Two movies seek to show journalism at its best, but only one delivers

Spotlight promotional still

Two new movies about influential news stories from the beginning of the 21st century extol the glories and hint at the pitfalls of big-time investigative reporting. One of them is already sparking Oscar talk and unabashed celebration, while the other has re-opened old wounds, splitting critics and old media types right down the middle. 

The directors of Spotlight and Truth were both trying to do the same thing: Each of them wanted to make a movie about heroism in journalism. But only one has a story that lends itself naturally to that kind of celebration.

First, the good news: Spotlight, which opens this Friday in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston, is an old-fashioned melodrama that has stimulated preview audiences more than any other newspaper tale since Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford took the country by storm in All the President’s Men way back in 1976. Directed by Tom McCarthy and written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight is a careful and suspenseful recreation of the blockbuster effort by The Boston Globe that shook up the Catholic Church like no other investigation ever has: the sordid story of pedophile priests whose crimes were systematically covered up by the church hierarchy.

Marty Baron, who was the Globe’s top editor then and is executive editor of The Washington Post now, told CJR that the filmmakers went through many months of research: “They spent hours and hours interviewing people at the Globe, myself included. They looked at emails and court documents and all the clips back into the ’90s. They interviewed people in the community.” Baron cites one possible reason for the movie’s meticulousness: Co-screenwriter Singer is a graduate of both Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. “It’s not a documentary,” says Baron, “but they got the thrust of it just right.”

The movie does a fine job of recreating the painstaking process of a complicated investigation. As some reporters gradually crack the code used in church directories to disguise the reasons for moving priests around the parish, their editors are subtly (and unsuccessfully) lobbied to turn their attention elsewhere.  

Without the support of the public, wrongdoing will persist, and no one will know about it.

One piece of quiet intimidation by the church: Senior churchmen try to portray Baron as an outsider who can’t possibly understand Boston culture, because he is a Jew without a wife. In the end Baron’s status as an outsider is a crucial factor in the investigation’s success: It makes it impossible to intimidate him. Liev Schreiber captures the top editor’s calm manner and steely determination in a beautiful and understated performance. The rest of the excellent cast includes Michael Keaton (as Walter “Robby” Robinson, head of the investigative Spotlight unit), Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Stanley Tucci. Len Cariou plays Bernard Francis Law, the Cardinal who was ultimately removed from the Boston diocese because of his role in the scandal, but still allowed to prosper in powerful Vatican jobs afterwards.

At a time when newspapers are under siege everywhere as the economic model that created them continues to collapse, Spotlight is a timely reminder of the unique value of a great metropolitan daily. It’s hard to think of another institution that could have challenged a pillar of the Boston community like the Catholic church the way the Globe did. And it’s even harder to imagine what will replace all of America’s dailies as they continue to shrink, or disappear altogether.

“Obviously I think it’s incredibly important that we have vigorous investigative reporting,” Baron continued. “And it’s incredibly important that we have local institutions that can hold institutions accountable. We’re in an industry under enormous pressure and there are fewer resources. Investigative journalism differentiates newspapers from everyone else. There are so many new players, but there is very little accountability journalism. This is why we need newspapers. We need to have a public service mission.”

Before the Globe investigation, there had been isolated stories of a single priest here and there abusing a parishioner. But the Globe was the first paper to force open church records that revealed there had been dozens of secret settlements with victims of abuse—and more than a hundred priests in the Boston area accused of wrongdoing. It was the Globe’s effort that eventually led to the exposure of the national and international scale of the problem, whose astonishing breadth is revealed in the closing credits, when the locations of abuse are revealed in a list of scores of cities around the world. 

Hopefully the film will be equally powerful for news people and civilians alike. “We can write all the columns in a newspaper we like saying how important our field is, but one movie can have a bigger impact,” says Baron. “I hope it will have the widest possible impact, and people will recognize that this kind of work is absolutely essential. Without the support of the public, wrongdoing will persist, and no one will know about it.”

 

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The other big fall movie about the news is Truth, a title which, as Stephen Holden pointed out in The New York Times, “should probably be appended with a question mark.”

Starring Robert Redford as Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett as his producer, Mary Mapes, the movie recreates the piece from a 60 Minutes spinoff about George W. Bush that blew up in the face of CBS News during the 2004 presidential campaign. After a lengthy outside investigation headed by ex-Republican Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, Rather left the network, Mapes was fired, and three of the news executives they worked with resigned.

The piece, which claimed that Bush had used political connections to enter the Texas Air National Guard and then barely bothered to show up after he had been trained as a pilot, was supposed to have been based on new documents written by one of Bush’s commanding officers and obtained by Mapes. The trouble was that after airing the documents, CBS discovered 1) that Mapes didn’t really know where they came from and 2) that it was impossible to prove they were real.

(Disclosure: While I can be entirely impartial about Spotlight, I can’t say the same about Truth. I have known Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News when the 60 Minutes piece aired, for several decades; the number two producer on the show, Mary Murphy, who later lost her job, was my colleague and good friend at Newsweek, and I have also worked with her boss on 60 Minutes Wednesday, Josh Howard. Howard also lost his CBS job after the Bush story blew up.)

We reported a true story … the process of getting to the truth was imperfect.

Truth does a good job of recreating a particular kind of news investigation: the kind where competitive pressures force a complicated investigation onto the air before it’s ready for prime time, and the line producer of the piece misleads her bosses about how much she has done to verify the documents that are the linchpin of the story. (There was one other important element here: Mapes was riding high because she had broken the story of torture at Abu Ghraib earlier that year, so her work about Bush probably wasn’t vetted as fiercely as it should have been.)

Ever since the story exploded for Mapes and Rather, their main line of defense has been that it doesn’t matter whether the documents were real because the story about Bush’s service record is true. That’s why Mapes continues to deny that she bungled “very badly … I think we were within the normal journalistic range of bungle.” It’s also why Rather once again defended his work to CJR last week: “We reported a true story,” he says, although “the process of getting to the truth was imperfect.” Both of them remain in denial about what they did, and how it affected their colleagues.

Ironically, we know the main allegations in the piece are true because most of them were first reported in 2000 in The Boston Globe by Walter Robinson—the same Globe journalist who later supervised the Catholic Church investigation. But there is a crucial difference between Robinson’s work and what Mapes did: Robinson’s story was based on documents whose authenticity has never been questioned.

The movie is based on Mapes’s own memoir, and Rather admits that he was astonished when it actually got made: “When I heard it was optioned and then that Redford was going to play me, I thought that was more unlikely than me becoming the Pope or the Dalai Lama,” he told me last week.          

Mapes and Rather certainly have hit the jackpot with Truth, because the way they are portrayed by Blanchett and Redford makes them look like gigantic journalistic heroes—which is not what they were. The problem is that the movie’s point of view isn’t nuanced enough. While it makes clear that Mapes and Rather were more than a little sloppy, it still goes out of its way to celebrate them. And while the other people involved in the story who lost their jobs are portrayed as corporate lackeys, their journalistic standards were arguably a lot higher than those of Rather and Mapes, something the movie does not explain at all.

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Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.