Spotlight on ‘Spotlight’

March 1, 2016

The movies have been paying attention to the news business lately, and now the Best Picture Oscar has gone to “Spotlight,” which chronicles The Boston Globe’s successful efforts to report on widespread sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests and the pervasive cover-up by high officials of the church, including Cardinal Bernard Law.

It is one of the best newspaper movies in recent years, underscoring the importance of aggressive and thorough investigative reporting as a means of holding to account people in power who are guilty of crimes and other abuses. Journalists everywhere ought to enjoy a morale boost from the movie, but also by the success of the Globe in pursuing its series back in the early 2000s.

These are not easy days for the media. The Republican primary has become a noxious swamp, and yet it is the press’s job to report the lies, bigoted statements, scapegoating, mudslinging and playground provocations that have become the norm for Republican candidates. The media are tainted by association.

In fact, “media” is a plural word, suggesting that the media are many things. They include the instant phrase-making apparatus of social media and the instant coverage of cable TV. These have little to do with journalism and more to do with rumor-mongering, gossip, and crude headlines.

Journalism takes place when reporters and editors put together stories that require diligent, careful work, like that portrayed in the movie “Spotlight.” And yet even responsible journalists may be burned, as portrayed by another recent movie, “Truth,” which received a screening in Middlebury this past weekend.

“Truth” tells the story of the effort by “60 Minutes” and CBS to report on the string-pulling that landed George W. Bush a place in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War and his failure even to show up during a lengthy stint of his service. This story broke during the 2004 presidential campaign, and because it was based on documents that proved to be of dubious origins, Dan Rather, the CBS anchor, ended up having to apologize for the story. It ended up costing Rather his job.

“Truth” shows how a story can be undermined when the credibility of sources is called into question. The “60 Minutes” team went out on a limb by relying on documents whose origins they could not verify. Left unresolved was the question of whether the documents were fake or real and whether the story was true or false. Thus, the question of Bush’s delinquency from the National Guard and his avoidance of service in Vietnam was left unanswered.

One movie showed a successful journalistic enterprise in Boston. The other showed an effort undone because of the hasty airing of a story that wasn’t entirely pinned down. In both cases, the American people had an interest in the success of the reporters in bringing to the public truths that were being hidden by powerful people.

Reporters have always been convenient punching bags for politicians with something to hide, but it has reached a new level this year. It is common on the left and the right to denigrate the “mainstream media” or the “establishment press” for being either too aggressive or too trivial. Donald Trump, in particular, has harassed and excluded reporters and raised the prospect of “opening up” the libel laws to prosecute reporters who annoy him. “Opening up” the libels laws is a nonsensical phrase, but it appears to mean that Trump would like to stifle the First Amendment rights of the press.

It is interesting that Robert Redford has had leading roles in two important journalism movies. He played Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men,” which told the story of Watergate, and he played Dan Rather in “Truth.” Watergate was a great triumph of investigative reporting; it led to the fall of a criminal president. “Truth” shows how the merest misstep can lead to the quashing of aggressive reporting, giving the enemies of openness a renewed opportunity to hide the truth.

The American people are better off when the press is able to dig and confront the liars and criminals who have power, or those who are seeking it.


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