The new movie "Spotlight" depicts the Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation that uncovered the systemic sexual abuse and widespread cover up in the Catholic church, with refreshing accuracy. Brooke talks with Walter Robinson, who headed the investigation and is played by Michael Keaton in the film, and Sacha Pfeiffer, who was one of the four reporters on the team and is played by Rachel McAdams, about what it was like to see themselves on the silver screen, and the continuing impact of their award-winning reporting.
Discuss on Twitter: #OTMSpotlight
BROOKE: This is On the Media, I’m Brooke Gladstone. Two weeks ago, I saw the movie Truth. It depicts a CBS news team in 2004, rushing to report a story about how George W. Bush’s connections enabled him to avoid Viet Nam by winning him a coveted spot in the National Guard, and then how he ducked that service, too.
It was a story that had been told before, but the CBS team’s emphasis on some dubious documents killed the chances for any follow-up and cost their jobs, including Dan Rather’s.
As a viewer who’s also in the news biz, seeing these reporters portrayed as unambiguously heroic didn’t feel right, because while their intentions were fine, their process was so flawed they did more harm than good. But the movie glossed that, directing blame to venal network execs and a biased review process instead. And while some of that may be justified...it made me queasy.
I had a very different experience watching the next journalism film coming down the pike. Spotlight opens in theaters next week. It chronicles how the Boston Globe’s investigative unit, called Spotlight, uncovered decades of child abuse by priests in the Boston Catholic Archdiocese, and of the Church covering it up
Walter Robinson ran the investigation, played by Michael Keaton in the film, and Sacha Pfeiffer was one of four reporters on the team, she’s played by Rachel McAdams. Robby, Sacha, welcome to OTM.
PFEIFFER: Thanks, Brooke.
ROBINSON: Thanks Brooke, and we're sorry Michael Keaton and Rachel couldn't be here today.
BROOKE: Leave it for those other shows. Anyway, the film takes place between 2001, early 2002, the investigation starts when a new editor arrives at the Globe and Robby, you're meeting with Mary Barron who's played by Liev Schreiber in a restaurant and he asks you how Spotlight operates.
Well, we are a 4 person investigative team, and we keep our work confidential.
What are you working on now?
We just put out a piece on a shoddy construction outfit, and right now we're really just trolling around for our next story.
How long does that typically take.
Hard to say, couple months.
Yeah, we don't like to rush it. Once we settle on a project, we could spend a year or more investigating it. Is that a concern?
Not necessarily. Um, but from what I understand readership is down, internet is cutting into the classified business, and I think I'm gonna need to take a hard look at things.
BROOKE: A couple of years on a story, it seems like such a luxury to even contemplate today.
ROBINSON: Well, in fact today many newspapers spend no time on investigative reporting and that's a tragedy for people who depend upon newspapers to hold important institutions accountable.
BROOKE: Spotlight is still going on at the Globe, right?
ROBINSON: Spotlight is still going on, they just produced a very good long story about Massachusetts General Hospital where doctors very often perform two surgeries at the same time on patients without by the way telling the patients. And that project took almost a year.
BROOKE: And yet, as recently as this week there's been a whole other round of cuts at the Globe.
ROBINSON: That's correct, the Globe went from about 350 employees down to about 315. Although, relative to other similar sized papers, the Globe staff is still 50% or more larger.
PFEIFFER: And Brooke not only is the Spotlight team actually still alive and well it's larger than it was when we were on it about a decade ago, it's now 6 reporters and they've added a sort of companion SWAT team, they don't call it that, but it allows investigative reporters to team up with beat reporters so they can turn around good investigative stories faster so the Globe is still doing a lot of investigative journalism.
BROOKE: As it did even while Marty was cutting way back then. And interestingly, he's the man who launched the investigation.
ROBINSON: You know, he came from Miami and Florida has the best public records law in the country, and he came to Massachusetts which has among the worst, government is not accessible at all, we consider ourselves to be the Mississippi of public records. So Marty arrives and the very first story he reads before he comes to work is a column by Eileen McNamara about one priest, John Geoghan, who is facing 84 lawsuits. And the column notes that the records provided by the archdiocese to the plaintiff's attorney are under seal. And she further wrote, "The truth may never be known." And to Marty Barron, that is a red flag.
PFEIFFER: And Marty was such an example of what a pair of fresh eyes can do. Because many of us over the years had reported on various clergy sex abuse cases and most people never questioned whether we should wonder why they're sealed, we just accepted that they were sealed. Marty came in and said "have we tried to get the seal lifted off these documents?" And sort of an embarrassed answer no, and he set us out to try to do that. The church, unlike non profits and public companies and government agencies they don't have to give us records, you can't send them a public record request, they don't have to file tax returns. So as a reporter, it's a real challenge to think how do you get that story when they don't have to and don't want to tell you anything.
BROOKE: And the first thing you did was to go back to people with whom the Globe had dealt before, but kind of discounted as being fanatical, or difficult to deal with -- that sort of thing.
ROBINSON: In fact, there's a seminal moment in the film and it was a seminal moment in our investigation when we had in an abuse victim who was the leader of the local chapter of the Survivor's Network of those abused by Priests, and he came in with a box of documents and among the very first things he said to us was, you know, I gave you guys this stuff 5 years ago.
Talk to Richard Sype - he worked in one of the Church’s treatment centres. He’s an ex-priest, here, this is his testimony from the Cos case.
Phil, what’s a treatment centre?
It’s where they send priests when they get caught. It’s all in the box. I sent this to you guys 5 years ago.
To the Globe? Who did you send it to?
I don’t want to say who but they said they weren’t interested.
Phil, we did run a couple of stories on it. I saw it in the clips.
Yeah but to be completely frank, it wasn’t enough. You guys gotta understand: this is big. This is not just Boston, this is the whole country, the whole world.
ROBINSON: One thing that always happen particularly with daily newspapers is people are constantly calling, wanting to tell you stories and very often they are people who are saying there's a conspiracy here, you have to uncover it. And 9 times out of 10 these are people who are perhaps off their meds. But the fact of the matter is, there are people who sound like they're a little troubled because they are victims of a conspiracy. And we miss those stories, and that happened in this case.
BROOKE: In fact there are hints of that all through the film, Robby. Echoes of the Globe having had tantalizing hints that it didn't follow up on. One of the crucial ones in the film is an allegation of 20 abusive priests that ended up buried in the Metro section, and there's a quick effort to think about how did it end up being buried, why wasn't it followed up on, and you were the guy in charge of Metro.
ROBINSON: And the story came from a lawyer who was letting us know that there were 20 priests who he said had abused children whom he had reported to the archdiocese. And we dutifully published that in the paper and never followed up on it. And when it came up in 2001 or 2002, none of us including myself remembered the story at all.
PFEIFFER: I think that's why we love this movie.
BROOKE: Me too!
PFEIFFER: In real life, people are flawed. And the movie captures that. It shows what we did well, and what we should have done sooner, and that's really authentic to real life and to real reporting.
BROOKE: There is so much that is authentic about this film. And actually I was gonna ask you about that. What was it like being impersonated? I mean, I know you guys were on the set, the actors and the writers kept interviewing you. We have a clip from director and writer Tom McCarthy who's sitting with co-writer Joe Singer on that very issue.
MCCARTHY: Interviewing reporters is a nightmare. You know, it's like trying to heal a doctor, like reporters just don't want to be interviewed. They like asking the questions. And we had to ask some tough questions. And you could tell, we walked out of a lot of interviews like well we're gonna have to go back, cause they didn't give us what we needed.
PFEIFFER: That is so funny to hear because I know in my case I felt very guarded at the beginning. They asked very probing and sometimes personal questions, like how did this project affect your marriage, did you cook dinner with your husband, what kind of haircut did you have, did you wear jewelry. We spent a lot of time with our actors. We took walks, we had dinners. And I just thought of those as walks and dinners, but then when we saw the movie and we realized they were depicting our mannerisms, we realized that all those walks and dinners were homework, they were research projects in which we were being studied.
ROBINSON: My first dinner with Michael Keaton in new york, I was quite uncomfortable because I had found out earlier that he had been listening to previous old video tapes of appearances I had made, so he arrived for our first meeting, he had my voice down. And he looked at me at one point and he said, you know, you really don't have much of a Boston accent. And I said well how would you know, and he said well, believe me I know your voice. And it was a little disconcerting.
BROOKE: A London tabloid noted "Rachel McAdams dresses down for a role as investigative journalist," citing her messy tresses, clunky loafers, baggy clothes.
PFEIFFER: She looked so much like me in this one scene where she was photographed, and then the next day when the press basically eviscerated her outfit, it was hilarious because she got me so right, but clearly my outfits are not what people expect celebrities to be wearing.
BROOKE: Rachel McAdams said about you, you're one of those people that everyone wants to talk to, that you're an extraordinary listener. You're compassionate, and that part of your role on the team was to draw out the stories of the victims. We have a clip --
So he said you know what'll help is if we play strip poker. Course I lost. And uh, things went on from there.
Can you tell me specifically what happened?
Specifically, he - he molested me.
Joe. I think the language is gonna be so important here. We can't sanitize this, just saying molest isn't enough. people need to know what actually happened.
We should probably get these to go.
PFEIFFER: That clip I think is a reminder for all of us that at the root of this story was this terrible tragedy, in which many people, usually boys, when they were adolescents had a really traumatic thing happen to them that many of them never recovered from. And we needed details that were sometimes uncomfortable for people to tell us, and because I was the only woman on the team, I believe that it was often easier for men to tell me what had happened. They were talking about things that they were embarrassed about. And ashamed about.
ROBINSON: On almost any story, Brooke, Sacha could talk the dog off the meat wagon. And there was one story actually involving a priest who was in charge of young teenage girls who were studying to become nuns, and he introduced them to sex by persuading them that he was Jesus Christ on earth, and Sacha picked up the phone, reached this priest, and for 45 minutes she talked to this priest, and he acknowledged it all. He went on and on, because Sacha kept asking the right questions in the right way. If I had called him up he probably would have hung up in my ear.
BROOKE: Was the timing of this story crucial to its impact? I know that this was one of the earliest stories to go viral on the internet. But was there also something to do with a changing view, perhaps in Boston, toward the institution of the Catholic Church?
PFEIFFER: You know, even though the movie makes clear that we probably could have done this story years earlier if we'd really put our minds to it, if we had done it earlier, the stories would not have gone on the web. And because it did go on the web, our stories weren't just read in the boston area, they were read all over the country. That mean tip calls came pouring in, and that helped our reporting. But Brooke, you're right, I think the deference that the Catholic Church got particularly in a city like Boston, was really beginning to erode by the time we did our stories, and you know, this is a beloved powerful institution, and many people just didn't question its authority for many decades and this has taught us why it's important to ask tough questions of institutions like the church, because this is how tragedies like this happen when you don't.
BROOKE: There's an amazing scene at the end when you decide that you're gonna go into the Spotlight office on the weekend, cause you've left a phone number, tip line, in case anybody wants to call you. And it was almost too cinematic to be true. The phone is just ringing off the hook.
PFEIFFER: It was absolutely true.
ROBINSON: It was just like that.
PFEIFFER: It was men, usually men, calling from all around the country, and so many of these men thought for decades that they were the only person that had been abused and suddenly they find out that there had been dozens of other people,, hundreds of other people, and they began calling us.
ROBINSON: And many of them had never told anyone in their family what had happened to them. I still remember an 87 year old man from Millinocket, Maine, who called to tell me about the abuse he had suffered 75 years earlier, and I was the first one he had ever told about it.
PFEIFFER: I think it was actually you, Robby, that often said it was as if we were grief counselors who hadn't been trained to be grief counselors. We spent a lot of time on the phone with men in tears, and I think that was very disturbing, but ultimately very angering. And anger can be a motivator, and I think in our case it motivated us to work even harder on this story.
ROBINSON: It's unimaginable whether you're Catholic or not, that an institution like this could countenance, enable, and cover up thousands of cases of children having their lives shattered by this kind of heinous behavior. And yet it happened, everywhere, for so long. It changed our concept of what we should report. After that, we consciously looked for stories that involved victimized populations, stories where people were getting run over by society and they had no one but us to tell their story.
BROOKE: What does it feel like to have this all coming back in this way, 13 years later?
PFEIFFER: I think we're still processing that. Recently some more clergy sex abuse lawsuits have been filed in the Boston area. And I think that as word of the movie spreads, some people are coming forward for the first time.
ROBINSON: Those of us who believe in the power of the printed word are a little gobsmacked at the moment because we're now beginning to think that this film has the potential to really raise public consciousness on important issues of journalism and treatment of children that aren't possible to do with the printed word.
PFEIFFER: And you know we certainly hope it keeps the church working hard to try to make sure this doesn't happen again. We also hope that it reminds people how important investigative journalism is. You have to support this work. That means buying your newspaper, getting a digital subscription, get home delivery. That's the revenue that helps us do what we do. Because this is an industry that's in really rough shape.
BROOKE: Walter Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer are journalists. They work at the Boston Globe. Thank you guys very much.
PFEIFFER: Thank you.
ROBINSON: Thank you.
BROOKE: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Kimmie Regler, Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess and Jesse Brenneman. We had more help from Alex Friedland and Dasha Lisitsina. And our show was edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this were Greg Rippin and Casey Means.
Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for news. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC studios. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.