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December 2015

'Spotlight' on newspapers... as they were, and still are

As editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) reads the story that the Boston Globe reporters have prepared on institutional cover-ups of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, he circles a word in red.

Michael Keaton as Spotlight editor Walter Robinson asks why. "Adjective," Baron replies.

That's a newspaper.

I found Spotlight to be the most realistic film I have ever seen on our business, narrowly edging out the previous contender, All the President's Men. If you've read this blog or my other blogs over the years, listened to me rant on social media or gotten me started at a convention, you know that the fictional portrayal of journalists is one of my biggest pet peeves. They never get us right. They get the job wrong, they get the industry wrong, they will do endless research on costumes and armaments and computer technology, but ask a newspaper reporter if their script is anything like accurate? Nah. (I'm looking at you, House of Cards.)

There are two kinds of journalism films. There's the films based on real-life journalism, like All the President's Men, The Insider, Veronica Guerin, Frost/Nixon, or Good Night and Good Luck. Then there are films that are wholly fictional, like Broadcast News, The Paper, Network, Absence of Malice or State of Play, to name one that isn't from the last century. 

In general, the ones based on real life tend to be more grounded in the reality of our work - but not entirely. I have no idea if tobacco company operatives actually put a bullet in Jeffrey Wigand's mailbox or not. But I do know that when they aren't restrained by reality, movies about journalists tend to be based on ridiculous assumptions about our business from people who think they understand journalism because they've read a news story. 

Not Spotlight. There was a nearly obsessive attention to detail in this depiction of the Boston Globe's investigation at the dawn of the 21st century, beginning only months before 9/11. Spotlight is a four-person team of investigative journalists within the Globe who regularly spent a year or more on a single project - and before you complain that such things never happen anymore, let me assure you that they do, and let's move on.

The actors spent extensive time with the journalists they intended to portray, down to recording their voices (to properly capture traces of Boston accents), body language and mannerisms. According to IMDB, when the real journalists were shown the set for their tiny cement-block cave-office, they went to the desks where they had been sitting at the time and rearranged objects on the desks the way they had been in 2001.

Much has been made of the costumes, which were delightfully "artless," according to the New York Times. "It’s an unthought-about uniform. It mirrors school uniforms really. It’s something you don’t think about when you dress. You don’t really care; you’ve got other things to think about that are not clothes," says costume designer Wendy Chuck. She points out that even though the movie is set in the early 2000s, she looked more to the 1990s because the journalists she observed seemed to be dressing about 10 years behind. And I start laughing, because I have socks older than some of the students in the last journalism class to which I spoke.

"It’s easy to patronize or weaponize or just sensationalize an industry on the outs: We’re Will Ferrell in Anchorman, Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, Russell Crowe in State of Play," writes Matthew Hall of the San Diego Union Tribune. "Except we’re not. We’re not clowns or villains or heroes. We’re not stars. We tend to be messengers, bit players in other people’s drama, doing work that is grinding and gratifying, caring more that someone spills the beans than that any dropped onto our rumpled shirts at lunch."

Spotlight is a detective story, shot in an almost documentary-like style with understated production values, restrained performances and almost no music. It is not a salacious recounting of the molestations committed by priests, except in the emotional and agonizing interviews with scores of victims. It remains focused not on the church, but on the reporters, on their trail of breadcrumbs to assemble the evidence that a system-wide pattern of hiding abuse had taken place in Boston. 

Let's be clear: The Boston Globe was not the first, nor the only, news organization to uncover the practices that have caused worldwide controversy. My own newspaper exposed 15 priests in the early 1990s who were subsequently removed from their positions after allegations of abuse dating back to the 1970s. But the Globe's story, putting together the machinery of the Catholic Church striving to hide and transfer the priests, and the lawyers who made money by quickly settling hundreds of suits and sealing them up... that made a difference. It also won the Pulitzer Prize.

As a journalist, there was moment after moment that rang home for me. For example: Mark Ruffalo plays reporter Mike Rezendes as a bulldog of an investigator with a few... er, personality quirks. Let's just say I've worked with guys who remind me a hell of a lot of Rezendes, and Ruffalo did a terrific job disappearing into that character. At one point, Rezendes races to the courthouse to get some public documents. The clerk refuses to release them, and Rezendes points out that they are public documents available for anyone. The clerk still refuses, and Rezendes goes off to find a judge. The judge reviews his request and tries to discourage him: "This is sensitive information." 

It drew to my mind an investigation from 2000, coordinated by the Associated Press in Illinois among 15 newspapers. I was part of that investigation, with my then-partner Tom Collins. Each team visited dozens of public offices to file FOIA requests for basic information like meeting minutes, agendas, arrest logs, etc. All of them were patently public documents, available to anyone. Yet 25 percent of those requests were denied. Many reporters were harassed or interrogated about their reasons for wanting the information, which no one is required to provide in order to request it. One reporter was actually pulled over after leaving a sheriff's department - lights and siren, pulled over by the side of the road and questioned. 

Everything that project uncovered was encapsulated in the clerk's face as he refused to hand over the documents. 

Tied to reality, it's a fact that 9/11 occurred partway through the Spotlight investigation and derailed everything for a few months. I found myself flashing back to that day as I watched the Globe reporters gathered around the television, maintaining professional composure while slowly realizing they were now faced with the biggest story of their lives. It's actually what I said on Sept. 11, after my newsroom finished putting together the special edition that hit the streets at noon that day and we kept watching the scenes unfolding in New York City. "This is the biggest story we will ever cover," I said, and we all quickly added, "hopefully." 

Spotlight was practically a time machine, sending me back to the early days of my career. The internet exists, but it's a side note, something you think of as an optional extra after the real work is done. Social media is a glimmer in the future. Research is done in the morgue (n. place where we store old newspapers, not dead bodies - usually). Clips are actual clips on paper, or on microfilm that makes your head hurt. Searches are done by flipping through paper directories instead of Google. Ah, the olden days. 

Reporters don't often get to be the heroes. Usually we're the whipping boys, the ones who get blamed for absolutely. every. possible. social. ill. Either we're not giving enough coverage to #issue or we're giving it too much coverage. We're not asking the right questions or we're asking too many. We are crazed left-wing nutjobs or we are mindless right-wing corporate lackeys - or both! At the same time! My bribe check must be in the mail. 

And Spotlight does not flinch from aiming an accusatory finger at the profession it highlights, either. As there is plenty of blame cast upon the Catholic Church, the police, the prosecutors, the community - the city of Boston itself is practically a character in the movie, with its unique culture and social pressures - there is blame cast upon journalism, upon the Globe itself. The pieces were all there, they lament: why did it take us so long to see it?

Then Liev Schreiber says what might be the best summary of our profession since a tired Robert Duvall said that "every day we still start from zero" in The Paper, which still stands as the best fictional representation of what we do.

"Sometimes it's easy to forget that we spend most of our time stumbling around in the dark," Schreiber says. And then someone turns on the light.


Men Talking Over Women: Madam Secretary and Feminism

There was a moment in this week's episode of Madam Secretary that made me think there is a complex and subtle layer of feminism in this show that I honestly thought was missing.

Madam Secretary often gives me fits. It's somewhere in the grey half-light between the relentless optimism of The West Wing and the relentless nihilism of House of Cards. It's not nearly as good as either show, of course. But it doesn't shy away from the more complex layers of international relations or inevitabilities of politics, and it's definitely entertaining for a politics nut.

Much of that lies with the writers, who spin vast webs around espionage and dipolmacy, policy and philosophy - moreso even than House of Cards, which rarely seems to concern itself with policy when it can be about the latest power grab. Much of it lies with the strong supporting cast: while I might be occasionally annoyed with Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord's interchangeably young staffers, they are corraled by a steely Bebe Neuwirth. And while the exploits of the McCord clan might be a bit distracting, they are marshaled by an excellent Tim Daly as Elizabeth's husband, a former intelligence operative turned religion professor (and occasional spy). 

Sadly, some of the show's flaws lie with Tea Leoni, anchoring the entire show as Elizabeth McCord. It's not that Leoni is a bad actress; she carries the weight of the show on her shoulders and hasn't dropped it. I think it's that the position of Secretary of State carries a certain gravitas, a certain overwhelming strength and intelligence. And Leoni has a tendency to use the same even tone when addressing her staffers as she does facing war in the Situation Room or discussing her son's football game with her husband. 

But I can live with that. I'm strangely addicted.

One source of frustration for me has been that Elizabeth seems to have little voice or power in the White House. Now, I read a lot of news. (Shocker.) Other than that, I have no real inside information in the balance of power in a given White House administration. But I find it hard to believe that any Secretary of State, from Henry Kissinger to Madeleine Albright to Colin Powell to Hillary Clinton, had as little influence in international relations as Elizabeth McCord. (Albright, by the way, came on the show briefly this season as herself and gave McCord advice, which she kind of took.)

At every turn, Elizabeth's counsel has been ignored, supplanted, undermined or ridiculed. She's had to fight everyone from the chief of staff to random jerkwad aides just to get the president's ear - a president who allegedly is a personal friend. I have honestly wondered if they would ever allow Elizabeth to wonder why the hell she goes to work when no one listens to her and she can't influence anything. There have been times when I simply shouted at the TV: "Just quit! Go get a teaching position at some college where they actually have to listen when you talk."

Up until now, I've counted it as a flaw in the show. Let's have a show about a female secretary of state, and then see everyone ignore her! But the opening scene of this week's show made me think there may be something more subtle going on.

Background, with minor spoilers: The U.S. has retaliated against Russia in a game of saber-rattling that has been growing louder and louder all season until all the world is hiding under the bed. Russia has a new president, widow of the last president, who took power several episodes ago with a nasty anti-American screed full of vitriol and posturing. Her ascension took everyone by surprise, as the guy they all thought would take the job ended up quickly dead and Rosa Klebb rises out of nowhere to take his place. (If you don't get the reference, you need to watch more Bond films.)

The U.S. president faces Rosa Klebb via Skype or something, and speaks to her with utter disdain, condescension and dismissiveness - much like he and his staff treat their Secretary of State, by the way. Rosa Klebb vows retaliation for the latest round of nonsense, and hangs up on him.

Elizabeth is sitting in the Oval Office at the time, surrounded by All the President's Men. Usually everyone is male in the Oval Office, even the random guys popping in from CIA or NSA or SHIELD to brief the president.

And they all congratulate the president on his big victory. "Message received," smarms the chief of staff (who seriously cannot say a single line without a smirk, he's delightful). 

Elizabeth points out that Rosa Klebb threatened retaliation. And no one - absolutely no one - is worried. The chief of staff says it's just theater - actually, he says even the fact that Rosa IS the president is theater. The president insists "it's all part of the game," Rosa Klebb will listen to her generals and fall in line. Elizabeth isn't so sure, but as per usual, no one listens to her. 

And it struck me at that point that instead of being its flaw, the show might be saying something subtle and sly about women in power, women in politics, even women in the workplace in general. Elizabeth is the sole female in the room, and thus she is talked over and ignored even when discussing the female head of state of a nuclear power. As Secretary of State, Elizabeth has to color outside the lines regularly, form her own backchannels and alliances, and basically defy the president over and over just to do her job. 

Meanwhile, the male president, chief of staff and military advisors all dismiss Rosa Klebb as a figurehead of more powerful people, as a histronic female without the guts to follow through on her threats, despite significant evidence to the contrary.

Then when Elizabeth is of course proven right, and Russia does retaliate, the guys all stand around amazed in the Situation Room and someone complains that Rosa "isn't playing by the rules."

The rules say that women in power will sit meekly by and do as the menfolk tell them? That nations' saber-rattling is a long-standing tradition of male dick-measuring and girls just don't know how to do it right? Would they have been even half as dismissive and condescending if the Russian president were, say, Khrushchev or Putin? And poor Elizabeth is stuck with the unenviable task of cleaning up the mess they made by not listening to her - again.

She is a diplomat, and doesn't say what I would have said: "Told you so. Morons."

That's when I realized my frustration with the show was also its strength. It's telling us things about women in power so subtly we don't even quite see it. It's showing us men talking over women, condescending to women, undercutting their power and ignoring them simply because they are women... and the women are sick of it. 

That may be too heavy a burden for a second-tier drama like Madam Secretary to carry, and I might be reading more into it than even the writers intended. Sometimes the curtains are just blue. It remains to be seen... and I'll be watching.