SPOTLIGHT and Why Journalism Matters

A clarion call in defense of the press.

With the Oscars upon us I’ve found myself prone to revisiting films that won in years past. It was in this manner that I stumbled into re-watching Spotlight on Netflix and I must say that the film was a revelation the second time around. The combination of almost surrealist events that has transpired since it took home the golden statue last year has served to elevate and make essential what at this time last year I viewed solely as a very well made film. No, now the story of a small team of journalists working together to expose the dark misdeeds of an immensely powerful institution has become something else entirely. It stands now as a testament to the utmost importance of our free press and its ability to hold those in power accountable when no one else will.

For those not familiar with the film, Spotlight tells the story of the eponymous investigative arm of The Boston Globe and their eight month investigation into the Catholic Church’s institutional cover up of child molestation by its priests. The church seeking to avoid scandal routinely buried allegations of abuse and routinely moved the victimizers around in order to insure that it did not come to light. The Spotlight team led by their editor Walter Robinson (played by Michael Keaton) and Globe editor Martin Baron (played by Liev Schreiber) after uncovering allegations of said abuse begin an investigation that ended up shaking one of the world’s most powerful institutions to its very core. Along the way they experience fierce push-back from many people who have a lot to lose by the story getting out but stay the course under the immense pressure and produce one of the most powerful pieces of investigative journalism in history.

“Why does this film matter?” you might ask. It matters, because in a world where those in power seem to have less and less use for the truth by the day, the press stand as one of the last bastions of defense for the people. When people claim the truth to be relative, it is journalists and news organizations that step up and say otherwise. And when those in power wield that power like a hammer to serve their own interests at the expense of the innocent, it is journalists that sound the call in defense of those that cannot defend themselves.

Throughout the history of this great nation the free press has time and again interceded on behalf of the people in order to bring about great change. It was Upton Sinclair’s seminal work “The Jungle” which exposed the horrifying practices of the meatpacking industry and lead to major reforms in the way that our food was processed. It was Ida Tarbell’s work on John D Rockefeller that brought down the Standard Oil Company for its blatant violation of US anti-trust laws. And it was Woodward and Bernstein and the Washington Post’s work on the Watergate scandal that brought low a US president when they exposed the lies and corruption of the Nixon administration. The story of the Spotlight team is yet another in this long line of instances in which it was journalists that exposed the abuses of the wealthy and powerful upon the people. And it is a story that we would do well to keep in mind now.

When we watch the story unfold in this film we are reminded of the risks journalists take every day in pursuit of the truth, a pursuit now more important than ever. When we have a sitting president that spends his days attacking and shouting at the free press, that is when they are at their most important. Because the truth is the truth, no matter how uncomfortable or scary. This simple axiom is constant. Truth is not relative nor are facts subjective, no matter how much some would wish otherwise. We look to journalists to reveal that truth to us. To go where we cannot and to tell the stories that we desperately need to hear. Their role is not glamorous, and their rewards rarely tangible, but they form the bedrock of a free society and Spotlight is a film that hammers this home with awesome force. Full of righteous anger and power it is a rallying cry to the members of the fourth estate in their never ending struggle to uncover the truth. It is a battle always fought uphill and often in extremely perilous and terrifying territory but it is a battle that must be fought. That is why Spotlight matters. It shows us a group of passionate people fighting a fight worth fighting and actually winning. It shows us why freedom of the press is enshrined within the very first sentence of the Bill of Rights and why it must exist for any society to remain truly free.

It struck me today that while Spotlight may be telling a story sixteen years old, that it may very well be one of the most timely and prescient films to come out in years. It’s intrinsic understanding of the role that journalists and the press play in our society helps shape it into a film with a sharp and coherent message that needs to be shouted from the mountain tops. It reminds us that while some will tonight tell many of the honored artists that their job is solely to entertain us and that they should “stay out of politics”, that art is always political. That art always has a point of view, and Spotlight’s is more important than most. Spotlight is a film that merely by existing transcends entertainment and becomes something more, something vital. A reminder and a call to action that when we do not act against abuses of power that we become complicit in them. That there is no more noble pursuit than that of the truth. Because the truth set’s us all free. Spotlight matters. It’s also a pretty good movie and it’s on Netflix right now, so go check it out.