The Spotlight movie conveys in a captivating manner the now almost completely gone meticulousness, depth, and romanticism of old-school, traditional media, among all else.
The investigative journalism movie Spotlight was the big winner at the 2016 Academy Awards ceremony, taking home two Oscars – for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.
Spotting Spotlight and Its Topics
I intended to write this article on the Tom McCarthy film even before the Academy Awards, and I didn’t even know it had been nominated.
The Oscar triumph means great recognition for the Spotlight crews (journalistic and film alike) but regardless of that I am looking at the film from the point of view of the developments in journalism both globally and in Bulgaria.
Unfortunately, while the film about the Spotlight team at The Boston Globe and their investigation of the pedophile Catholic priests in Massachusetts (and worldwide) was the big winner at the 88th Academy Awards, all social and mass media hype has been about Leonardo DiCaprio, his Bear, and the long-awaited Best Actor Oscar he finally got for The Revenant.
The Revenant is an entertaining film, sure, the Bear is toothy, Leo crawls for hours through the wilderness, etc., but neither DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass character, nor the Bear (played by “the bear”) have any right overshadowing Spotlight. In fact, Spotlight might be the single most meaningful film to win the Best Picture Oscar in recent years
I first saw Spotlight online, before it came out on the big screen in Bulgaria, having spotted it by accident, without having even read a single review first. I just learned that it was about journalists investigating pedophilia crimes in the Catholic Church. This got me interested because I had been made aware of this horrifying issue before.
The first time I learned about the numerous cases of pedophile Catholic priests all over the world, and the great lengths the Catholic Church has been going to in order to cover up their crimes, was in 2006.
I was studying for a semester in Germany, and my host family had no Internet connection worthy of the name (that came as a shock to me since as early as the late 1990s many if not most kids in Bulgaria enjoyed decent Internet connection even through their grandmothers’ landlines).
Together with some of my American classmates, whose host families also had no Internet (!), we would spend long hours at the Library of the John F. Kennedy Institute of the university of West Berlin making use of the free Internet there to do homework, research, etc. But back at my host family’s place late at night, other than reading, all I could do was watch the BBC (their cable didn’t have CNN or much else, either).
I ended up watching a lot of BBC programs that fall, including this series of documentaries on the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church. Naturally, I was shocked not only by the crimes of the pedophile priests raping and molesting children from the USA to Brazil, Ireland, and Angola, but even more so by the policy of the Church designed to cover them up.
I distinctly remember from the BBC documentaries that the person responsible for this policy had been Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who had just become Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013) (he has, of course, denied these accusations even after he retired). I also remember one of the cases in which an Arizona prosecutor was trying to bring to justice a child molesting priest who had fled to the Vatican, and the Vatican had no intention of handing him back to the U.S.
The BBC films were very informative but I never even thought about who first broke wide open the story about the pedophile priests. Until I saw Spotlight.
Old School Newspaper Journalism Right before the Deep Change
The story about the child rapists and molesters in the Catholic Church, however, is not the main thing the Spotlight movie is about. It is a lot more about the best of old school newspaper journalism as represented by one special investigative team.
The particular period when The Boston Globe journalists tacked the pedophile priests story back in 2001-2002 was that moment in history in the first half of the 2000s right before everything changed in the global media landscape.
This change did not stem so much from the sheer existence of the Internet. By 2001, the web was already impossible to ignore, and the journalists investigating the pedophile priests in the film are already in the Internet Age.
They even mention The Boston Globe website, and it is hinted that it is used as an auxiliary to the print edition, i.e. for running additional materials such as the victims’ letters.
Probably all major newspapers globally have investigative units, and the Spotlight team at The Boston Globe, “the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative unit in the United States”, is keeping up doing an impressive job.
Yet, I perceive the moment of history presented in the Spotlight movie, and the way the journalists handle the story, as representative of the old school investigative newspaper journalism which has a long-standing tradition in the Western press.
The picture painted in the Spotlight movie is not that different from that of “All the President’s Men”, the emblematic thriller about The Washington Post reporters investigating the Watergate Scandal.
While the basic principles of quality journalism will always be the same, the landscape (especially in print media) has changed tremendously since the second half of the 2000s.
This has been due to, first and foremost, the overwhelming advance of the social media with their instant “reporting” (by everyone) and viral topics; and, second, the financial crisis that decimated scores of newspapers everywhere, including in the United States.
I am not seeking to reignite the already banal “old (traditional) media” vs. “new media” argument here. Quality investigative journalism is a must regardless of the media type. And I am not mourning for the lost or disappearing world of old school newspaper journalism that I have never been part of.
However, since the world has recently witnessed the great divide between two eras in media technology and media environment, I think the Spotlight movie is especially valuable because it is set in the time right before the deep change.
The world of online and social media offers endless new opportunities that used to be unimaginable in the era of the press.
For those of us who have only worked in online media, the lost world of old school journalism might seem stiff, and not very efficient but we can understand its romanticism, and the Spotlight movie certainly conveys that (and the tremendously hard work of the investigative journalists, of course).
I started working as a journalist (in online media) right at about the time of the big technological and financial change in 2008-2009, and have been a proponent of the new media ever since.
During a media congress in Vienna and Bratislava several years ago, I even got into an argument with a Deputy Chief Editor of one of the largest US newspapers (based on the Pacific Coast).
My argument was that with the online and social media, literally everybody could be a journalist, and this great change creates more opportunities than problems.
The old school editor, who must have been in his 60s, I think, couldn’t disagree more.
“No way everybody could be a journalist because “we” (i.e. the traditional media”) need to be there to be able to verify whatever is being reported”, his reasoning would go.
My answer was,
“Well, thank God that you (i.e. the traditional media in the US) were there in order to verify the existence WMDs in Iraq as the justification for the Iraq War!”
My response had the desired “silencing” effect even though it was a bit harsh against the dignified editor, using as an argument possibly the biggest failure of American media, set against the backdrop of the general terrorism hysteria and inability to protect civil liberties after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Still, even back then I understood that both of us had a point, and now, watching Spotlight, I can’t help but thinking that this particular type of old school investigative journalism is really precious, that it is on the wane where it originated, and that many parts of the world never really had it.
The “Luxuries” of Time and Backing by Powerful Media Brand
With all that said, I think there are two main premises (preconditions) of the old school type of quality investigative journalism that stand out in the Spotlight film. The talented and hard-working journalists Michael Rezendes (played by Mark Ruffalo), Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) from The Boston Globe either would have been unable to tackle the story at all, or would have had a much harder time doing so without these two prerequisites.
The first premise is what I can only describe as “the luxury” of being able to work on a single story for months at a time. Yes, they are a special investigative unit, yes, their lives and work are plenty hectic, and they don’t write just one single article for several months but often they follow up with hundreds of articles on a single case.
That is how earth shattering investigations and top quality journalism are made. Yet, having sweated in online media, I can’t help but call this prerequisite a luxury nowadays, and be jealous of this opportunity to focus on a single story, and go all the way through with it.
Investigative teams such as Spotlight are still around in media transitioning from print to the web such as The Boston Globe (whose paper edition I enjoyed reading as a student in Graffton County, New Hampshire), and there are also powerful “new media” dedicating resources to investigative journalism.
However, it appears that because of the social media chatter and the need to be
“Twitter-plugged” all the time, and because of financial troubles and optimization, this incredible luxury of long-term, focused journalistic effort is on the wane everywhere where it has existed.
After the 2008-2009 financial crisis, a huge number of reporters and editors were laid off in Europe and North America. This has given a rise to freelancing, with lots of journalistic work being outsourced to freelancers, many of whom are very competent and talented.
The big difference is that freelancers don’t enjoy that sense of security a newspaper (or any media) team would because they have to make ends meet in the several weeks they would need to investigate a major story.
That is why I think the luxury of uninterrupted investigative effort depicted in the Spotlight movie is so impressive. (I do realize that a lot of journalists and others in developed western countries might still be taking that for granted).
In a perfect world, it should be but it seems to me that neither the pace, nor the finances of the online media era are very friendly to the luxury of time and job security an investigative unit like Spotlight needs to get its job done.
Oftentimes, online media suffer from their Internet environment in which a well researched meaningful investigation that has consumed enormous resources will get you fewer visits than some cheap gossip story. Not to mention that the number of articles you churn out into the Internet space might end up mattering more than their quality.
The second old school journalism premise that’s really impressive in the Spotlight vs. the pedophile Catholic priests story is the powerful media outlet, in this case The Boston Globe newspaper, and the support it provides for the journalists.
Not only can it afford to sustain the investigative effort, but it also has the resources to stand up to an organization as powerful as the Catholic Church. It is invaluable to have the backing of the entire chain of editors, and publishers, and an entire business with a mighty media brand such as The Boston Globe.
This is the other type of security, in addition to financial security, that greatly helps the investigative journalists as a precondition for doing a great job.
Unfortunately, this is another count on which the freelancing journalism model, which has become widespread after 2008-2009, scores low. Not only do freelance journalists have no backing from a powerful media, but they actually have (as in “belong to”) no media.
These two old school premises for high quality (investigative) journalism depicted in the Spotlight movie – the “luxury” of long-term, focused work on a single story, and a powerful media business backing its journalists – increasingly seem to be in short supply in today’s world.
The major online media are still learning to provide those, and traditional media are trying to keep them during their adaptation to the new conditions. Despite the faster pace of the new media era, this transition is still likely to take a while, and it is not certain at all if it will completed successfully.
The Journalistic Tradition Bulgaria Never Had
All that goes for those parts of the world that have had the tradition of old school (newspaper) (investigative) journalism – mostly, the Old West (i.e. North America & Western Europe), and some others here and there. Most of the world, however, has never had such a tradition.
Unfortunately, Bulgaria also falls in the second group: it has never had either of those two great prerequisites for top-quality journalism depicted in the Spotlight movie: neither the investigative units with the luxury to tackle a single topic for as long as they have to, nor the powerful media businesses that can back them up and stand up to whoever they have to.
The few decent Bulgarian journalists who were educated and/or gained their experience during the communist period (1944/8-1989) would disagree with me but I think it is safe to strike out all “media”, or as they were called, “means of mass information”, from the Communist Era as having any proper journalistic tradition.
In spite of some cases of roundabout reporting of the truth, all media in communist Bulgaria were little more than propaganda mouthpieces of the totalitarian authority, i.e. the thugs from the Communist Party and their Gestapo, the DS (the “Committee for State Security” of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, which was a de facto arm of the Soviet KGB).
Before the communist period, in the Tsardom of Bulgaria (1878-1944/46) there wasn’t much of a decent journalistic tradition, either. The insecure environment, constant political and sometimes civil strife, and a few coup d’etats kept the then Bulgarian press dependent on the politics.
After the alleged end of the communist period, which saw the skillful transformation of the ruling red aristocracy into a ruling post-communist oligarchy, the situation hasn’t been much better. There was a whiff of freedom in the early 1990s, right after the end of the former regime but probably all major Bulgarian media outlets have been infiltrated and controlled by former agents or collaborators of the DS.
Today, probably more than 90% of the Bulgarian media (including government-owned media) are controlled directly or indirectly by evil or at least ill-minded oligarchs who have purged any journalists with morals, decency, and critical thinking skills.
These “media”, or, rather, “means of mass manipulation”, are used primary to brainwash, shock, confuse, and delude the increasingly ignorant Bulgarian population (made so by a collapse of the education system engineered by the same ruling oligarchy), and to further the agenda of the oligarchs.
These “media” are staffed by “journalists” who suffer from severe deficiency in basic general knowledge and morals. Many of the reporters in Bulgaria are either middle-aged “aunties” and “uncles” from the communist period (at least those are literate), or post-communist bimbos on high heels eager to prance in the laps (often literally) of certain prime ministers and other politicians. Their male colleagues are no better, either.
If you think I am exaggerating the horrors of Bulgarian “media”, check out the Press Freedom Index of Reporters without Borders. Between 2003 and 2016, Bulgaria collapsed from No. 34 to No. 106 (out of a total of 180 countries). It is the worst ranking EU member state, and is well behind a lot of African, Asian, and Latin American countries that can hardly been seen as great examples in media freedom.
You can understand that Bulgaria is very far from having a media environment with the premises that the Spotlight movie reveals – the “luxury” of job security, time, resources, and backing by an independent, strong media company. However, this doesn’t mean that it has no media and investigative journalists worthy of the name.
Quite a few honest and talented Bulgarian journalists have fled the oligarchy horrors for the Internet, and are increasingly doing an impressive job in the face of adverse circumstances.
The Internet is no safe haven – they are being harassed by trolls (hired by oligarchy-controlled media and political parties), and can be targeted by the authorities in various ways.
These modern-day Bulgarian fighters for the truth are nowhere near enjoying the preconditions the investigative journalists of the Spotlight unit of The Boston Globe had in 2001, or has today. Yet, some have achieved results that are stunning in the Bulgarian context, and even internationally.
The one independent Bulgarian media that the Spotlight movie reminded me most of is Bivol, which can safely be described as the most successful Bulgarian investigative journalism project of all time. The bar is rather low but that doesn’t disparage their achievements. Being an independent online not-for-profit media whose journalists even reside in different countries, Bivol is nothing like a Spotlight-type old school newspaper journalism unit with respect to its means and resources. However, its results are comparable in importance in their Bulgarian context, and are achieved in a very hostile environment which makes them even more valuable.
In a sense, for oligarchy dominated countries such as Bulgaria, a new media investigative journalism project such as Bivol is as good as it gets. Or, should I say, as Spotlight as it gets. Such projects prove that journalists don’t necessarily need to be part of huge successful media companies to do an honest, competent, and meaningful job. Unfortunately, Bulgaria hasn’t developed the kind of civil society to react to their findings yet (which doesn’t disparage them, either).
Going back to the Spotlight movie and its old school newspaper investigative journalism, one can’t help but think that in a perfect world all journalists worthy of the name should have the “luxury” of job security, time, and media backing. The result would be that with their work these journalists would be able to make that world even more perfect.
We are not in a perfect world (cliché, I know). We live in a world, in which some countries have had Spotlight-like traditions, and some have dauntless new pioneers in the new media. In spite of the ever darker media freedom picture, that’s a lot to be hopeful over.
Any contribution is appreciated!
*Note: This article was originally written for the Bulgarian Politics project.