Truth to Power

It’s no secret that the disinformation swirling around our new president and how he got elected have been a boon for the troubled media business. Americans have taken a new interest in good journalism and are looking more carefully at where they get their information.

Subscriptions are up at places like the New York Times and New Yorker and we’ve been seeing record activity here at SmartNews. People want the truth.

Hollywood is getting in on the boom. Today, Steven Spielberg announced that he will direct The Post, a film about the Washington Post’s role in the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Tom Hanks will play Ben Bradlee, the paper’s editor and Meryl Streep will play Kay Graham, the publisher.

In an age in which a sitting president loudly and routinely attacks the media and dubs credible outlets the “enemy of the people,” it’s more vital than ever to remember the lessons that history has already taught us. – Vanity Fair

To get a sense of the epic battle that is brewing, check out this conversation between Walt Mossberg, Kara Swisher and Marty Baron, the current editor of  the Washington Post (Baron played a central role in the reporting that led to the film Spotlight). The entire 45-minute talk is worth listening but I’ve called out some memorable quotes.

When asked, to respond to Trump’s criticism that he has a “running war” with the media, Marty replies,

The way I view it is, we’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work. We’re doing our jobs.

Replying to the comment that the media is an, “opposition party,”

We don’t act like a party, the press doesn’t coordinate with each other, we compete. We like a party but we’re not a party. We’re not the opposition, we’re independent.

And about “alternative facts”

We have to understand that the alternative to facts is not alternative facts. It’s fiction…I think this is a really concerning development, that we seem to say there is no such thing as an objective fact. It’s all just a matter of personal opinion.

Times like these will produce great journalists.

“I think that’s the bigger story”

I missed the keynote at ONA 15 last year so I didn’t get a chance to see Josh Singer, the screen writer of Spotlight, on stage interviewing the original members of the Boston Globe Spotlight team (Matt Carroll, Sacha Pfeiffer, Michael Rezendes, and Walter Robinson) that were the subject of the now Oscar-winning film.

Having just seen the movie last weekend, I can now put this talk into context and it’s fascinating. We get an inside look into early efforts in data journalism and a behind the scenes look at what it was like for the team that uncovered the scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the Boston Catholic Archdiocese.

While challenging, there is real value in holding back a story until you have the full picture, when you have irrefutable evidence to state your case. This may be difficult in 2016 and the Spotlight team is conscious of the rare moment in time where the masses did not have the benefit of an internet to cross-link scandals from one parish to the next but the newspaper was able leverage email and the Boston Globe website once they published to maximize distribution and impact of their story.

Twitter, Facebook, and the overall interconnectedness of everyone in 2016 would make it almost impossible to keep something this big under wraps for so long. The temptation and business pressure to publish first would be too great.

The first Spotlight stories had the team spent months putting the pieces together. That’s an expense that most journalistic institutions cannot spare to chase down a hunch, especially for a metro story. This movie comes at a time when many of the local news desks are being hollowed out and one would hope that the movie and it’s success helps underscore the importance of a strong, independent local press that is uniquely positioned to uncover these stories which hit closest to home.

For more reading, The Boston Globe has a special section where you can dive into all the original material including the original documents that were put online and the story that revealed the scandal in 2002.

Oh, the headline of this post comes from the lead into Marty Baron’s speech in the film about why they shouldn’t rush to publish what they initially uncovered, proof that almost 50 priests had been involved.

I think that’s the bigger story. 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 from the top, down.

Here’s Marty’s take on the film and the process by which it came together. I’m in ‘Spotlight’, but it’s not really about me. It’s about the power of journalism.

And here’s a screenshot of the email from Marty to Walter Robinson that was in the presentation from ONA (sorry that it’s blurry, it’s a screen capture from the video).

marty baron email