Viewpoints

Op Image: ‘Spotlight’ reminds us of the power of journalism

Rachel McAdams, left, Mark Ruffalo, center, and Brian d’Arcy James play Boston Globe reporters in “Spotlight,” which is nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The movie dramatizes the Globe’s exposé on abuses by Catholic priests.
Rachel McAdams, left, Mark Ruffalo, center, and Brian d’Arcy James play Boston Globe reporters in “Spotlight,” which is nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The movie dramatizes the Globe’s exposé on abuses by Catholic priests. Open Road Films

The Boston Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for public service, journalism’s highest award, for its investigation of sex abuse by Catholic priests.

Will “Spotlight,” based on the Globe’s exposé, win the Oscar for best picture? We will find out Sunday.

Even if it doesn’t, that will not diminish the power and the influence of what we read in the Globe 13 years ago, or what we saw on the screen.

And it certainly won’t weaken the thrill and joy that any journalist will feel when watching the film, witnessing a depiction of their peers turning months of leg work, interviews and paper-chasing into a masterful portrait of men who had brutally betrayed their sacred oaths.

A viewer might leave the theater with some questions: Why did the Globe not follow up much earlier on its original abuse story that was buried inside the paper? Why was there only an oblique reference to a book tied to a 1985 report in the National Catholic Reporter of abuse by priests throughout the country?

Why did the script give such short shrift to the courage it took for publisher Richard Gilman, and the New York Times, which owned the paper, to green-light the investigation in a city overflowing with Catholics?

The questions, however, would just be footnotes to a story that echoed across the world, sending aftershocks in city after city, including Sacramento, for years.

But don’t underestimate the pressure that was applied to make this story go away, especially from the hierarchy of the church. Remember, this was a time when newspapers were still producing healthy profits. All of the disruptive forces that would change the world of print had not yet been unleashed.

I know how it might have felt. In the early 1980s, I was managing editor of the Chicago Sun-Times and a team of our reporters was investigating the use of church funds by then-Cardinal John Patrick Cody, the archbishop of Chicago, and his relationship with a woman. The Catholic population of Chicago was more than 2 million and represented much of the paper’s circulation.

From the beginning our publisher, James Hoge, made it clear that we would have to be as careful as anyone had ever been because this was explosive. Throughout the reporting process, which took two reporters many months, Cody launched a campaign claiming the paper was going after the Catholic Church. Some priests followed suit on Sunday mornings. And one of our reporters, a devoted Catholic, had to switch parishes.

Finally, the reporting was completed and it was time to publish the first story, which led with the fact that a grand jury was investigating Cody, plus numerous other details. Sun-Times owner Marshall Field V gave his OK – just as Globe leaders did, just as Washington Post owner Katharine Graham had done in the Watergate scandal, even though allies of President Richard Nixon were challenging the licenses for her television stations in Florida.

All were acts of courage, acts that are too rare in today’s world.

As for the movie, I don’t know if “Spotlight” will take home the Best Picture Oscar. It was extremely well done and deserves our applause, win or lose. But it was even better in real life than it was in reel life.

Gregory Favre is a former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news for the McClatchy Co. He can be contacted at gfavre@sbcglobal.net.

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