After they saw “Spotlight,” many journalists came out of the theater walking taller and feeling better about their profession than they had in a while. But they also came out thinking about how much it matters when journalists don’t do their jobs well.
And when “Spotlight” won the Academy Award for Best Picture on Sunday night, it felt like it wasn’t just the journalists who had taken a moment to feel great about the profession.
The movie tells the story of how a vaunted investigative team at The Boston Globe dug into claims that the Roman Catholic Church knew priests were abusing children in Massachusetts and did little to stop it. The paper published the stories in 2002 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003. That project was remarkable. It exposed a horrible wrong. It changed the church and may well have prevented further abuse of children. It made the world better.
The movie also, for a moment, tells the story of what happens when journalists drop the ball. One central figure in the Globe’s project got information a decade earlier that could have led to the exposure of the widespread abuse, but he ignored it and then forgot it.
Journalism exposes a lot that needs exposing, internationally and nationally and in state capitals and in small towns. It was reporting by The Washington Post in 2007 that told us veterans were being neglected at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. It was reporters at that same paper who showed that the president of the United States was lying and conspiring in the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.
It was The New York Times that published the Pentagon Papers that proved the administration of President Lyndon Johnson had deceived Congress and the public about the Vietnam War. That changed the arc of history.
On a smaller scale, nearly every little local paper and career journalist has done similarly important work.
It’s astonishing how much people distrust and even hate the media, because most of what news organizations do is both important and apolitical.
Very little of a newspaper is opinion. Much of it is exposition of facts: The school district plans to raise taxes for the 109th consecutive year. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. The Mets won.
And some is the reaction of people to the facts: “If the school district raises my taxes again, I’m moving to Alaska. I’m definitely voting tomorrow. And the Mets charge too much for tickets, but I love Cespedes.”
Then there are the heavier stories that still aren’t political, even if they involve political people. I’ll gladly toot Newsday’s horn over news stories on former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke beating up a suspect and conspiring to hide it, a drunken off-duty Nassau cop shooting a cabbie, and the illegal dumping of toxic materials in a public park in Islip, among many, many others.
Those facts about that candidate? Thanks, media. That senior citizen program you just heard about that would be perfect for mom? Thanks, media. And that Town of Oyster Bay loan guarantee for a politically connected vendor, too.
If you hate the Editorial pages, I get it, but in Monday’s Newsday they were two pages out of 76, and two-thirds of them was devoted to letters and op-eds.
There’s one thing “Spotlight” didn’t delve into that’s frightening, and it’s how much such investigations cost. Journalists don’t get rich, but the good ones make a decent living. Figuring out how to pay for investigations now is one of the biggest challenges facing news organizations.
It matters when journalism is done right, as well as when it’s done wrong or not at all. So the institution has to survive. Because as bad as the world we report on is, we can’t even imagine how bad it would get if we didn’t keep trying to shine a spotlight on it.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.