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.

“Spotlight” at the Oscars a win for journalism

Michael Keaton Liev Schreiber Mark Ruffalo Rachel McAdams John Slattery Brian díArcy James
This photo provided by Open Road Films shows, Michael Keaton, from left, as Walter “Robby” Robinson, Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron, Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes, Rachel McAdams, as Sacha Pfeiffer, John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr., and Brian díArcy James as Matt Carroll, in a scene from the film, “Spotlight.” The film won Best Picture at the Oscars on Sunday(Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films via AP)

On the big list of least-respected occupations, journalists usually rank fairly low — somewhere just above lawyers and members of Congress. If you add in the industry’s economic struggles, the view on journalism is pretty bleak, with  one ranking last year by CareerCast naming “newspaper reporter” as the “worst job in America.”

So, if you were on Twitter last night during the Oscars, you might have seen the uncharacteristic outburst by journalism types across the nation, rejoicing at “Spotlight” receiving the nod for best film. The award was a bit of vindication for those who toil in metropolitan and community newsrooms doing the important work of daily journalism.

TV critic for the New Yorker Emily Nussbaum put it best Sunday night on Twitter: “JOURNALISM WINS.”

In case you missed it, “Spotlight”  details the work by an intrepid team of journalists at the Boston Globe responsible for uncovering the priest sex abuse scandal. The best picture award was certainly a win for investigative journalism, as well as for the victims themselves — in Boston and around the world — laying bare the lengths that the Roman Catholic hierarchy went to protect pedophile priests.

One of the most striking things for me when watching to movie a few months ago was the “realness” of it all. From the sea of khaki pants to the very real repercussions of routine news decisions, circa 2001. The sausage-making aspect of daily newspaper reporting has never been glamorous, an aspect the movie makes plain right down to the mind-numbing perusal of annual church directories using a ruler so that the reporters didn’t lose their place.

If you believe the commenters on news websites, one might be lead to think that every news decision is part of some grand conspiracy. In fact, when it comes to local journalism, it is ordinary people making the best decisions they can with the information they have at the time. Sometimes we miss. But sometimes the choices to pursue and stick with a story are enough to make a real difference for thousands of people.

The story of “Spotlight” also speaks to the importance of listening to outsiders. The fact that the new editor-in-chief Marty Baron at the Boston Globe was Jewish and from Miami didn’t make the atrocities by the church in Boston any less true. It’s an important lesson to remember in an era of information overload that has made the public even more likely to ascribe bias or doubt the veracity of reports that are critical of  an individual or policies that hew to their personal ideology. It is also a critical component of why First Amendment protections should be upheld, even when journalistic pursuits make those in power uncomfortable, whether it is the Catholic Church or the President.

It’s no secret that investigative work like that at Boston Globe is an endangered species, with newsrooms shrinking. It’s time-consuming, expensive work that sometime produces dead ends and can sometimes take months for a payoff. Subscriptions pay for more than bright pixels on a screen or printed pulp on a driveway. It’s the ability to speak truth to power, shining a light in the dark corners of our institutions, no matter how sacred or how protected.

When journalism wins, we all win.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SXSW should do as Sundance did: Ask if the fest has become too big

In this Jan. 21, 2016 file photo, Robert Redford, founder and president of the Sundance Institute speaks at the premiere of "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You" during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP, File)
In this Jan. 21, 2016 file photo, Robert Redford, founder and president of the Sundance Institute speaks at the premiere of “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP, File)

When it comes to public events, is bigger always better? It’s a question that Robert Redford has pondered over with the growth of the Sundance Film Festival.

His recent reply to a question about the future of Sundance, an event he founded more than 40 years ago, made me wonder if SXSW organizers think about the mammoth size of their festival. If they don’t, perhaps they should.

When Sundance began in 1978, Redford wasn’t sure the idea would even work, much less balloon into one of the largest film festivals in the United States. But it did, weathering growing pains along the way. Now, organizers for that festival are at a crossroad.

“As (Sundance) grew, so did the crowds, so did the development in Park City. Well, at some point, if both those things continue to grow, they’re going to begin to choke each other,” Redford told the Associated Press.

Here, one of the most-respected organizers in the film-fest game, admitted he has stepped back and started to analyze the situation facing one of the most popular festivals in the world. It shouldn’t be far-fetched to expect other established festivals to do the same.

Yes, I get that comparing the size of Sundance and the size of SXSW is moot. They are two completely different animals, after all. An apples-to-apples comparison shouldn’t be attempted. Size, above all, is what separates the two.

Most significant is the difference between the sizes of the location and attendance of these festivals: Park City, Utah’s population is a little more than 8,000; Austin’s population is closer to 1 million. Attendance at each you ask? In 2015, Sundance had over 45,000 attendees. SXSW Music, Film and Interactive 2015 attendance was at 84,385; of those, 20,252 attended the Film Festival portion.

Like in most growth scenarios, troubles and challenges come regardless of the size of a city or town.

“I’m starting to hear some negative comments about how crowded it is and how difficult it is to get from venue to venue when there’s traffic and people in the streets and so forth,” Redford told the Associated Press. “We’re going to have to look at that.”

It’s no secret that similar negative observations have been pointed out about SXSW. Austin residents and festival attendees have been complaining for a few years now about public safety, traffic and the effect they have on the quality of a SXSW experience. Then, critics had more to make their case against SXSW growth after a tragic crash killed four people during SXSW in 2014. While enhancements to public safety measures have been made since the accident — measures applauded by the American-Statesman editorial board — it will be necessary for festival organizers to be more proactive in their planning to prevent more tragedies.

What started in 1987 as a stage to showcase independent musicians — adding film and interactive branches in 1994 — has exploded into a one Texas’ biggest Spring Break gatherings full of big names, big parties and bigger headaches for those who live and work in downtown where most of the official and unofficial SXSW gigs take place.

Despite Sundance and SXSW being two very distinct beasts, it’s not unreasonable to suggest SXSW organizers ask themselves how much more, if at all, the festival should be allowed to grow.

In Redford’s case, that has meant facing the growth issue head on and searching for solutions on how the Festival can evolve.

“You have a couple of choices. You can go hard and say we’re going to stop it. Say ‘that’s the end.’ Let it go. Let someone else do it,” he said. “Or, you say well, if you want to keep it going, we can’t keep it going the way things are.”

One of Redford’s idea is to break up the festival into sections and multiple dates throughout the year, instead of packing the entire lineup just 10 days. For example, the festival could screen narrative features in January, and documentaries a month later.

Change, understandably, is inevitable. Festivals should aspire to grow. But at some point, arguably, an event the size of a Sundance or a SXSW festival can become too big.  Hopefully, the thought does not elude our friends at SXSW.