TOPICS > Arts > Academy Awards

Film about investigative journalism nabs top Oscar

February 29, 2016 at 8:11 PM EDT
On Sunday, the film “Spotlight” pulled off a surprise Best Picture win at the Oscars. An inside look at the uncovering of widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, “Spotlight” celebrates investigative journalism. Jeffrey Brown talks to Margaret Sullivan of the New York Times and Stephen Engleberg of ProPublica about the state of journalism in a world of newspaper cutbacks and layoffs.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JUDY WOODRUFF: From the very opening of the telecast last night, much of the focus during the Academy Awards was on Hollywood’s problems with diversity.

But near the end, a notable upset also garnered some attention. The movie “Spotlight” won for best picture. In part, it is a reminder about the state of investigative journalism, and raises the question whether it would be more difficult to mount a similar investigation these days.

Jeffrey Brown has more.

MORGAN FREEMAN, Actor: The Oscar goes to “Spotlight.”

JEFFREY BROWN: The winner was something of a surprise: “Spotlight,” a film about one major hometown institution, The Boston Globe, taking on another, the Catholic Church.

Director Tom McCarthy:

TOM MCCARTHY, Director, “Spotlight”: We made this film for all the journalists who have and continue to hold the powerful accountable and for the survivors, whose courage and will to overcome is really an inspiration to all. We have to do to make sure this never happens again.

RACHEL MCADAMS, Actress: The numbers clearly indicate that there were senior clergy involved.

JEFFREY BROWN: The film recounts how Globe reporters and editors tracked down cases of sexual abuse of children by priests, and the cover-up by the church hierarchy that allowed guilty priests to stay in their positions.

The paper’s “Spotlight” team tracked over 900 active and retired priests, finding some 250 had molested children over several decades.

LIEV SCHREIBER, Actor: We need to focus on the institution, not the individual priests. Practice and policy. Show me the church manipulated the system so that these guys wouldn’t have to face charges. Show me they put those same priests back into parishes time and time again. Show me this was systemic, that it came form the top down.

JEFFREY BROWN: Actor Liev Schreiber played the Globe’s editor, Martin Baron.

LIEV SCHREIBER: When Tom sent me the script, I called him immediately and I said, this is such an amazing piece and it’s so timely and so important that we remember what an asset this is to an asset to our society and our culture and our democracy.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 2002, as the original investigation was still unfolding, the “NewsHour” visited the Globe newsroom.

The real Martin Baron spoke of how the case had snowballed from a focus on just one priest.

MARTIN BARON, Editor, The Washington Post: I thought it was an extraordinary story. Here was a priest who had been accused by 130 people of having abused them as minors. That was just an extraordinary number in and of itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Baron is now editor of The Washington Post.

When we spoke to him this fall as “Spotlight” was being released, he said he hoped the film could also raise awareness of the continuing need for strong investigative journalism

MARTIN BARON: Well, we’re a profession that’s under tremendous pressure, a lot of financial pressure. So, clearly, it’s going to be more difficult, given that there are fewer resources to do it. This is very expensive work to do.

And yet we have to commit ourselves to doing it. Somebody needs to hold powerful institutions and individuals accountable, and we’re the ones who have that particular role in our society.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” unit won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage.

To add to Martin Baron’s point about economic pressures, since 2003, newspaper staffs have declined by 40 percent. In the same period, though, new models for investigative journalism are being tried, in some cases with good success.

We’re joined now by Margaret Sullivan, outgoing public editor for The New York Times. She will soon be joining The Washington Post as its media columnist. And Steve Engelberg, the editor in chief of ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization that has won numerous awards for its investigative work.

Welcome, both, to you.

Margaret Sullivan, let me start with you.

You wrote recently that — quote — “The film ‘Spotlight’ is powerful and moving, but it raises troubling questions about the state of local investigative reporting today and its future.”

What — you thought that even as you were watching the movie. What was troubling?

MARGARET SULLIVAN, The New York Times: Well, it’s very troubling to me, because I’m a former editor of a regional newspaper, and I watch these issues carefully.

Staff numbers are way down. Many papers have to or have felt they have had to dismantle their investigative teams. And the resources just aren’t there that were there even 10 years ago. It’s really troubling.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Steve Engelberg, the economics of the business are clearly one issue. What about leadership and audience appetite? How do they play in?

STEPHEN ENGELBERG, ProPublica: Well, it’s very interesting, because right at this very minute, we have the best investigative reporting tools we have ever had in the Internet.

It’s amazing what we can now access in terms of information. And people are reading more. The problem we have got is that people aren’t willing to pay for it. And that’s a big problem.

And, as Margaret says, it’s a particularly acute problem outside the major cities of the United States, and even in some of those major cities, where newspapers are at 50 percent or less of their previous size. That’s the problem. It’s an economic problem.

From the perspective of the craft, it’s a great time to be an investigative reporter.

JEFFREY BROWN: But flesh that out a little bit. So, it’s really a double-edged sword of technology, right, about digital technology allows a certain kind of more reporting and more dissemination, but you’re saying the economics make it harder.

STEPHEN ENGELBERG: Exactly, because people feel on the Internet that content ought to be free.

And so newspapers which made money by charging for subscription and ads find their ad revenues severely pitched and subscription revenues evaporating. And in the face of that, people want to go online and read this wonderful content for free. That is not a model that works.

On the other side of it, though, it is literally amazing. I started in the business when they still had typewriters, believe it or not, and it’s literally amazing these days what you can access in terms of data, in terms of journal articles, information, finding people.

Everything you want to do as an investigative reporter is just enhanced by the current technology.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Margaret Sullivan, if I ask you, is “Spotlight” possible today, sounds like the answer is in some cases yes, but in a lot of cases no.

MARGARET SULLIVAN: I think it is still possible in most places.

But I think that the will to do this kind of work is weakening somewhat, and it has to be beefed up. “Spotlight” is such an inspiring movie, that I’m hopeful that it will cause owners and editors and publishers to realize just how important this work is and to fund it and to get behind it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us, what kind of stories do you fear are being missed even today?

MARGARET SULLIVAN: Well, it’s always hard to know what’s being missed…

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course.

MARGARET SULLIVAN: … because you don’t know it until you read it in the paper or hear it or watch it.

But the stories that are really difficult to do are the ones that are so time-consuming. And you could tell from “Spotlight” that people were knocking on doors and they were going over lists and they were agonizing about how to nail it down.

And those kind of things are very expensive and they take time. But it is the stories about holding powerful people and institutions accountable that really, really matter.

JEFFREY BROWN: Steve Engelberg, you were talking about the new possibilities by digital technology, by new models. And you work at one of those new models for investigative journalism. It’s a nonprofit model.

Tell us about what that allows you to do, avoiding the advertising, for example, but also the challenges that you face because of it.

STEPHEN ENGELBERG: Well, the model doesn’t really change what you can do.

In the old days, you had advertiser who gave a lot of money. And, of course, you know, they were investing in a product, and you could be aware of that or not as you so chose. Great newspapers always cut off the business side from the journalism side. Today, we have donors. It’s the same thing. We have a wall between the people who give and foundations and so on and the content itself.

I did want to mention, by the way, your question, because I think we can go to this. Pulitzer Prize a couple of years ago was won by “The Los Angeles Times” about a little town called Bell, California, where the city council voted the city manager and the leadership salaries of over a million dollars a year and 109 vacation days each.

So, you asked the question, what kind of stories would missed because no journalists are around? That’s a pretty basic story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Margaret Sullivan, what about these new models that you see happening for investigative journalism? Where are there good things happening?

MARGARET SULLIVAN: Well, they are springing up over all the country.

ProPublica, of which Steve is the chief editor, is a real leader. But there are many in different communities. And there’s a question of whether they can endure, whether they can work with their small staffs. The Texas Tribune is a great example of a local digital startup that does a lot of good work. So, they’re happening. I guess it’s just a matter of whether they’re ultimately going to be sustainable.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Steve Engelberg, a last brief word from you. Just thinking about the movie last night and an Oscar victory, does that give you hope? What does your gut tell you about any difference it might make?

STEPHEN ENGELBERG: I think the movie’s going to inspire more people.

I have been talking on journalism schools, at campuses lately, and people who have seen that movie find it very inspiring, as do I. I think it’s just a great example of what we can do when journalists do the job that they need to do in our society.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Steve Engelberg, Margaret Sullivan, thank you both very much.

MARGARET SULLIVAN: Thank you.

STEPHEN ENGELBERG: Thank you.

SHARE VIA TEXT