A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

New movies show value of investigative journalism

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Nov. 5, 6 or 7

Journalism’s mission, it’s said, is to “give voice to the voiceless and hold the powerful accountable,” and two new films based on real incidents show the promises and pitfalls of trying to fulfill that public service.

Hollywood for a century has had a love/hate relationship with the press, which I’ve studied for decades, first in a Master’s thesis, then with the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture group, and in a chapter of my book “Video Almanac.” Journalism movies have ranged from the fun-but-overblown (“His Girl Friday,” the 1930s’ “Torchy Blane” series) to the realistic-but-overwrought (“Deadline USA,” “-30-“), from recent negative depictions (“Kill the Messenger,” “Night Crawler”) to classics with positive aspects (“Call Northside 777,” “Five Star Final”).

“Spotlight,” in wide release this Friday, is both realistic and riveting in showing the relentless reporting and research required in both investigative journalism and ambitious local news coverage, both of which still have tremendous value. Featuring an ensemble cast including Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton (who starred in 1994’s “The Paper,” a wonderful newspaper movie), “Spotlight” was co-written and directed by actor/filmmaker Tom McCarthy (the unscrupulous newsman in HBO’s “The Wire”).

A cinematic tribute to journalism, “Spotlight” follows the Boston Globe’s work in 2001 to expose the Archdiocese’s cover-up of some priests’ sexual abuse of kids. However, in recounting the toil in generating about 600 stories that earned a Pulitzer Prize, the plot is less about the church than standing up and speaking truth to power. It could just as easily be about corrupt government, powerful companies, or any evil authority.

It’s a thriller despite the audience knowing the ending, like 1976’s “All The President’s Men” (ATPM: a great film), because the drama is in the process as much as the outcome. In fact, “Spotlight” has moments similar to “ATPM’s” acknowledgment of the tedium needed to discover and verify facts that should be disclosed. “Spotlight” journalists work the phones, pore through paperwork, and combine “shoe-leather” reporting with then-new computer-assisted newsgathering. They face frustrations such as dead ends and reluctant sources, plus human errors and newsroom friction. Like “ATPM,” “Spotlight” shows journalism as a vital blue-collar trade handled by driven people who care, collaborating in a grind to get it first and get it right.

The director lets the actors present quiet, resolute courage that existed there then – and now, everywhere in some way, in a changing industry. Newspapers have lost circulation and advertising to the Internet (which mostly uses content newspaper reporters produce), and the downturn has led not only to knee-jerk business reactions to cut pages and staff (Globe layoffs have trimmed its newsroom to 60 percent of its former size). It’s also led to less coverage of key institutions and the unfortunate fascination with digital stories that generate clicks instead of results.

In some contrast, the movie “Truth” came out last week and stars Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford and Dennis Quaid in a tale revealing broadcast journalism’s occasional shortcomings when dealing with corporate zeal. Based on news producer Mary Mapes’ book “Truth and Duty,” it follows CBS-TV’s 2004 piece on allegations that George W. Bush didn’t fully serve in his National Guard stint during the Vietnam War, produced by Mapes (Blanchett) and anchored by Dan Rather (Redford).

Pressured by the network, the broadcasters fail to finish their job, and the report was attacked by Bush supporters for its flaws and mistakes, causing CBS to disavow and fire Mapes and push Rather to resign.

“Truth” shows that newsroom compromises – journalistic or commercial – can damage a story, even one that’s mostly accurate, and hurt a noble vocation.

Finally, “Truth” is a tale about an explosive story that falls apart after it’s rushed to air; “Spotlight” is a valentine to a plain but passionate love: an enduring and meaningful relationship with its readers and community.

[PICTURED: Left to right, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Brian D’Arcy James in Spotlight portray a team of investigative journalists. Photo from]

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