I spent much of the two-hour run time for the new movie “Spotlight” with tears in my eyes, and sometimes, anger in my heart.
Spotlight is what I used to call a “journalist hero” movie, the true story (with Hollywood gussing-up, of course) of the Boston Globe journalists who doggedly pursued the monstrous truth that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston (and ultimately, the church around the world), callously sought to cover up the fact that it knew about, and ran interference for, scores of priests who molested boys and girls in their parishes.
First, the anger. I couldn’t help but flash back to the men who, for whatever reason, looked me in the eye and told me I was exaggerating, perhaps even lying, when I reported that my scoutmaster was molesting kids in our troop. They told my parents they’d “keep an eye” on the scoutmaster, but dismissed my concerns and did nothing. The last time I saw the scoutmaster he was sitting outside of one of those men’s office and he said, very matter-of-factly, “I’m going to kill you for this.”
I learned many years later that I wasn’t the first who had come to the troop leaders with such information. I consider them culpable in the continued molestation of scouts over the next year, until the man was arrested, tried, and convicted (he was paroled after five years, but reoffended and will remain incarcerated in Colorado until 2035).
But it was sadness, not anger, that I mostly felt while watching this story of old-school journalists fighting the good fight, even as newspapers were beginning to crumble in the internet era.
There is a brief, pivotal — and deliberate — scene in the movie, when a reporter parks in an almost empty employee lot at the Globe beneath a looming billboard pitching AOL. Video killed the radio star, and the internet age has all but destroyed the Fourth Estate.
I was drawn to journalism at Boulder High School in 1978, in the wake of Watergate. Journalists might be scruffy and crude, poorly paid and hated by the powerful, but they could do heroic work. I watched movies like “The Killing Fields,” “All the President’s Men” and “The Year of Living Dangerously,” eager to do my part to set some of the world’s wrongs right.
In my quarter-century career, I got that chance from time to time (though never on the scale of “Spotlight”), when I poured every ounce of effort in my being into investigating stories where someone was being hurt.
But those days are, for the most part, long gone. “Spotlight” subtly hints at the coming disaster, when a new editor arrives and everyone at the Globe is resigned to a new round of cuts.
Journalism was never perfect. But today, everyone has their own set of “facts” and politicians no longer have to worry that their misdeeds and lies will be exposed. They knowingly spout falsehoods, confident that few reporters will bother to check them out (and if they do, an ever-shrinking number of people will ever read the truth). Instead, readers — I use the word in only the loosest sense — ping from tasty social-media memes to echo-chamber websites, happily accepting and propagating total bullshit simply because it suits their pre-determined beliefs and their chosen “team.”
I loved that powerful politicians thought I was a slob and a no-account. But I was reporting on some of former U.S. Rep. Gary Condit’s — the California Democrat who got mixed up in the ugly murder of his illicit young lover — foibles during his first election … as an intern. (The night he won, he came up to me and asked if I were an intern. I said I was, and he was incredibly insulted that my paper would assign a lowly worm to his race.)
You’ll often hear people, on both the left and the right, claim that journalists have an “agenda.” Mostly, in my career, the only agenda was pursuing a good story and getting as close to the truth as possible, using facts. I know it’s more fun to think of conspiracies, but as one colleague once said, “For Christ’s sake, we couldn’t conspire to push a Volkswagen with a dead battery to the side of the highway!”
I’ve always said Americans will miss the journalists they love to hate when they’re gone. I now think that’s wrong. We’re all too distracted and invested in our respective beliefs; these days, most readers would find the “Spotlight” team’s 600 Pulitzer Prize-winning stories tl;dr.
I highly recommend “Spotlight.” I don’t expect we’ll ever return to an era where Americans actually wanted to know the truth — the actual, documented truth — but this story is a great reminder of the power of journalism.