USA TODAY US Edition
OSCAR WIN FOR ‘SPOTLIGHT’ GOOD NEWS FOR JOURNALISM
Spotlight’s Oscar triumph in the Best Picture category is very good news for journalism at a time when it definitely could use some.
It’s a welcome reminder of the importance of journalism done right, of its essential role in a democracy. Sure, there is a lot of silly, empty-calorie journalism out there. But thorough, courageous, hard-edged reporting holding powerful people and institutions accountable for their actions still exists, and it should be celebrated as often as possible. We need it desperately.
The Boston Globe’s painstaking reporting on the Catholic Church’s pedophile priest scandal and its coverup, portrayed so realistically in Spotlight, is an excellent case in point.
The movie also underscores the vital role that can be played by top-flight editors, in this case Marty Baron, at the time the
Globe’s new editor and the figure who drove the investigation. (Baron is now executive editor of
The Washington Post.)
The pop culture imprimatur conferred by the Academy on Sunday night doesn’t solve the field’s manifold problems. But the positive symbolism couldn’t be more gratifying — or timely.
It’s hardly a secret that traditional journalism, especially of the newspaper variety, has been shaken to its very foundations by the digital revolution. The search for a new business model for quality journalism, regardless of platform, is of great importance not only to the field but also to democracy.
As if that isn’t challenge enough, another sinister element has been added to the mix. A leitmotif to Donald Trump’s paceset- ting campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has been a systematic effort to delegitimize journalism.
Throughout the campaign, Trump, who loves to dish out the insults, has repeatedly expressed his low regard for journalists in general (“among the worst people I’ve ever met”) and singled out individual reporters for derision. His attacks on Fox News’ Megyn Kelly have been amply chronicled, but the list of others he has assailed is extensive, as The
Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reported in a very good piece headlined, “Insults, threats and more insults: What it’s like to be a reporter covering Trump.”
Trump’s taunts often whip up his avid supporters into frenzies of anti-press hostility.
The net effect of The Donald’s denigrations is to suggest that journalistic scrutiny of candidates isn’t a necessary and positive part of the democratic process, but rather a pointless pain in the neck, an obstacle to be overcome, a hectoring by fools and knaves who really aren’t smart enough to be questioning his pronouncements.
Which is particularly rich in that few candidates need that scrutiny as much as Trump, whose predilection for playing fast and loose with the facts is the stuff of legend.
Friday, Trump took it up a notch when he vowed to make it much easier to sue news outlets once he makes it to the White House. “We’re going to open up libel laws, and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before,” he said.
Now, Beat the Press is hardly a new game. In 1970, then-vice president Spiro T. Agnew lashed out at reporters as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” It has long been an article of faith on the right that the “liberal media” is out to get conservatives. More recently, the press has become an equal-opportunity piñata, with liberals depicting news outlets as cowed by authority (see “weapons of mass destruction”).
But the Trumpian effort to personalize the process, to stir up the crowds, seems a new and unhealthy wrinkle.
Now journalism is hardly the place to look if you are searching for perfection. “Journalism is a very inexact science,” Peter Binzen, a wonderful boss of mine years ago, liked to say.
But Spotlight reminds us that journalism at its best isn’t just a game, a tawdry, platform agnostic effort to “sell papers” or attract clicks, but is also a profession with a civic mission, to give citizens the information they need to function a free society, a mandate to right wrongs.
In particular, Spotlight extols the virtues of investigative reporting, an often tedious, timeconsuming, expensive pursuit that is so important when it comes to exposing abuse and corruption. As Spotlight makes clear, it’s often not a glamorous or exciting process. In fact, one of the things that is so cool about the movie is that in the age of the blockbuster, the era of the mindboggling special effects, this oldschool journalism procedural is really taut and compelling. It’s great to see that it has been so well-received.
Investigative reporting has been hit particularly hard by the newspaper business’ financial woes. Some traditional news outlets continue to do excellent work, and new organizations — notably Pro-Publica — have been welcome additions to the investigative roster. But the challenges to this vitally important mission remain steep. Spotlight often is compared to
All the President’s Men as a pantheon journalism movie. The latter, dramatizing the search for the truth about Watergate, helped raise the profile of the profession and impelled talented people who might otherwise have headed for law school or business school to become journalists.
If Spotlight can help trigger an investigative reporting renaissance, that would be even cooler than that Oscar.
If ‘Spotlight’ can help trigger an investigative reporting renaissance, that would be even cooler than that Oscar.