Spotlight and Truth
A Critical Review of Investigative Journalism in Movies
December 20, 2015
Two recent movies Spotlight and Truth have told two true stories based on the work of investigative journalists. Spotlight is about how the Boston Globe uncovered the extensive problems with pedophilia among the Roman Catholic clergy and Truth, about how the CBS 60 Minutes Team covered George W Bush’s possible desertion during the Vietnam War. Although these movies are both excellent portrayals of how journalists conduct their business, the two movies tell very different stories about how news organizations support their journalists. Managers and executives of news organizations make journalism “work” when they support their investigative teams by dedicating resources (time and money); ongoing criticism and problem-solving; management’s personal investment in the integrity of the story; and a dedication to getting the truth out. The impact of these stories on the audience is due to the difference in how the investigative journalists were supported by their news organizations.
In Spotlight (reviewed here on December 1, 2015), the investigative team from the Boston Globe began with an investigation into allegations, originally thought very unlikely, that the priest Geoghan had sexually abused a number of boys. Despite a wall of resistance due to Bostonian denial of priest culpability and more to the church’s political power, the Spotlight investigative team (Robby Stewart (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) followed the story as they dealt with their own painful disillusionment and possibly a degree of complicity for having ignored earlier victims’ requests to be heard.
The investigative team was dedicated to revealing the truth about the priests who had hurt so many children. Their work would have been important if it had ended there – and it might have ended there - except that they were supported by the newly hired editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) and assistant managing editor, Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery). These executives worked side-by-side with the investigators, gave them the time and space they needed to unravel the story. They questioned their conclusions and prodded them to return to unanswered questions. Baron recognized that the story was not complete if it was solely about individual priests. Instead, he told the team that they would need to address the Church’s systematic cover-up to protect priests, while continuing to hurt trusting children and their families. Baron and Bradlee were courageous in putting truth above the possible political repercussions that the Globe might have suffered at the hands of the powerful and political diocese.
In contrast, in the movie Truth, the CBS News Division President, Andrew Heyward (Bruce Greenwood) and other CBS executive team members are shown as distant from the news product, and more concerned with the profit motive of Viacom, the corporate owner than they were about examining the past of the President running for re-election. Truth is the story of how the 60 Minute production team was forced to rush the work on a story about George W. Bush’s military record, and in their rush, abandoned journalistic principles, ultimately costing both Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and his producer, Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) their jobs and their reputations as journalists.
Mapes had tenaciously gathered strong evidence that Bush may have abandoned his Air Force post in the early 1970s. The story had been addressed by other news agencies in the past (The Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and others) and the CBS news team had interviewed a number of people who, from different vantage points attested that while George W had an initial commendable performance in 1970, by 1972 he stopped flying, and was “off the grid” for about the year, and had been officially grounded by the National Guard Bureau for failing to take his required physical. Mapes and her team felt that they had an important story to tell, but did not have confirming documents. However, “through the grapevine” they learned that a former lieutenant colonel in the Guard, Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach) had copies of documents from Jerry Killian, Bush’s commanding officer at the time. The documents, if real, showed that Bush was not present as required and his commanding officer refused to rate Bush’s performance.
The movie, clearly sympathetic to the honor of Mary Mapes and Dan Rather, portray the production team making great efforts to validate every piece of evidence. However their efforts fell short of journalistic standards. They ran the story without having sources agree in writing or on film, and had inadequate authentication of the commanding officer’s documents. Immediately, they were challenged. The truth about George W. Bush’s military career was no longer a question, because the journalists had blown it.
The CBS executive team did not participate in the preparation of the story, had not allowed reasonable time to develop the story, and ultimately distanced themselves from the rapid outcry of journalistic malpractice when the story was run. They showed no dedication to the production team or to the truth. Dan Rather and Mary Mapes have subsequently both written books that detail how CBS executives abdicated their own responsibility and mission in their quest for personal career promotion and the profit of the corporation.
Mapes complains that the CBS executives should have taken accountability – should have questioned, demanded, prodded the team to get the full story – not to rush the story. Rather goes farther: “for a journalist, the truth always matters, and that should be reason enough”; and he concludes that “CBS News had abandoned the principles on which it was founded. It showed that I was loyal to something that no longer existed, at least not at CBS”.
One is tempted to view the demise of CBS and journalism through Rather’s summary, but the tensions between truth and news organization sponsorship are not new or subtle. The CBS tug-of-war between journalism and corporate greed has been depicted in two other films– Good Night and Good Luck and The Insider.
Good Night and Good Luck takes place in the 1950s as newsman Edward R Murrow (David Straithairn) and producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) revealed the cruel tactics that were being used by Joseph McCarthy in his witch hunt to find communists in every corner. Even in these early days of television journalism, the production team was at first supported by the CBS management team, but the support was threatened by concerns that the investigation might pique the corporate sponsor Alcoa. The tension between managers and journalists was increased as CBS executives started to recognize that producing entertainment may be less threatening to the company brand.
In The Insider, which took place in the 1990s, Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) and producer, Lowell Berman (Al Pacino) were initially prevented from airing an interview with the previous tobacco industry insider, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) because of concern that Big Tobacco would sue CBS for complicity in Wigand’s breach of confidentiality agreement and jeopardize a multi-billion dollar sale to Westinghouse. The title of “Insider” could have applied to both Wigand for his understanding of the nefarious motivation of Big Tobacco, but also to the CBS producer Berman. Berman understood that CBS would not willingly confront the tobacco industry unless forced into acting responsibly. He fed information to the Wall Street Journal and to the New York Times so that these media competitors would reveal a shameless smear campaign by Big Tobacco against Wigand and also CBS’s cowardly betrayal of Wigand and the truth. When so cornered, CBS allowed the 60 Minute interview to be aired. As the disillusioned Bergman left CBS because he claimed that “what got broken here doesn’t go back together”, he recognized that the CBS News Division had been compromised by the CBS Entertainment Division. The executives had not invested themselves in the expose of the tobacco companies, and had abandoned their own investigative team and the truth. They did not show dedication to getting the story out.
Political and corporate interests will always threaten journalistic integrity. Reporters, news anchors, and producers need to have involved, supportive and demanding executives who are committed to revealing the truth – as it is, not as corporate interests demand. Sometimes, like in the Insider, a smart producer is needed to make an organization honor its commitment to truth, and sometimes, like in Truth, a naïve producer is run over by the organization itself. When journalists make revelations about priests, presidents, industries, or evil senators – the power structure- they need to have their network executives on board, accountable, and invested.