Those of us who report and publish the news always notice that we rank somewhere south of head lice in public opinion polls. So only a journalist who’s delusional would spend Feb. 14 waiting for the inbox to fill with hearts, candy and flowers.
But this year, we’ve got “Spotlight,” a giant, ongoing Valentine’s Day gift to the power, efficacy and necessity in our society of investigative journalism. This is extra sweet at a time when that kind of expensive, hard reporting is seriously threatened by failing business models, failure of imagination and the media world’s obsession with substance-free, adrenalized news bursts.
The film is now well known as the story of The Boston Globe team that uncovered the scope and virulence of the Catholic Church’s pedophile priest problem and the accompanying massive cover-up.
What’s less known – despite the previously inconceivable fact that members of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors sat down in Rome just last week and watched “Spotlight” before engaging in a panel on clerical sex abuse – is that this is a Valentine’s gift that keeps on giving.
The film came out in November. But since then, the church has released names of accused priests in Yakima, Washington, and files on delinquent clergy in Minneapolis. Well over a dozen dioceses and archdioceses from Chicago to Seattle; Albany, New York, to St. Petersburg, Florida; Raleigh, North Carolina, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, have issued statements citing “Spotlight” in recommitting themselves to vigilantly weeding out the guilty and comforting and supporting victims.
In Manchester, New Hampshire, Bishop Peter Anthony Libasci, through the church’s newspaper, expressed his own “pain, heartbreak and shame” as a church elder and invited “those who still suffer in silence due to past abuse … to come forward so that we can assist you in healing.”
Here I should offer a confession of my own: I do have a layered interest in lauding the movie. Blye Faust, one of the film’s producers, recently joined the board of The Center for Investigative Reporting, where I am executive board chairman. We’re thrilled to have someone with us who worked for seven years to bring the “Spotlight” story to the screen and so deeply gets the value of the journalism involved.
Also, there is some personal history I’d love to exorcise. When I was editor of the San Francisco Examiner in the mid-’90s, we reported on the local archdiocese and a predatory priest problem. But, unlike the legendary Globe editor, Marty Baron, who pulled his investigative team off a police story and put it onto the clergy probe his first day running the paper, I kept our team on a police investigation while the church scandal was left to general assignment reporters, who were talented but also had other things to cover. (Their work did lead to several convictions.)
Good judgment and instinct are not handed out evenly.
Today, however, I’m connected to an organization that focuses specifically on investigative work, the longest-running operation of its kind. CIR is a fact-based institution in what one political commentator has fretted is a “post-factual era.” We also place a great emphasis on the impact of our reporting in terms of improving – and sometimes saving – lives through work that leads to changes in law, policy, practice, public dialogue and more.
As one example, for the past year, CIR has been investigating sexual abuse of children in another closed society, the Jehovah’s Witnesses community, and that group’s attempts to silence the story. This splash of sunlight already is helping people who are looking to change dark and corrosive practices. It’s one of many public service and social justice issues we pursue at any given time.
And on Feb. 20, CIR will release a new episode of “Reveal,” our national, weekly investigative public radio show and podcast, that picks up the Catholic Church abuse scandal where the “Spotlight” film ends. In it, Reveal talks with former and current Boston Globe reporters about the decline of Boston’s powerful Cardinal Bernard Law following The Globe’s reporting, and looks into ongoing abuses in Minnesota, with Minnesota Public Radio, and fugitive priests in Latin America, together with the GlobalPost news operation.
This kind of work – and its impact – is why I’m clasping to my own otherwise deeply skeptical investigative journalist’s heart the Valentine’s Day gift of “Spotlight.”