I might be one of the last journalists in the country to have seen Spotlight, the Academy Award-winning movie about how the Boston Globe exposed a massive, systemic cover-up of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston archdiocese.
As someone who has devoted his entire adult life to journalism, much of it in big-city newsrooms, it was a mixed experience for me. Spotlight is inspirational, affirming and familiar, in large part because of its authenticity. It made me proud of the profession I’ve been associated with for so long.
It’s also sobering, painful and troubling because it’s a reminder of what we, as a society, are in danger of losing. In the 14 years since the Globe published its stories, the newspaper landscape has been altered so dramatically that the future of such investigative work is in jeopardy. The resources and determination necessary to produce in-depth, high-impact journalism are dwindling or, in some cases, simply not there any more.
Indeed, many daily newspapers aren’t there any more — or, if they are, they’re operating with many fewer reporters and editors.
The collapse of the big newspaper business model has many consequences, the threat to survival being chief among them. Beyond that, a daunting challenge looms: Who will do the investigative work? Who will hold governments, institutions, organizations and businesses accountable? Who will be watching, probing, asking hard questions, shining the spotlight into the dark corners of dishonesty, evasion, corruption, malfeasance or threats to our lives and liberty?
In some places, it’s even worse: Who will cover the legislature? Or the city council?
The amount of work that went into the Globe stories was staggering — and typical. For you non-journalists wondering if Spotlight is realistic, be assured it is. It’s so spot-on that I felt like I was back in one of the big newsrooms I used to inhabit as a reporter and editor. The attention to detail is amazing: The way the reporters dress. The cheap pens and notebooks. The cake for retirees. The furniture. The messiness. The newspaper library, which before the Internet was a vital resource for any publication. The “10:30” — the morning news meeting to plan the day’s paper. I sat in on a lot of 10:30s. And, notably, the passionate internal discussions about how to do things.
Journalists talk about things. We disagree, we argue, we yell, we push for more time, more resources, more leeway to expose what needs exposing. The typical newsroom is not a passive group that marches in lockstep to the top editor’s dictates. Even here at the little old Methow Valley News, much of what we do is subject to intense discussion internally.
Spotlight is a reminder of what’s possible – and of what’s at stake in a democratic society that needs its watchdogs.
Speaking of movies, here’s a blurb from the shameless promotion department. Many of you will recall that my brother Bob Nelson garnered an Academy Award nomination for his original screenplay for the movie Nebraska, which was nominated for several other awards including best picture.
Bob didn’t win the Oscar, but in typical Hollywood fashion, the great exposure enabled him to find backing for a dream project: to write and direct another original movie, which will have its premiere at theaters around the country this weekend.
The movie is called The Confirmation, and its cast includes Clive Owen, Maria Bello, Jaeden Lieberher (the kid in St. Vincent), Patton Oswalt, Stephen Tobolowsky, Tim Blake Nelson (no relation), Robert Forster and Matthew Modine.
The story is about an 8-year-old boy who spends a weekend with his alcoholic, down-on-his-luck carpenter dad (divorced). Events force them to learn more about each other and how to build a stronger father-son relationship. It’s funny, charming and thought-provoking.
It’s a small-budget film and was shot in Vancouver, B.C. — which stood in for our home town of Kent, Washington, where the action is set (you’ll have to listen closely to catch the fleeting reference).
Thanks to some personal connections, I’ve had a chance to see the film and enjoyed its humor and warmth. If you’re on “the coast” this weekend, you can catch it at the Varsity Theater in Seattle. To see a trailer, go to imdb.com and search for The Confirmation (2016).