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November 13, 2015

When people talk about the death of news and newspapers, it can be hard to get worked up over it. In terms of what’s happening on a day-to-day basis, the rise of 24-hour cable news networks ate the papers’ lunch years ago, just as they in turn are getting scooped on the regular by the internet and social media.

It’s now common in the middle of an outrage storm to see complaints that cable news isn’t even covering a given story. And while it’s true that corporate media often have some screwed up priorities when compared with grassroots communication, it’s kind of like asking why a battleship isn’t chasing after that escaping speedboat. The apparatus of a major news network simply doesn’t turn that fast. And if cable news is a battleship, print news is a supertanker.

The case for newspapers simply cannot be made on the basis of speed, which is what most people seem to think about. The news is, well, new. But as important as it is to get the story first, it’s also important to get the story right, which is a much longer, slower process. The always-on cable news cycle doesn’t lend itself to deep, investigative journalism, and the churning internet will get distracted by another listicle of what ten people look like with and without their glasses — I’m not even kidding here — before it can really dig into a tough story.

What we mourn with the loss of newspapers isn’t their ability to present the news — the latest, breaking, day-to-day information — but the way they’ve thrown their resources behind long-form investigative journalism in a way that none of the replacements have quite managed to replicate.

At The Boston Globe, their dedicated investigative team is called “Spotlight”, and in January 2002 they broke the clerical abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese wide open. Spotlight tells the story behind their story as carefully and meticulously as the Spotlight team itself did.

It started when Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) moved in as the new Globe editor, and in his first meeting asked about the follow-up to a column. Attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), representing some eighty victims of clerical abuse, claimed the existence of sealed documents that painted a damning portrait of a coverup that reached all the way up to Bernard Cardinal Law, the very head of the archdiocese. But the Globe’s coverage was a single writeup by a single columnist, not even technically a news story. He directed Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) to suggest Spotlight take up the story.

The team — Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) — started with a literature search. It seems easy enough, but back before everything was digitized this meant picking some search terms and going into the archive to pull out folders of clippings that held every story the Globe had ever run containing those terms. Meanwhile, Rezendes went to track down the irascible Garabedian, trying to pick up the story from his end.

Slowly, but surely, the pattern begins to emerge. The team starts to recognize names, and they suss out the code words in the archdiocese’s own publications that indicate abusive priests. It’s difficult to get much help; the Church touches the lives of everyone in Boston, and even non-Catholics have a vested interest in not rocking the boat. At every step they close ranks, and as it becomes clearer what the Spotlight team are after they start pushing back. It’s gentle, but enough to remind us what power they wield.

Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy wisely includes victims’ stories as well, which keeps us from abstracting away the very real pain at the heart of the story. It also ignites our sense of outrage, just as it affected the team itself. But he also keeps the focus clearly on the story, and on the long game. And when Rezendes flips out in his rage and indigation, Robinson pulls him back just as McCarthy pulls us back. This isn’t about the crusading reporters tilting at the establishment and striking a blow for freedom, as satisfying as that story may be in the moment. This is about building an airtight case that will stick to its target and not be easily brushed aside. It’s the sort of thing only deep, patient investigative journalism can do.

In this way, Spotlight stands in the company of All the President’s Men, and apart from lesser fare like Truth. The Spotlight team deserve all the praise and awards they received, but the film isn’t about lionizing them. McCarthy is uninterested in hagiography. We learn little about them beyond their relationship to the story they uncovered, and their exploits are certainly not backed with a comic-book-hero score.

Spotlight reminds us both how valuable deep, long-form investigative reporting is, and how difficult it can be. We abandon this sort of watchdog on the institutions that shape our world at our own great peril, and we need to remember what we’re giving up as we let the one place it still thrives slip into the dustbin of history.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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