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'Spotlight' Celebrates the Power of Journalism to Fight Corruption

The fantastic new film details how reporters exposed the seedy underbelly of the Catholic Church.

by Susan Zalkind
Nov 11 2015, 5:00am

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d'Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery in Spotlight.Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films

The following article contains some minor spoilers for Spotlight.

At its best, old-school journalism is a high-stakes battle, revealing egregious wrongdoing and dethroning powerful villains. Released last week, the new film Spotlight is a detective story in that vein, tracking the Boston reporters who exposed the Catholic Church for protecting child-molesting priests. Though tales of abuse at the hands of the clergy had been published in the past, the Boston Globe's Spotlight investigative unit succeeded in detailing how church officials systematically protected priests they knew to be predators, bringing new attention to rampant abuse. It was a story that began in that city, and quickly became a national and and international phenomenon. New revelations about priest molestations still appear in papers across the world to this day.

The saga landed the journalists with a 2003 Pulitzer Prize, and it wouldn't be surprising if the film, directed by Thomas McCarthy and starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams, takes home an Oscar. This is 128 minutes of great acting that imbues the work of journalism with tension and heft. It's also something of a period piece—that era of newspaper-supported investigative reporting is increasingly hard to come by in 2015.

The Globe investigation centered around Father John J. Geoghan and more than 130 of his victims. When the Globe reporters began digging in 2001, the details of the priest's abuse were detailed in court documents and spelled out in settlement deals—or what some might call hush money payments from the church. But before the investigative unit got on the case, those documents were sealed. (To this day, Massachusetts remains one of the worst states in the country for accessing public records.)

In the film, Liev Schreiber plays Marty Barron, the stoic new editor from Miami otherwise known as the "unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball." He comes to Boston, one of the most Catholic cities in the country, from a state with strong open records laws. Unlike the Boston journos, who were more or less used to running into red tape and dead ends when it came to unsealing documents, he tells the Spotlight team to go after the Church—hard.

That's exactly what they do. In that sense, Spotlight serves as a helpful introduction to how impactful investigative journalism is accomplished. It's not glamorous; in fact, the triumph of the film is making the painstaking work of investigative journalism dramatic. There are awkward conversations in coffee shops, successful attempts to bribe court clerks, lots of boiled hot dogs, and mistakes at every stage.

The Spotlight team realizes at one point that they overlooked a victim who came forward with the story several years earlier. Upon regaining his trust, along with that of several other victims, they create a database of priests who were listed as being on "sick leave"—a code, reporters discover, for when church hierarchy knew they had a predator on their hands. After hounding attorneys who represented the victims and filing a motion to get the documents unsealed, the team finally gets the goods.

Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, who rather than removing known molesters from positions where they could hurt children shuffled them from parish to parish, was forced to resign less than a year after the stories started to come out. He now has an even more powerful position as the archpriest of Santa Maria Maggiore.

Not surprisingly, other than a brief clip of journalist Sasha Pfeiffer's husband setting the table before she ducks out of dinner to have a beer with a fellow frustrated Spotlight team member, the reporters' family lives are hardly depicted at all. If this film doesn't inspire and instruct wannabe investigative reporters, perhaps it will at least educate the countless number of men who, upon hearing what I do for a living, respond, "Like Zoe Barnes from House of Cards?" I'll cheer any popular depiction of a female journalist that doesn't involve her falling in love or fucking her sources.

Baron is heard vexing about sales and the waning significance of a printed classified section, but the film doesn't concern itself with foreshadowing the coming shakeups that would severely hurt newspaper newsrooms. When the Spotlight team was busy tracking down close to 70 Boston-area predatory priests and their victims, the Globe had more than 500 employees on staff. Like most local daily papers, they weren't able to successfully navigate the problems that came with the internet and the information it provided to everyone with a modem. There were cuts—lots of them. By 2010, staff fires and buyouts lead to the emergence of "the center of the doughnut," an empty space at the paper's Morrissey Boulevard office, once occupied by 100-since terminated employees.

The layoffs didn't end there. Last month, the Globefired nearly two-dozen staffers. Seventeen others accepted buyouts. Today, the paper has a staff of about 300.

In a recent interview with On the Media, Pfeiffer offered an optimistic outlook. Despite the cuts, the Spotlight team has expanded from four to six full-time staffers. The team often collaborates with beat reporters "so they can turn around good investigative stories faster," she said.

But an expanded Spotlight team may not be enough to make up for what papers like the Globe have lost. Even the best investigative reporters take a hit when there are fewer journalists in the newsroom and in the community at large. The Catholic Church investigation is a case in point—the journalists in the film spent a lot of time involved looking back at old clippings and connecting dots that hadn't been connected before. The priest scandal would have been a far more difficult, if not an impossible, story to crack if the journalists were working from scratch. In fact, in the modern media environment, it's possible that the Globe would never have been tipped off to the abuse scandal at all. Even as online media companies accrue massive editorial staffs, hyperlocal reporting remains essential, but increasingly hard to come by.

After all, while the Globe's thorough reporting and in-depth follow-ups brought the systematic phenomenon of shady priests into the public consciousness, the paper didn't break the story. A local alt weekly, the Boston Phoenix first brought attention to the cases, and the sealed court documents, to light. Sadly, the Phoenix shut its doors in 2013.

In the wake of the cuts, it's impossible to know just how much we've lost. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, the downfall of local investigative reporting falls into the category of the "known unknowns." We know stories about local corruption and abuse of power are getting looked over—we just don't know which ones.

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