John Ostrander: Spotlighted


Having missed it in the theater, I finally caught this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, Spotlight, on Blu-Ray. I thought it was mighty impressive, deserving of all the kudos and awards it has gotten.

Directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy and starring Michael Keaton (having a brilliant career renaissance), Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci and a whole slew of really good actors, it tells the account of the breaking of the pederast priests story in the Boston Archdiocese by the Spotlight investigative team of the Boston Globe. The four journalists working for Spotlight are long form investigators who can work on a story over a long period of time, sometimes years.

The movie is both riveting and appalling, making clear how the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Boston – and elsewhere – covered up the sexual abuse of children. It’s a scandal that continues to rock the RC church on a world-wide basis. It’s not only a RC problem, as Josh Duggar proved; fundamentalists also get in on the “action”.

The movie is “entertaining” in that it tells an important story and tells it well. There are comparisons to All The President’s Men, the movie about the breaking of the Watergate scandal by the Washington Post that lead to the impeachment of Richard Nixon and these comparisons are apt; Spotlight even has a sort of Deep Throat character who we hear on the phone but never see.

One of the important points hammered home is the importance of newspapers in our Body Politic, which is worrisome since newspapers are a dying breed. It takes time and money to do this kind of investigation and I’m not sure who is willing to commit to that kind of investment any more. Staffs get cut; there’s just not enough revenue coming in to support it in such a case. Investigative journalism may be seen as a luxury by cash-strapped publishers and their boards.

Is investigative journalism important? Yes. You can trace the history and importance of it back through the “muckrakers” of Teddy Roosevelt’s time. The admirable Doris Kearns Goodwin (my favorite living history writer), in her most recent book The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, shows – among other things – the rise of McClure’s Magazine at the turn of the last century and how its groundbreaking use of long-form investigative journalism helped usher in the Progressive Era. It is a fascinating and scary read; it has too many echoes with today.

We don’t have this kind of investigative work as much these days. The Internet is great for opinion but opinions are like assholes – everybody has one and, sooner or later, everybody is one. Investigations such as shown in Spotlight rely on facts, facts that are meticulously and painstakingly gathered and checked. The goal is to get the story right and get the right story. As the movie shows, the story wasn’t just about the child abuse in the Catholic Church but how the hierarchy knew about it and covered it up.

Why is that important? This is a Newsweek report from this last February: “During a presentation for newly appointed bishops, French Monsignor Tony Anatrella said they don’t have a duty to report abuse because it should be the responsibility of victims and their families to go to the police.”

The movie tells us, in title cards at the end, that the Boston Globe published 600 articles on the topic and that pederast priests and brothers have been found in many cities, not only in this country but around the world. It was hard to read that list and not feel a little sick.

Finding the story, getting it right, and getting it out there is more important than ever in this election year. Politicians know that they can blatantly lie and get away with it. What they say hits the front page; the correction (if any) comes on page three. Perhaps a lot of people these days just don’t care; they know what they think and don’t need no stinkin’ facts.

They’re wrong. The Body Politic needs to know those stinkin’ facts. The movie, Spotlight, shows how hard it is to get them and the impact they can have. We need to know the story that the facts tell even if it makes us uncomfortable. The scary question is – how much longer will we be able to get them?