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.”

Oscar-nominated shorts to play at Prytania Theatre (Jan. 29-Feb. 4)

World of Tomorrow

“World of Tomorrow” by Don Hertzfeldt

One of the annual viewing traditions leading up to the Academy Awards is the touring collection of Oscar-nominated short films in the animated, live-action and documentary categories. The Prytania Theatre will continue that tradition by hosting the screening of the films Jan. 29-Feb. 4, the theater announced Thursday (Jan. 14).

The announcement comes on the heals of the announcement of all of the Academy Award nominations, with the ceremony televised Feb. 28 by ABC.

(Read more: Check out the complete list of nominees here.)

Details of the Prytania screening series are sketchy and should be coming soon. Until then, here are the nominated films and their directors:

“Body Team 12,” David Darg and Bryn Mooser; “Chau, beyond the Lines,” Courtney Marsh and Jerry Franck; “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah,” Adam Benzine; “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy; “Last Day of Freedom,” Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman.

“Bear Story,” Gabriel Osorio and Pato Escala; “Prologue,” Richard Williams and Imogen Sutton; “Sanjay’s Super Team,” Sanjay Patel and Nicole Grindle; “We Can’t Live without Cosmos,” Konstantin Bronzit; “World of Tomorrow,” Don Hertzfeldt.

“Ave Maria,” Basil Khalil and Eric Dupont; “Day One,” Henry Hughes; “Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut),” Patrick Vollrath; “Shok,” Jamie Donoughue; “Stutterer,” Benjamin Cleary and Serena Armitage

Check for updates here and on their Facebook event page. The tour is sponsored by Shorts International.