Sunday, December 27, 2015

Putting a Spotlight on Reporting

Gilda and I saw Spotlight Saturday night. It’s a great movie, perhaps the best of the year. Naturally, as a former newspaper reporter, I am biased. Almost any film about journalistic achievement or chicanery—fact-based or fiction, from All the President’s Men to The Paper to Libeled Lady and Deadline USA to The Front Page and its remake as His Girl Friday—would rate four stars from me.

For those not familiar with Spotlight, the film traces the effort of an investigative unit of the same name at The Boston Globe in 2001 to piece together the child molestation and cover-up scandal within the Roman Catholic church.

Nobody gets shot. There are no sex scenes. There are no chase scenes, though reporters are seen several times scurrying around tracking down leads.

I admired the attention to detail. The almost ragamuffin attire worn by reporters and editors. The total absorption, or rather immersion, or maybe obsession, reporters undergo when nailing down a story.

Reporting can be drudgery. Thankfully, everyday news is not a Watergate break-in or a mass shooting or a plane crash. It is the approval of zoning laws that might alter the character of a neighborhood. The adoption by the Board of Education of new curriculum. The placement of traffic lights that could make a busy thoroughfare pedestrian-safe. Sewer commission meetings are boring to anyone but the families that live along the street where pipes will be laid to replace their dependence on septic tanks.

Yet there may be hidden stories behind these everyday events. Payoffs for building approvals. Or for sewer lines that make it easier to build new subdivisions. Human interest profiles of accident victims on streets unsafe at any speed.

There’s an insightful scene in Spotlight when the new editor of The Globe, Marty Baron, meets Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, the first time. Law suggests the two institutions—the church and paper—would best serve Boston by working together. To which Baron replies he believes newspapers work best if they act independently.

It is a creed I followed. I never got too close to those I wrote about or to those who supported my publication with advertising. Who knows? Perhaps my magazine didn’t garner all the advertising it could because I was too distant from those who paid our bills. Or maybe we missed uncovering some inside dope on a retailer that would have justified banner headlines? 

As I watched the Spotlight story come together I became angry, introspective and more melancholy. Angered by the gall and audacity the church and its allies exhibited toward the victims and unsuspecting parishioners. They thought themselves above the law (pun intended). I was saddened by the realization that none of the stories I did as a newspaper reporter and trade magazine editor, good as they were, had the intensity and life-altering drama Spotlight exposed. I was envious.

Good trade magazines have to tiptoe along a line that separates boosterism from constructive review. One of the first meetings I had with a CEO of a retail chain centered on a complaint over an article that questioned the retail industry’s response to the vast numbers thrown out of work by the failure of W.T. Grant. The CEO of G.C. Murphy saw Chain Store Age as an advocate for the industry. How dare we expose any warts. 

I wondered how our chief editor, John Lightfoot, would respond. He said the magazine was an objective chronicler of the good and the bad.

I agreed with John. So did the president-owner of our company. We had no rug under which we swept inefficiency or bad leadership. It didn’t matter if it was Sears or Kmart, Wal-Mart or American Apparel, or Abercrombie & Fitch. When mistakes of strategy or judgment were made Chain Store Age would not be silent.

It might not have been on the same plane as that of Spotlight at The Globe, but our editorial staff did its best to watch over the best interests of our constituency.