A mildly contrary view of ‘Spotlight’

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Steve Carell in a scene from “The Big Short,” which was nominated for an Oscar for best picture.

A few thoughts about two Academy Award-winning films and their portrayals of journalism before the Oscars fully fade from our perpetually shortening short-term memories, and while we wait for results from Super Tuesday to start coming in:

Journalism in America can use any validation and vindication it can get. Sunday night, validation came in the form of a best picture Oscar for “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s investigative series in 2002 that exposed the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse by priests. As Viewpoints editor Tara Trower Doolittle wrote in a previous entry on this blog, “The award was a bit of vindication for those who toil in metropolitan and community newsrooms doing the important work of daily journalism.”

Though I think another best picture nominee, “The Big Short,” is a better movie than “Spotlight” (more about that in a moment), I have no problem with “Spotlight” being named best picture. It’s a good movie, and The Globe’s work was a key part of one of the most important stories of the last decade. But there are lessons in “Spotlight” that journalists shouldn’t overlook as they celebrate Sunday’s “win for journalism.” Despite their great work, The Globe’s investigative team was late to the sexual abuse story. Years late. The National Catholic Reporter was the first publication to write about the scandal, and it did so in 1985. Investigative author Jason Berry wrote a book titled “Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Abuse and the Sexual Abuse of Children” in 1992, which Eileen McNamara, a Globe columnist, reviewed for the paper.

McNamara wrote columns about the sexual abuse of children by priests in the 1990s, but her work largely was ignored by news editors and reporters at The Globe until new executive editor Marty Baron arrived on the scene and directed the investigative team to look into what McNamara had been writing. And not to rain on the “Spotlight” parade more than I already have, because I do like the movie and as a journalist I am proud of the work it portrays, but a victim had given the paper evidence of the sexual abuse by priests years earlier and the editor who would later lead the investigative team that would expose the scandal had buried the story inside the Metro section.

To its credit, “Spotlight” doesn’t avoid these failings. They form part of the film’s plot to varying degrees. And the important thing is, once the investigative team committed to the story, The Globe corrected its shortcomings and redeemed itself. Better to have done the work late, than never to have done it at all.

As I mentioned above, I like “The Big Short” as a film more than “Spotlight.” There’s a lot to be said for the straightforward way “Spotlight” tells its story, and it takes a special talent to turn a story of journalists thumbing through church directories and making phone calls into a watchable movie. But “The Big Short” tells its story — inspired by true events about the 2007-08 financial crisis, and also featuring people walking around talking on phones — in a creative, darkly humorous and ultimately devastatingly cynical way. Director Adam McKay and Charles Randolph deservedly won Oscars for adapting Michael Lewis’ 2010 book to film. I’ll spare you a full movie review, but “The Big Short” regularly breaks the fourth wall to tell us what’s going on, and its use of celebrities to explain mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations was funny and remarkably clarifying. Nowhere else have I seen or read such complex financial transactions so clearly explained.

Sure, “The Big Short” is about Wall Street fraud and corruption, and not about journalism. But the fraud succeeded because journalists failed to expose it. There’s a damning scene in “The Big Short” when two of the film’s characters, realizing that the collapse of the housing market that they’ve been betting against also means the collapse of the economy, take what they know to a reporter at The Wall Street Journal. The reporter passes on the story, because to pursue it means risking his relationship with his Wall Street sources. And without his sources, he not only won’t get to the heart of the housing bubble, he’ll be shut out of reporting on other stories, too. This reporter — he no longer depends on sources, but has become dependent on them and too cozy with them — ignores the fact that he has two excellent sources sitting right in front of him. But what they are pitching is outside the conventional wisdom.

Of course, the conventional wisdom turned out to be clueless. Like the false claims that were reported during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, or the false equivalence that routinely finds its way into any number of news stories, especially stories about climate change, this one scene in “The Big Short” stands as a case study in how journalism sometimes fails the public.

A quotation often attributed to Mark Twain begins “The Big Short”: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

It applies to the world of the film, but is offered as a general warning to us all and could apply to journalists in particular: Beware thinking you know something is true that isn’t true. Beware thinking something just can’t be that not only can be, but is.