On “Spotlight,” newspapers, the church, and institutional control


The cast of “Spotlight.” (Photo by Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films)

In hindsight it felt like I’d been sitting by the phone and waiting for my former colleague Dave Gladow to call and invite me to join him on his new pop-culture podcast, “The Pursuit of Crappiness,” to discuss the recent Academy Award-winning movie “Spotlight.” After all, because both of us are newsroom veterans, and “Spotlight” focused on the Boston Globe’s award-winning investigation of the local archdiocese, it seemed like a natural fit.

Just as Hollywood loves making movies about Hollywood, journalists love discussing movies about journalism. Although I conceded rather late in the podcast that the deck might have been stacked in the favor of “Spotlight” to win Best Picture, as, Hollywood also loves making movies about most forms of media, and when you add its social relevance, the win probably was a slam dunk.

But the desire to discuss “Spotlight” had extra meaning for me. As soon as I left the theater after a screening, I could only think of one other thing besides the even-then-tenuous status of newspapers. (The movie is set way back in 2001, long before I’d been laid off, twice — three, counting the immediate aftermath Hurricane Katrina — by newspapers. What also struck me was the unspoken theme of institutional control, and how institutions wrestle with their role in the community and their responsibility to the people they serve.

At its core, “Spotlight” is about a newspaper trying to rise above the incremental reporting it had done on the pedophile priests — and, possibly, the extensive work already done by the rival alt-weekly the Boston Phoenix — and expose the conspiracy to cover up the priests’ illegal and immoral behavior being executed at the top levels of the archdiocese and possibly even the Vatican. As the new executive editor challenges them, why haven’t they “gotten” the big guy?

But “Spotlight” — a procedural on many levels — investigates the process of news gathering at a fragile time for a newspaper is doubly challenged to maintain its relationship with its ever-fickle readership as well as its seemingly cozy relationship with the archdiocese. There’s an early scene in which the new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) — not just a non-Bostonian but also, a Jew — meets with the archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law. It’s a formality, really, a ceremony, in which preaches to Baron of the need for the two institutions to work together to better serve the community. Baron politely and respectfully disagrees, arguing that a newspaper is at its best when serving independently of the church. Law smiles a tight smile, hands him a copy of the Catholic Catechism (another tradition!) and sends him on his way.

From there we see the Boston Globe wrestle with how to cover an institution deeply ingrained in the community, but one that clearly has lost its way in serving it. And we see a Boston Globe already suffering from ever-shrinking ad revenue, and with staffers who have their own relative relationships with the church. (Some are still devout, others not so much.) It’s also wrestling with how deep it needs to dig before getting the story to press before the competition does. (See above clip.)

I’ve probably already given away too much of the podcast, so I’ll stop here. As is once again evident, I could go on all day. I’ll just end by saying that, from this current perch, the institution of newspapers, 15 years since the setting of this movie, is more challenged and compromised than ever.

Thanks again to Dave Gladow for the invite, and I look forward to future chats. And for an early perspective, check out New Orleans author Jason Berry’s 1992 work, “Lead Us Not Into Temptation.”

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