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.


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