Why ‘Spotlight’ Is the Film That Will Make Journalism Look Good Again

It’s been nearly 40 years since “All the President’s Men” turned two young reporters into stars, inspired a generation of young people to become journalists and conferred on the Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee a national renown.

Now, the best journalism movie since Alan J. Pakula’s classic is coming to theaters and fans of early screenings are hoping “Spotlight,” opening November 6 from Open Road Films, gives a similar boost to journalists and their profession. It could also cement Marty Baron as the 21st century reinvention of  Bradlee.

“Spotlight” takes audiences inside the Boston Globe’s 2002 investigation into how that city’s Catholic hierarchy ignored and even enabled priests who sexually abused children. Audiences have been impressed and awards buzz is rising — for the film, director Tom McCarthy and an ensemble cast that includes Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton.

But nowhere is early excitement greater than in the hearts and minds of newspaper people, who see in “Spotlight” an authentic and uplifting movie about a business that has been battered by disappearing ad revenue and an epochal shift of readers to alternative platforms.

True to the story of the real-life investigative team it profiles, “Spotlight” does not have a featured star. It captures a four-person reporting team (later joined by many colleagues) relentlessly chasing down the tale, not of  individuals’ sins, but a system that condoned the sinners. While there is not a star turn, the team’s (and the film’s) moral and ethical heart beats in its unwavering leader – the editor, Baron, as portrayed by Liev Schreiber.

Those who know Baron have been tickled by how uncannily Schreiber captures the real-life editor. Previously a master of coiled machismo (think the title role in Showtime’s “Ray Donovan”) Schreiber in “Spotlight” captures Baron’s coiled intelligence and quiet resolve.

When Baron came to the Boston Globe in 2001, he had already established a reputation as one of the profession’s top leaders, after stints at the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times. A day before he walked into the Boston newsroom for the first time, Baron recalls that he read a piece by a Globe columnist on a sexual predator priest whose case had been sealed by court order.

Baron asked his new underlings why the official records had been sealed and whether the Globe had ever gone to court to challenge the veil of secrecy. “He asked a simple question that kind of embarrassed everyone who had been there. That one question really got this project rolling,” said Sacha Pfeiffer, a “Spotlight” team reporter, played by Rachel McAdams. “Then he continually pushed us not to write just about priests who abused children but to write about church officials who covered up for priests who abused children.”

The Baron character is an unlikely hero. Soft-spoken and understated in the extreme, the journalist evidenced none of the swagger of the Post’s Bradlee, a confidante of President Kennedy, who spoke loudly and profanely and who once stopped a job hire at the Washington Post, judging of the prospective hire: “Nothing clanks when he walks.”

Baron, who left Boston to become executive editor of the Washington Post in 2013, still speaks in a semi-hush. At the Toronto Film Festival, the editor suggested he presented a big challenge for an actor. Said Baron: “How do you portray someone who doesn’t emote?” Former Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth — who hired Baron, and would know a little about the subject, said of Schreiber: “He did it perfectly. He just nailed Marty. It was freaky.”

In one scene, the Baron character is rallying his stressed and exhausted reporters. He offers no clarion calls about freedom of information or the power of the Fourth Estate, telling the journalists, simply, that they should be proud that they are doing “good reporting.”

Reporter Pfeiffer laughed at the accuracy of that moment.

“Marty is very smart, very demanding,” Pfeiffer said. “That can often make him scary but it also makes you want to work very hard for him. He doesn’t have the swagger of a guy like Ben Bradlee, but he was very clearly the boss and he was a great boss. One review described him as a bad ass boss. I thought that was perfect.”

“Spotlight” ends with the fallout from the Globe series – priests jailed for abuse and Cardinal Bernard Law exposed for shuffling offenders from one parish to another, where the sexual abuse of young parishoners continued. Following the newspaper’s expose, Law resigned as archbishop of Boston and took a post in the Vatican.

The Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, considered the most prestigious of journalism’s top awards. Three of the journalists depicted in “Spotlight” work at the Globe, while the fourth is at a journalism nonprofit in Boston. When Baron left the paper three years ago it saddened the staff, but signaled the launch of a renaissance at his new home, the Washington Post.

Like a lot of other big-city dailies, the newspaper of Watergate had suffered massive advertising reductions, as new Internet rivals stepped forward. That led to staff reductions and lowered ambitions. But Baron’s nearly three-year tenure and the subsequent purchase of the paper by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos – who bought the paper from the long-controlling Graham family – have put the Post on an upward trajectory unmatched in American journalism.

Not long after Baron’s arrival, the Post gained access to the confidential National Security Agency memos unveiled by Edward Snowden. Faced with tremendous pressure to keep the documents out of the public domain, Baron pushed the coverage forward. For the disclosures and placing them in a larger national security context that could be understood by readers, the Post won a Pulitzer Prize.

Significantly, Baron’s Post has been lauded not just for reinvigorating its core journalism, but for stepping up the quality and quantity of its offerings online. With 52 million unique visitors one month this summer, washingtonpost.com has one of the biggest news audiences in America. An award from the Online News Association in September praised the paper for “great strides in technology [that] allowed the [Post] to take its already impressive journalism to even higher levels this year.”

But the gains have not been all centered on expanding to new platforms – investment from Bezos means the paper had the means to double the size of the staff covering the 2016 presidential race, compared to 2012.

A year ago, New York Times media critic David Carr wrote that, while Bezos’s money was critical, it was Baron “who pushed the newspaper back into the conversation.”

The Post entered the Pulitzer winner’s circle again this spring, for reporter Carol Leonnig’s serial reports on lapses in Secret Service coverage that could have put the president at risk. Leonnig and other colleagues lauded Baron for standing up to White House pressure to squelch some of the most provocative stories.

“The morale and the level of collaboration in this newsroom are so high,” said campaign finance reporter Matea Gold. “It all sort of turns back to the fact that everyone here knows that Marty has all of our backs.”

Baron has been to three screenings of “Spotlight.” The preternaturally-contained newsman concedes that he has “teared up” at each showing, always during a scene in which an elderly Globe customer reads the first expose and must confront the truth about her church.

The editor pronounces himself “thrilled” with the film. “I think it’s a love letter to investigative journalism and to local journalism,” Baron said. “It speaks to the impact we can have if we devote the energy and the resources to difficult work. It’s kind of a reminder of our highest and most important mission.”

Told that he, personally, doesn’t come off so badly in the film, even perhaps a bit super-hero-ish, Baron laughs: “A Jewish superhero!” He chuckles again: “First one ever!”

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