too many works of literature and French philosophy, some irreligious and immoral, having encouraged the French Revolution.

The books were “good, bad, and indifferent, old, new, and worthless, in languages many cannot read, and most ought not,” one congressman complained, calling it “true Jeffersonian, Madisonian philosophy to bankrupt the Treasury, beggar the people, and disgrace the nation.”  Sounds familiar.

But Jefferson had a high opinion of the intellectual curiosity and capacity of Congress: “There is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have the occasion to refer,” he wrote.

Fortunately, Congress finally approved the purchase – narrowly and along party lines. Jefferson watched as wooden planks were nailed to his bookcases, which were then loaded onto 10 wagons for the 125-mile, six-day trip to Washington.

Jefferson,72, used the proceeds to pay off debts – and buy more books.

I review this history because the Library of Congress, where Jefferson’s splendid library is on display, is at a crossroads. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington retired Sept. 30 after 30 years. Billington, 86, was widely criticized for failing to take the nation’s library into the 21st  century.

A search is on for a successor. Too often we see technology in conflict with tradition, an either-or proposition, but we need not. In its next 200 years, America’s library should honor Jefferson’s vision by using the newest technology.

In Jefferson’s time, the great libraries of England and Europe were in monasteries, courts and palaces -- accessible to the elite but not to ordinary people. Jefferson wanted the Library of Congress to serve the public as well as Congress.

“The idea that knowledge belongs to everyone was a fairly radical concept at that time,” Jurretta Heckscher, Library of Congress history specialist, said in a web discussion Oct. 20. While it was accepted that men and women should be able to read the Bible, she added, slaves were prohibited from learning to read and risked their lives doing so.

It’s wonderful that ordinary people can still walk in and use the library in Washington, the world’s largest with 160 million items. Millions more people worldwide use the Library of Congress at all hours on the Internet.

Only a fraction of the library’s books are available online, though, and that needs to be addressed so anyone with a computer -- laptop, desktop, tablet, smartphone and whatever’s next -- can access the library’s collections. That’s a goal that would please Jefferson.
(C) 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.