Posted: February 23, 2016
potlight is a small-budget independent film about the Boston Globe’s 2002 exposé of sexual abuse of children and young teenagers by Catholic priests, and the distressing, chronic failure of the Church hierarchy to deal responsibly with the problem. The film took eight years to make, and just two years ago, its prospects looked dim. In a 2013 industry poll, over 250 film executives were asked to vote for the “best unproduced screenplays,” and Spotlight received only eight votes.
Today Spotlight is a hit. In its first 12 weeks the film earned $8.5 million over the cost of production (about $20 million). It is also a critics’ darling and nominee for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. This success is surprising, given that if you were to pick this movie from a list of titles on your favorite streaming service, you might think it was made decades ago. As Variety noted, Spotlight is a “throwback,” whose “production…evokes filmmaking of another era,” and whose “story is notable for eschewing the building blocks of today’s most popular movies—CGI pyrotechnics, comic-book superheroes, sex and violence.”
Another throwback is the genre to which Spotlight belongs: the whistleblower drama, in which a seemingly powerless citizen succeeds in righting a significant wrong committed by a powerful institution. The classic example is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), about a plucky junior senator (Jimmy Stewart) successfully challenging corruption and cronyism in the Senate. A more recent example is Erin Brockovich (2000), about an obscure legal assistant (Julia Roberts) winning a class-action suit against a polluting public utility.
Erin Brockovich is a real person. So was Karen Silkwood, a chemical worker who blew the whistle on unsafe conditions in an Oklahoma nuclear power plant. The Hollywood version of her story, Silkwood (1983), is dark in the sense of ending not with the heroine’s vindication but with her death in a suspicious car crash. But it is not totally dark, since the audience knows her message did not fall on deaf ears. On the contrary, it reached the front page of the New York Times, not to mention the film directed by Mike Nichols and starring Meryl Streep.
Journalism and Democracy
Such is the appeal of the classic whistleblower drama: not a happy ending, exactly, but the redemption of seeing a mighty malefactor brought down by a lowly but brave individual or individuals. In the Boston case, the bravest individuals were the victims and families who spoke out against offending priests when nobody wanted to listen. But these are not the heroes of Spotlight; the heroes are the four reporters on the Globe “Spotlight Team” and their editor, Marty Baron (played by Liev Schreiber).
Baron, now executive editor at the Washington Post, says he is “thrilled” with Spotlight, calling it “a love letter to investigative journalism.” Others have likened the film to All the President’s Men (1976), about Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford) breaking the Watergate story. According to Variety, the “preview and festival audiences” cheering for Spotlight were “chock-full of ink-stained wretches swelling with pride and affirmation.” This is hardly surprising. Those ink-stained wretches know the newspaper business is failing, and are afraid that if it dies, investigative journalism will die with it.
Are such fears justified? Not according to a recent study conducted by the Media Insight Project, which shows news consumption rising among the generation that grew up in the digital age. What has changed is the pattern—instead of sitting down every morning with the newspaper, the so-called millennials spend the day checking headlines, sharing links, and, when interested in a story, pursuing it on a variety of news websites. A similar pattern has arisen among older people (at least those who have learned to use the Newsstand app on their iPad).
Yet all is not well. The study goes on to identify four risks associated with this new pattern of news consumption. First is excessive credulity toward news websites that eschew traditional standards of accuracy and fairness. Second is a preference for easily digestible, shareable “takeaways,” as opposed to solid reportage and analysis. Third is the anonymity of online communication, which easily degenerates into insults and worse. And fourth is the inconvenient truth that 21st-century digital technology does not automatically lead to democratic reform. On the contrary, it is rapidly evolving into a powerful instrument of surveillance, propaganda, censorship, and repression.
This raises a larger point. It is true, as the ink-stained wretches keep reminding us, that investigative journalism is the lifeblood of democracy. But the converse is also true: democracy is the lifeblood of investigative journalism. To right a significant wrong, it is not enough to have brave whistleblowers and intrepid reporters. You must also have sympathetic editors, independent investigators, honest prosecutors and defense attorneys, willing witnesses, disinterested judges and juries—all the institutions of a democratic society—in good working order.
The point was made cogently by a former diplomat who described to me how an audience of Chinese students responded to a screening of Erin Brockovich at the U.S. consulate in Shanghai. To the surprise of the Americans present, the Chinese understood the part about a public utility engaging in pollution, but missed the part about an underdog being able to make a difference. This is not surprising, given that China is a country with no free press, no political accountability, and a rigged court system. In such a regime, whistleblowers are heard only when the Party is disposed to hear them.
The Power of the Church
Far be it from me to compare catholic prelates to Chinese apparatchiks, but there is a discomfiting resemblance between the secretive, stonewalling, scapegoating reaction of many Church leaders to the flood of complaints about clerical sexual abuse, and some of the methods used by authoritarian regimes to stifle dissent. Certainly, Catholics have no monopoly on arrogance and defensiveness, and the Catholic Church itself shouldn’t be confused with a democracy. Spotlight presents the clash as one between the hierarchy as it closes ranks around Cardinal Bernard Law, and the laity as it becomes increasingly incensed by the pattern of shuffling compulsive abusers like Fr. John Geoghan and Fr. Paul Shanley from one parish to another.
When Lord Acton wrote that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” the devout Catholic was speaking not only of kings but also of popes. “There is no worse heresy,” he continued, “than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.” Too few princes of the 21st-century Church show signs of reckoning honestly with such unsavory topics as pedophilia and the molestation of young teenage boys; the widespread flouting of celibacy; and the existence of a gay subculture within the priesthood that is having a chilling effect on vocations worldwide.
As a portrait of Boston, Spotlight was welcomed by many locals as a departure from the Hollywood stereotype of the city as a cesspool of organized crime. The actors also deserve credit for not trying to imitate the local accent, which countless films have shown is impossible. Nevertheless, this native Bostonian detected one false note: the portrayal of the Globe as the scrappy underdog and the archdiocese as the high-handed top dog. This was true back in the 1950s, when the Church had a large, thriving, loyal, flock, and its princes were kin to the Irish political establishment. Back then, the shrewd, savvy Cardinal Richard Cushing had more clout than the city’s ink-stained wretches. By 2002, the situation was reversed.
Here’s why. Over the last half century, Boston has been transformed by the tech boom, which started early here, and by the massive postwar expansion of its many distinguished educational and medical institutions. This transformation built a whole new metropolis on top of the Irish and Italian immigrant city that itself had been built on top of the old Puritan-Yankee-Brahmin town. Along the way, local politics have become reflexively liberal, causing the Church to become reflexively defensive—which is not to say conservative. On the contrary, the Catholic archdiocese in Boston is now in thrall to the liberal establishment. But that hasn’t stopped the steady erosion of its power and prestige.
This history sheds light on why the story of clerical sexual abuse first broke in Boston. But Spotlight doesn’t go there. Instead, it ends with a long list of cities where similar stories have broken since 2002—hundreds of them, both in America and around the globe—and no sign of redemption. In this sense, Spotlight is not a classic whistleblower drama. It shows the part where the citizens raise their voices and the press reports their grievances, but not the part where the system responds and the wrongdoers are held accountable.
Whistleblowers Gone Rogue
It is possible that the Church will change. But if it does not, then we will have further proof that investigative journalism can produce positive results only in a democracy. This is still true in the digital age, although a lot of people seem intent upon forgetting it.
In the digital age, the best known whistleblowers are no longer everyday working people like Erin Brockovich, Karen Silkwood, and the families of children molested by priests. Instead, they are rogue characters like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, as unsophisticated about the world as they are sophisticated about the internet. And whistleblowing no longer means entrusting a specific story of wrongdoing to a reputable newspaper to be vetted before seeing the light of day. Instead, it means using your hacking skills to steal mountains of proprietary data, including classified government documents, and unceremoniously dumping them into the global public domain.
Assange and Snowden have attracted numerous filmmakers, including some of the same people who worked on Spotlight. For example, Josh Singer, who co-wrote the Spotlight screenplay, also wrote the screenplay for The Fifth Estate (2013), a fictionalized account of Assange’s life from the early days of WikiLeaks to his present status as an “asylum seeker” in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. Another example is Participant Media, a Spotlight co-producer that also co-produced Citizenfour (2014), a documentary about Snowden’s leaking of a vast trove of materials related to the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance program.
The movie business is full of such overlaps, and Spotlight’s “love letter to investigative journalism” clearly benefited from Singer’s talent and Participant Media’s support. But there is something discomfiting about this particular overlap, because whatever else may be said about The Fifth Estate and Citizenfour, they are not love letters to investigative journalism.
Let me begin with the The Fifth Estate. Based largely on a score-settling book by Assange’s estranged associate, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the film does not glorify Assange. On the contrary, it shows the WikiLeaks founder to be narcissistic, paranoid, and thoroughly loutish toward even his most loyal supporters. It also shows him to be morally irresponsible in refusing to let the Guardian, New York Times, and other newspapers remove the names of soldiers, informants, and other vulnerable persons from any of the hundreds of thousands of classified military files and diplomatic cables leaked to Assange by U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning.
At the same time, The Fifth Estate is a feature film intended to make money at the box office. So rather than make the lead character as odious as the real Assange, the producers hired British actor Benedict Cumberbatch to give the role a darkly glamorous spin. Less forgivably, The Fifth Estate tells us nothing about Assange’s betrayal of his stated principles in order to save his own skin.
That betrayal began in late 2010, when, according to a report by Sean Wilentz in the New Republic, Assange warned the Russian news agency Izvestia that “We have [compromising] materials about your government and businessmen.” At the same time, a spokesman for Wikipedia told a reporter that soon “Russian readers will learn a lot about their country.”
The Kremlin’s response was swift. First came the stick: the Russian secret police (FSB) posted an online message saying, “It’s essential to remember that given the will and the relevant orders, [WikiLeaks] can be made inaccessible forever.” Next came the carrot: when Assange was arrested in London for possible extradition to Sweden on charges of sexual assault, Vladimir Putin leaped to his defense, thundering, “If it is full democracy, then why have they hidden Mr. Assange in prison?”
Then came the deal: “The promised damning documents about Russia never saw the light of day,” writes Wilentz, adding that Russia then claimed “‘privileged access’ to ‘hundreds of [American diplomatic] cables containing Russia-related information’.” And in 2012 Assange was invited to host a show on Russia’s international TV channel, Russia Today (RT). Concludes Wilentz: “At a moment when Assange’s bright light seemed to be fading, the Russians gave him his own outlet on a network whose primary mission is to advance Putin’s political line.”
This brings us to Citizenfour, a documentary about Edward Snowden that likewise sugarcoats its sour subject. Like Assange, Snowden is a liar who prates about truth, an exposer of other people’s secrets who fanatically guards his own, and a control freak who denounces all uses of authority as equally illegitimate and repressive. Most of all, Snowden is a political naïf who professes to be passionate about press freedom but admits no distinction between governments that try to uphold it and governments that do not.
Citizenfour consists mainly of a softball interview with Snowden conducted by director Laura Poitras in June 2013, when she and other supporters joined him in Hong Kong where he had fled after being charged with espionage in the United States. One of those supporters, Sarah Harrison, is a close advisor to Assange, who recently declared on Germany’s international TV channel, Deutsche Welle, that “This is the greatest unaccountable power today—the United States and our Western democracies.”
After Snowden’s interview in Hong Kong, it was Harrison who accompanied him to Moscow, where, according to WikiLeaks, he found “political asylum in a democratic country.” That boast was empty in more ways than one. For the past couple of years, Snowden has been living in an undisclosed location in Russia and applying for political asylum to dozens of countries. But no country will take him, not even Russia. Meanwhile, Assange is as desperate to leave the Ecuadorean embassy in London as the Ecuadoreans are to have him leave. But no country will take Assange either, not even Ecuador.
In the eyes of their many acolytes, the stateless plight of these idols is the fault of Big Power, a Manichean force whose darkness is spreading over the Earth, resisted only by the few fragments of light still able to zip freely through the Cloud. It’s a vision that makes for cool graphics and special effects, not to mention ambient soundtracks. But there are better ways to think about the fate of whistleblowing in our age, and they all start with the same basic insight: power is not going to go away, and neither are governments, as long as human beings remain recognizably human. What matters most in the digital age is what mattered most before the digital age: how are we governed?
The Catholic Church is not a democracy, but neither is it a government. By the end of the 20th century, the Church had made its peace with Western democracy, as opposed to Soviet tyranny. So there is hope that, over time, it will open its ears to the legitimate grievances of millions of sincere Catholics.
The same cannot be said of today’s tyrannies. According to the latest report from Freedom House, “acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government…is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years.” Freedom House also states that “[g]lobal press freedom declined in 2014 to its lowest point in more than 10 years,” and “only one in seven people live in countries where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.”
This is the bad news. Pass it on.