There is a moment in the movie “Spotlight” — about the investigative team of reporters at The Boston Globe, who won a Pulitzer for reporting on the Catholic Church’s lackadaisical handling of child abusing priests — when one of the editors realizes he had had the gist of the story in his hands for years but had failed to pursue it.
It reminded me of the time my medical writer and I talked about how Louisiana tried to control medical costs by rationing hospital beds. The state would issue certificates of need. We thought that system not only ignored free market economics but was subject to being gamed and perhaps the paper should look into it.
The day to day breaking news never seemed to allow time for looking. A year and half later the governor was indicted for basically “selling” certificates of need.
That reporter was the same one who had come to me six months after starting work saying, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
“For what?” I asked.
“For not changing my lede.”
I think I said something like, “I finally taught you how to write one.”
If you want to see an accurate portrayal of what it is like to work in a newsroom, “Spotlight” is not that, but you’d probably not sit through two hours of watching people peck at keyboards, pore over documents, talk on the phone, wrangle over subject-verb agreement, debate story structure and ledes, sourcing and which photos to use. Actually, the photogs get short shrift in the film.
What “Spotlight” does is give a glimpse of those adrenaline-pumping moments when those fought-for documents land with a thud on the desk, when that source confirms, when the reporters and editors argue over whether enough reporting has been done and it is time to do the writing — the ah-ha moments. It also shows the pain of beating your head against indifference, intransigence, just-doing-my-job mentalities, as well as the self doubt and questioning of whether you are doing the right thing. And there is the frustration of being pulled off the big story to work on an even bigger breaking story.
If you can handle a spoiler or a dozen, there is a 2010 story in the UK’s Guardian quoting some of the eight reporters, not four, who worked on the priest abuse story. The script of the movie and the newspaper account of the newspaper story are remarkably parallel, though the movie has some different time elements.
The movie contains many scenes filmed in the actual — nearly empty — newsroom of The Boston Globe. It is a bit aseptic, as I’m sure someone ordered the reporters to clear the clutter from their desks.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this flick to anyone, but especially to everyone who ever worked in a newsroom.
The trailer contains many of those ah-ha moments: