For local and regional news organizations, nothing is more expensive — or more important — than investigative journalism aimed at holding government and other large institutions to account. Despite the economic challenges that continue to shrink the newspaper business, The Boston Globe continues to provide a steady stream of such stories. And over the past few days, the paper demonstrated the results of two innovative ways to fund such reporting.
First, on Saturday, the Globe published a major update on how Catholic bishops have failed in their response to the sexual-abuse crisis. The story, which appeared in print on Sunday, was reported and written by a team of journalists from the Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer, with funding from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. The institute, a nonprofit organization, owns the Inquirer and two sister media properties, the result of a gift from the late Gerry Lenfest in 2016. (I wrote about Lenfest’s legacy for the Globe after his death in August.) Here is how the Globe describes the partnership:
Boston and Philadelphia have been ground zero for the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal — both cities have endured years of church investigations, allegations, prosecutions, and lasting scars. Now, amid a rising tide of revelations about misconduct by US bishops, the Inquirer and Globe pooled their resources for a deeper look at the crisis. Reporters from the two newsrooms visited nine states, conducted scores of interviews, and reviewed thousands of pages of court and church records to produce this report. Funding for the effort came from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Then, today, the Globe published a story by Jana Winter on attempts by hackers to penetrate voting systems across the United States. Fortunately, her reporting shows that officials are well aware of those attempts and that they appear to be on top of it. Equally interesting, though, is that Winter is the Globe’s Spotlight Fellow — a program funded by Participant Media, which produced the movie “Spotlight.” The fellowship, according to the online description, provides “awards up to $100,000 for one or more individuals or teams of journalists to work on in-depth research and reporting projects.”
As if to underscore the need for alternative funding for accountability journalism, the Globe unveiled a shrunken business section on Sunday, moving innovation columnist Scott Kirsner to Monday.
Quick note about my weekly @bostonglobe column, “Innovation Economy”: after more than a decade of running on Sunday, it’s moving (back) to Monday. Not my decision but I’m psyched to keep it going. It originally launched in Feb 2000 on Mondays.
Kirsner’s column was usually the main event in the Sunday business section. Given that it will continue, this isn’t too much of a loss. But it does show that the Globe’s finances remain precarious, as publisher John Henry admitted when I interviewed him during the summer for WGBH News:
The Globe cannot ever seem to meet budgets — on either the revenue side or the expense side and I am not going to continue that. This has always been about sustainability rather than sizable, endless, annual losses. That is frustrating and due to a combination of mismanagement and a tough industry.
In such an economic environment, it’s essential that the Globe find new ways to pay for what really matters.
In case you didn’t look closely at the provenance of today’s big Spotlight Team investigation in The Boston Globe, it was the result of an initiative that grew out of the movie “Spotlight.” You’ll find the full explanation here, but essentially three of the groups that funded the film created the Spotlight Investigative Journalism Fellowship to tell important stories that might otherwise go unreported.
The two-parter that debuted today is the first result of that effort. Reporters Kelly Carr and Jaimi Dowdell report on “lax oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration [that], over decades, has made it easy for drug dealers, corrupt politicians, and even people with links to terrorism to register private planes and conceal their identities.”
The story begins with a harrowing anecdote and features great photography, an excellent video, and a first-rate digital treatment. It’s an innovative approach to paying for public-interest journalism, and it will be interesting to see what else it yields.
The new story, as with the earlier coverage, may prove to be the tip of a very large iceberg. The Globe is soliciting tips for follow-ups, conjuring up images of the way the movie Spotlight ends, with reporters overwhelmed with phone calls from victims.
Sadly, we’ve become so accustomed to the notion that predators will sexually prey on children that the details sometimes seem to blend together. But I found this paragraph to be absolutely riveting in its evocation of a dystopian alternate universe:
One winter day around 1964, Hooper said, he wet his bed, infuriating his dorm master, Claude Hasbrouck, who was also the school’s glee club and drama director. Children feared Hasbrouck, who was known for squeezing the flesh under boys’ chins—“chinnies,” he called them—and for his Nazi memorabilia collection, including a Nazi flag on his apartment wall.
It gets worse. But can you imagine being 13 years old, as one of his victims was, and to have your entire world defined by that horrifying environment?
As you may have heard, the makers of the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight have reached a settlement with Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn about his claim that the film depicts him in an unfavorable manner regarding the cover-up of the pedophile-priest scandal.
Spotlight tells the story of The Boston Globe‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation that revealed that Cardinal Bernard Law, then the archbishop, was directly involved in reassigning priests who’d been accused of sexual abuse. The Dunn character is seen taking part in a meeting about a pedophile priest at Boston College High School.
The Associated Press reports on the settlement here; The New York Times covers it here; the Globehere; and the Boston Heraldhere.
As part of the settlement, the filmmakers acknowledge that the lines attributed to Dunn were “fabricated,” which is kind of odd when you think about it. Spotlight, of course, is a work of fiction, though based on true events. In that sense, every line in Spotlight is fabricated. The question is whether Dunn was portrayed in a manner that is fundamentally false.
The filmmakers have contended from the time Dunn went public with his complaints in a Globe column by Kevin Cullen that Dunn is not portrayed in a negative light—rather, that he comes across “as an alumnus and public-relations professional from an affiliated institution, was concerned about the reputation of BC High, and acted in concert with his affiliation and professional training,” as the filmmakers put it in a letter reported by the Globe last November. In the settlement, the filmmakers say:
As is the case with most movies based on historical events, ‘Spotlight’ contains fictionalized dialogue that was attributed to Mr. Dunn for dramatic effect. We acknowledge that Mr. Dunn was not part of the Archdiocesan cover-up.
From what I can tell, there’s nothing in the settlement that contradicts what the filmmakers said last November, or that calls into question the recollections of Globe reporters Walter Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer, who were at the BC High meeting.
At the time that this controversy broke, I wrote a piece for WGBH News about the hazards of true-life movies that freely mix fact and fiction. I certainly don’t question the pain that Dunn says he experienced. From the beginning the dispute has struck me as a genuine disagreement between him and the filmmakers over how he comes across in the movie.
That said, I’ve only seen Spotlight once, and I’d like to see that scene again.
The dispute between Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn and the makers of “Spotlight” is escalating. “Spotlight,” as you no doubt know, is a movie about The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the pedophile-priest scandal in the Catholic Church.
For the past few days, starting with a Kevin Cullen column in Sunday’s Globe, Dunn has been making media appearances claiming that he was falsely portrayed in the movie as uncaring toward victims at BC High School. The filmmakers have pushed back hard, arguing that the depiction of Dunn is accurate and that it was vetted by Globe reporters Walter Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer.
According to an exchange of letters that I obtained this evening, Dunn’s lawyers are accusing the filmmakers of portraying Dunn in a way that is “defamatory” as well as “false, malicious and fabricated.” The letter on behalf of Dunn, addressed primarily to screenwriters Tom McCarthy and Joshua Singer (McCarthy is also the director), says in part:
In general, the film, in dramatic fashion, divides the individuals it depicts into those who heroically searched for the truth about the horrific sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy and those who sought to suppress facts about the abuse. In a critical scene in the film, which is nearly entirely fabricated, Spotlight squarely and falsely places Mr. Dunn in the category of those who actively attempted to interfere with and thwart the efforts of the Boston Globe reporters to unearth and report on the abuse scandal.
In their answer, the filmmakers’ lawyers “respectfully, but vigorously, disagree with your allegation that the film defames Mr. Dunn.” Here’s a key excerpt:
Most importantly, the film’s portrayal of Mr. Dunn is substantially true. It is based on the recollections of Walter Robinson and was vetted by him and Sacha Pfeiffer. Mr. Dunn’s overarching concern for Boston College High School (and Boston College) is reflected in contemporaneous and later media accounts. Indeed, there is no evidence that Mr. Dunn was an outspoken advocate for transparency or accountability before the Boston Globe broke the story, or that he came forward on his own to initiate an investigation into abuse at BC High before the Globe’s coverage forced the school to act.
I am posting these rather lengthy documents in the interest of putting them before the public in advance of what could be a significant legal battle.
Click here (pdf) for the full letter (with exhibits) from Dunn’s lawyers, David H. Rich and Howard M. Cooper of the Boston firm Todd & Weld.
Click here (pdf) for the full letter (also with exhibits) from the filmmakers’ lawyer, Alonzo Wickers IV of the Los Angeles firm Davis Wright Tremaine. No, I do not know why parts of it have been highlighted in yellow.
Consider the contradictions posed by a movie that’s based on a true story. The events are presented as real, yet they are compressed and exaggerated for dramatic effect. The characters — many of them, anyway — are stand-ins for their real-life counterparts, sharing their names and, depending on the skill of the actors, their appearance and mannerisms. Yet the words that come out of their mouths are not things they actually said; rather, they are things the filmmakers imagine they might have said.
Or, as at least four people in the film Spotlight claim, things that they never said, never would have said, and that tarnish their reputations.
Update: Open Road, the distributor of Spotlight, has issued a statement defending the accuracy of the portrayal of Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn. See details at the end of this post.
In fact, there is nothing new or unusual about such complaints. They are inherent to the genre of “true life” stories, quotation marks used advisedly. Spotlight is a terrific movie — maybe the best film about journalism since All the President’s Men. That doesn’t excuse smearing the names of good people, if that is indeed what has happened. But it does underline the problems that can arise in the making of fact-based fiction rooted in real events and real people.
The most aggrieved of the Spotlight four is Jack Dunn, the spokesman for Boston College and a trustee at Boston College High School. Dunn’s character is seen as minimizing the pedophile-priest scandal in a meeting attended by Boston Globe reporters Walter Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer. It was, Dunn said in a column by the Globe’s Kevin Cullenand in an interview on WGBH’s Greater Boston, the opposite of the approach he took.
“The dialogue assigned to me is completely fabricated and represents the opposite of who I am and what I did on behalf of victims,” Dunn told Cullen, adding that he literally threw up after seeing the movie. “It makes me look callous and indifferent.”
The others who’ve spoken out are Eric MacLeish, a lawyer for many of the victims, who is cast — wrongly, he says — as helping to cover up the scandal by reaching secret settlements with the church; longtime investigative reporter Steve Kurkjian, who comes across as a skeptic of his colleagues’ work; and former Globe publisher Richard Gilman, who, in a commentary for the Arizona Daily Star, debunks a scene in the movie in which he is seen telling editor Marty Baron about his worries that going after the Catholic Church might hurt the paper’s bottom line. Gilman puts in a good word for Kurkjian as well.
Kurkjian is someone I know and respect. So I sympathize with him when he says (as he told Jack Encarnacao of the Boston Herald), “They sort of put words in our mouth. You can’t do that and not have your motives and your professionalism called into question.”
Yet such complaints are hardly unique to Spotlight. Indeed, they were an issue in All the President’s Men, the last time a movie about investigative reporting commanded the national stage. In her 2007 book Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate, Alicia Shepard writes that fictional elements of the movie resulted in deep wounds in The Washington Post’s newsroom — wounds that, in some cases, never fully healed.
In particular, Shepard tells us, top editors Barry Sussman and Howard Simons suffered “permanent psychic damage” — Sussman for being left out of the film altogether despite playing an important role in the early days of the Watergate story, Simons for coming across as a reluctant warrior who had to be prodded by executive editor Ben Bradlee when, in fact, the opposite was true, at least early on. Shepard continues:
Bradlee and Simons had been such close friends that they had promised to take care of each other’s children if anything ever happened to one of them. Yet Simons became so embittered by the movie version co-opting the truth that their friendship was never the same, though they did make peace before Simons died in 1989.
My own encounter with the limitations of the true-life genre came in the late 1990s with the release of A Civil Action, a second-rate movie starring John Travolta that was based on a first-rate book of the same name written by the journalist Jonathan Harr. The book and movie told the story of a 1986 trial in federal court over contaminated wells in Woburn that had been linked to a number of childhood leukemia cases, some fatal. I spent years covering the story, including the trial and its aftermath, for The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn.
The film took numerous liberties with the facts, and I wrote about some of them for The New Republic. Among other things, the judge, Walter Jay Skinner, was presented as an ogre who was out to destroy the families’ lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann. The Skinner I observed during the 78-day trial was a fair-minded jurist who occasionally became angry over Schlichtmann’s frantic, clumsy courtroom presentation. The trial didn’t end well for Schlichtmann or his clients, but that had much to do with the limits of 1980s science, not with Judge Skinner.
As for Spotlight, I suspect the controversy will blow over rather quickly. Jack Dunn has hired legal help and is demanding that the movie be edited (not likely) and that he receive an apology (possible).
“These are hard cases, emotionally and legally,” Robert Bertsche, a prominent First Amendment lawyer with the Boston law firm Prince Lobel, told me by email. “If they pressed their claims in court, those who claim they are injured by their portrayal in this film would have to prove that the depiction of them was not protected opinion, and not based on facts that are substantially true. Thirteen years later, that will be an immensely difficult task.”
The thing is, Spotlight is a hell of a movie that tells some important truths about the role of journalism in holding powerful institutions to account. You should see it.
But a movie such as Spotlight is not a documentary. It is a work of fiction, based on true events. “Jack Dunn” is not Jack Dunn. What happened to him, Eric MacLeish, Steve Kurkjian and Richard Gilman has happened to many others in many movies over the course of many years. It may not be fair. But that’s show biz.
Update: Open Road, the distributor of Spotlight, issued a statement to The Wrap earlier this week defending the accuracy of its portrayal of Jack Dunn. “The production believes in everyone’s right to speak their minds on the complicated legacy of this important story,” a spokesman is quoted as saying. “Jack Dunn is no exception. However, we disagree with his characterization of the scene as misleading.”
The statement goes on to say that Walter Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer reviewed the scene in question, and that they believe it reflects “the substance of what occurred during this initial interview at BC High.” The statement continues that the scene “portrays Mr. Dunn acting as any reasonably cautious representive of BC High would have during a first meeting, especially one who is a public relations professional, alumnus, and trustee.”
1. Eric MacLeish, a prominent lawyer who represented numerous victims of pedophile priests, is objecting to his portrayal in the movie “Spotlight.” An item in the Globe’s “Names” column notes, “Curiously, MacLeish hasn’t seen the movie.” Yet someone must have given MacLeish a good briefing, as the bill of particulars he posted on Facebook is pretty accurate in summarizing his character in the film: a lawyer who reached confidential settlements with the Catholic Church on behalf of his clients, thus helping to delay the truth from coming out.
Also of note is that Stephen Kurkjian, a legendary Globe investigative reporter who also does not come off well in “Spotlight,” has posted a comment saying in part: “I can attest to how committed you [MacLeish] were — within the confines of attorney-client relationships — to assisting The Globe in getting the story out.”
Of course, such complaints are to be expected when a fictional movie is made about a real-life story and actual people. I experienced this first-hand when the movie about the Woburn toxic-waste story, “A Civil Action,” came out. (I covered the story for The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn.) I was so incensed by some of what I saw that I wrote about it for The New Republic.
“Spotlight” is a far better — and truer — movie than “A Civil Action.” But it’s not a documentary.
2. Craig Douglas of The Boston Business Journal reports that the Newspaper Guild has some issues with Stat, a website covering health, medicine and life sciences that is part of John Henry’s Boston Globe Media holdings.
As I wrote last week for WGBHNews.org, Stat launched with about 40 journalists just weeks after the Globe eliminated about 40 newsroom positions through buyouts and layoffs. The two developments are said to be unrelated in the sense that Henry is not funding Stat through cuts at the Globe. As Gideon Gil, Stat’s managing editor for enterprise and partnerships, told me, each property has to pursue its own business plan.
Still, Douglas reports, it has not gone unnoticed that union jobs at the Globe have been eliminated while positions at Stat are non-union. Douglas quotes an anonymous union official as saying: “The feeling is, those weren’t the last layoffs we’re going to see. It feels like they are trying to expand by killing us from inside.”
Surely Henry can’t be blamed for making cuts in a shrinking business while trying to find innovative ideas that could lead to growth and profitability. But it’s not hard to sympathize with the fears voiced in Douglas’ article.
On Thursday night I had a chance to see an advance screening of “Spotlight,” sponsored by Northeastern’s School of Journalism and the College of Arts, Media and Design. And I was blown away. How often does a movie for which you have high expectations actually live up to them?
As soon as it was over, Northeastern’s Barry Bluestone said something that I was thinking: this is “All the President’s Men” for a new generation. It is at least as good a piece of filmmaking. And it underscores the vital role that journalism plays in hold powerful institutions to account — in this case the Catholic Church, which at one time was the most powerful Boston institution of all.
After the film, five of the Globe journalists portrayed in the film — Walter Robinson, Michael Rezendes, Matt Carroll, Sacha Pfeiffer and Ben Bradlee Jr. — stuck around for a brief discussion. (By the way, I know Robinson fairly well, and Michael Keaton is scary-good at capturing his demeanor.) Two of them, Robinson and Carroll, are Northeastern graduates. Robinson also worked as a journalism professor at Northeastern for seven years before returning to the Globe in 2014.
Congratulations to everyone involved in “Spotlight.” I hope it helps the public understand why the work that great journalists do matters to all of us.