“Spotlight:” Boston Globe church-scandal movie spurs press introspection
After the thunderous applause died down for last week's preview of "Spotlight," the new Michael Keaton movie, the real stars took seats in front of the screen. Marty Baron, Walter "Robby" Robinson, Mike Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer and Ben Bradlee Jr. — five key figures in the Boston Globe's 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning expose into the sexual abuse of young parishioners by Catholic priests.
As good a reaction as they gave the film, attendees at the Investigative Film Festival, hosted by the D.C.-based 100Reporters group, seemed as enthusiastic about hearing from the panelists. Do they believe the movie about their 13-year-old disclosures will inspire the news business during its current financial and technological struggles? (They do.) And will the film go on to win a more universal audience? (Still unclear, although it is earning major Oscar buzz ahead of its November premier.) And just how much literary license was needed to turn the Globe's shoe-leather and document-based newspaper campaign into the thrilling picture they'd just seen?
The answer to that last question — not much license at all.
Highly emotional interviews with victims of abusive priests were indeed at the heart of the reporting by the Globe's Spotlight team, as the movie shows. There was plenty of digging through Church directories and ferreting out court documents, too, of course, which filmmakers made as dramatic as they could. Showdowns with the entrenched Church hierarchy built the tension, and made the Globe's victory in breaking the story all the sweeter. And unlikely as it seems, editor Baron did indeed suggest digging into the Church scandal on his very first day at the Globe in 2001 — a made-for-Hollywood opening if there ever was one. Baron had just been hired from the Miami Herald, where he was executive editor.
As played onscreen by Liev Schreiber, Baron may have seemed far too low-key to be the chief of a big news operation. When Globe colleagues in the film suggest that the Church would staunchly fight the paper's attempt to sue for the release of court documents, Schreiber replies, "Good to know." But as audience members soon learned from Baron himself — now executive editor of the Washington Post — Schreiber got his penchant for understatement just right.
Asked onstage about one movie scene in which Boston Church leaders blame Baron’s Jewish upbringing for exposure of pedophile priests, the editor said his religion of course had nothing to do with it. "When I got to Boston and when I got to the Globe I was just looking for good stories," Baron told the audience. "To me this was just an interesting story."
Robinson — played brilliantly by Keaton, down to his wry humor and Boston pronunciation of "Spawtlight" — wanted to make sure everyone in the auditorium knew Baron's importance, though. "There would have been no story, no film, if it hadn't been for that guy," he said. (In one particularly expansive moment, Baron did talk in detail about the Church stories during a 2011 Emerson College "Impact Journalism" class I taught during a field trip to the very Globe meeting room where Baron first had proposed delving into stories on sexual abuse by priests.)
As a local Globe reader who followed its Church reporting closely at the time—covering the Globe's work for Poynter, and later including it in a book of Pulitzer-winning cases, I have closely followed the movie's successful string of film festival appearance and media previews in recent months. I was especially interested in the views of "Spotlight's" director, Tom McCarthy, and co-screenwriter Josh Singer, both also appearing at the D.C. event. TV filmmaker David Simon, best known for "The Wire", moderated the energetic discussion. Simon started by jokingly characterizing the Globe Church expose as "porn" for those who love journalism.
After watching the film I wanted to know how diligently McCarthy and Singer had vetted their work with the reporters and editors. Onstage, the journalists and the filmmakers agreed there had been close coordination. In that sense, I was reminded of what Bob Woodward had told me about the making of "All the President's Men," based on the book about Watergate he wrote with Carl Bernstein. "Spotlight" is extremely reminiscent of that hugely successful 1976 film.
When Simon asked for the reporters to comment on what they would have liked "Spotlight" to include — or to leave out — the answers were largely jocular. Pfeiffer said she was happy that McCarthy resisted the temptation to insert a romantic element, which she figured would have involved Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo, who played Pfeiffer and Rezendes. "I didn't want it to fictionalize my life," she said with a laugh. "Ruffalo and McAdams: people would like that."
Rezendes noted that he might not really have forked over $80 from his pocket to pay a clerk for critical copies of documents just as the court was about to close, as he is pictured doing. But he didn't complain about the liberty taken. "It's a dramatization," according to the smiling reporter. "All I'll say was that no laws were broken in reporting the story."
Matt Carroll — another member of Spotlight when it broke the story — wasn’t at the Washington panel, but responded to an email. “The actors spent a ton of time picking our brains about what we were thinking and observing us,” wrote Carroll, who now is with MIT’s Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. “In the movie, there are a lot of little things Brian [d'Arcy James] does that only I and the other folks on the team, or family members/close friends would pick up [like] always having a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts on my desk. Seeing all those little things is pretty cool.”
One thing I missed in the movie's retelling of the Globe coverage was any discussion of the beautifully crafted writing so many of its stories displayed as they detailed the victims' tragedy. One was Robinson's story about a father who as a youth was molested and never told anyone, until he found that his own son, too, was preyed upon.
Contacted in Los Angeles after he returned home from the Washington event, Josh Singer noted that the movie's action was designed within a frame that ended on Jan. 6, 2002, the day the first Globe story on priest sexual abuse appeared. Singer pointed out that some references to writing style appear in the movie — especially how Baron tended to edit out adjectives because the stories didn't need artificial drama. (On the day the Globe won its Pulitzer, Robinson had said in the office that "somewhere within sight of this newsroom there has to be a closet full of adjectives he excised from these stories.")
Cutting the movie off on Jan. 6 also meant that nearly an entire year of Church coverage that resulted in the 2003 Pulitzer didn't make the film, nor did members who joined Spotlight later — Michael Paulson, Steve Kurkjian, Tom Farragher and Kevin Cullen — although some got slight mentions.
One out-of-sequence scene in "Spotlight" that careful Globe readers may notice reflected a Pfeiffer interview with a priest then suspected of molesting children, Ronald Paquin. In the movie, Paquin stands in his doorway and admits to "fooling around" with children — a shocking moment for actress McAdams. Pfeiffer's actual interview and the story that resulted appeared in late January, however.
Asked about that in an email, Pfeiffer suggested the scene likely was included to show "an interaction with a priest on the screen" by a reporter—something that had rarely occurred in the months leading up to Jan. 6. "There's obviously some dramatic license taken in the film since they were trying to compress a five-month investigation, plus other bits and pieces of our reporting, into a two-hour movie," she said. Singer agreed, adding that he saw in director McCarthy a "desire to be as authentic as possible," and noted that he couldn't think of any other scene that happened "outside the parameters."
A point briefly noted in "Spotlight" — but elaborated on in the Q&A — involved the additional power that the Globe's reporting got from appearing very early in the digital news age. Damning court documents about Church officials' knowledge of abusive priests were put on the Internet to let readers see for themselves what the archdiocese had done. "It made the stories bulletproof," Ben Bradlee told the audience; because readers could see for themselves the Globe wasn't exaggerating.
The film ends by scrolling lists of U.S. and global cities where Church scandals spread after the Globe had broken its news.
It was among the first cases of major new coverage, Rezendes told the audience, where "the story went viral."
Roy Harris has covered Pulitzer-related stories for Poynter each year since his first Globe-Church story in 2003. A new edition of his book, Pulitzer's Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism, including his account of the Globe's reporting, is due out from Columbia U. Press in January, in time for the centenary of the Pulitzer Prizes.