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'Spotlight' chronicles great investigative reporting
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'Spotlight' chronicles great investigative reporting

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Editor’s note: The Star asked Gilman, a Tucsonan who was publisher of the Boston Globe during the period portrayed in the movie “Spotlight,” to offer his opinion on how closely the film sticks to the facts. 

Newspaper reporters, at least those of the old school, do their best to stay out of the spotlight. The story isn’t about them.

But there they are up on the big screen, journalists I know and deeply respect being played by movie stars in a full-length feature film getting rave reviews. Goodbye photophobia. Hello, Hollywood!

“Spotlight” is the four-person investigative team of the Boston Globe, circa 2001, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for uncovering the Catholic Church pedophile priest scandal. We all now know Boston was not alone. Similar patterns have since been revealed in city after city around the world.

I was in charge of the Globe in those days. As such, I took considerable pride in our reporting then and have a particular interest in the movie today. “Spotlight” opens in Tucson tomorrow.

The movie is several stories at once:

  • The devastating impact on the victims of the abuse.
  • A cautionary tale of the conspiracy of silence that existed even among the authorities.
  • A monumental ode to newspapers doing their job. And a not-so-subtle warning of what will be lost if newspapers go away.
  • A textbook study in investigative reporting. In dramatic form, this is what it takes – in time, talent and methodology – to pursue a big story the subjects don’t want told.

Viewers will quickly get caught up in the main narrative – and here “Spotlight” is pretty much spot-on.

Marty Baron, the paper’s new editor I’d just hired from Miami, seizes on a damning reference to the Church that previous editors had somehow overlooked. He assigns Spotlight to investigate. The Globe challenges the Church to gain access to sealed court records.

Working every imaginable angle, the Spotlight team roots out more and more pedophile priests. Against their wishes, sources confirm the extent of the problem that for many years the Church had conspired to hide.

The film has the air of a documentary. The screenwriters dug deep into the archives. The director injects flashes of authenticity, even requisitioning and refurbishing a car one of the reporters actually used. The movie stars successfully used get-to-know-you dinners to study every gesture and mannerism of the journalists they play.

Given the aura of the movie, and the seriousness of the subject matter, one would hope everything on the big screen is factual. After all, this is a true story.

But documentary it is not. The movie ends with the familiar disclaimer that one thing or another you just witnessed was altered or invented. To their credit, the screenwriters are said to have resisted Hollywood’s urging to insert a “love interest” between two of the reporters. They weren’t, however, above taking other liberties that served their purposes.

For one, they were dead-set on dramatizing the risks to the Globe of taking on the Church. A few years earlier, Cardinal Bernard Law had threatened to bring down the wrath of God on newspapers, in particular the Globe.

His bombast did not cow the newsroom. Quite intentionally there was no internal discussion whatsoever of potential consequences.

So it is to my extreme dismay that I’m shown on the screen giving voice to one such business concern — exactly the type of thing I had purposely avoided in the few interactions about the investigation. The only true aspect of that brief scene in my office is the outcome: We would challenge the Church in court.

Some of the fictionalizing is harmless. Some is not. The movie is dealing with real people with real names with real reputations.

Words are put in people’s mouths. Certain scenes, notably a dramatic showdown that two members of the Spotlight team have with an attorney who represents victims, never occurred. Some scenes didn’t happen in the time period of the movie. Other scenes are composites. Multiple sources are combined into one person.

Injustices are done. One of the Globe’s best investigative reporters, Steve Kurkjian, is for some reason depicted as waving off Spotlight’s work. In truth, he was a big backer.

Contrary to what you see on the screen, it was Kurkjian not Spotlight reporter Sacha Pfeiffer who later cajoled an errant priest into confessing the sins of his past.

That I know of, there was no hesitation within the newspaper about the investigation.

Everyone involved is cheering. The Spotlight team richly deserves the spotlight.

The movie ends with the publication of the first story, but as you watch keep in mind that these initial revelations were just the opening salvo in a scandal that grew in Boston, and soon reverberated around the globe.

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