John Drescher

Drescher: Reporters are the heroes of ‘Spotlight’

Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes and Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll in a scene from the film “Spotlight.”
Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes and Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll in a scene from the film “Spotlight.” AP

Peter Canellos was metro editor of The Boston Globe, in charge of the paper’s local news coverage, when the Globe’s investigative team revealed that the Catholic Church’s Boston leadership methodically covered up the sexual abuse of children by priests.

Now Canellos is a character in the movie “Spotlight,” which tells the story of how the Globe reported the story.

“I think I spotted one of my green sweaters on Doug Murray,” Canellos chuckled, referring to the actor who plays him in the film.

As metro editor, Canellos had a prominent role in the Globe’s newsroom, although his character has only a minor role in “Spotlight.”

Canellos said the movie, for the most part, accurately tells the story and that the actors effectively portrayed the main characters, even mimicking their mannerisms and speech.

The movie opens in 2001 and Martin Baron, previously the editor of the Miami Herald, has started a new job as top editor of the Globe. At Baron’s first news meeting, Canellos is among the editors who introduces himself to Baron.

The Globe had reported sporadically on priests’ sexually assaulting children but in a scattered way that didn’t get to the bottom of who knew about the abuse and how they responded.

Broader questions

At that first news meeting, Baron started asking broader questions that eventually took the investigation beyond a collection of anecdotes and showed that abusive priests had been shifted from job to job, where they could molest more children.

“I thought the movie was great,” said Canellos, 53, who worked 26 years at the Globe and is now executive editor of Politico, which reports on politics. “It painted a basically accurate picture of the way Boston operates. It’s a tight-knit town. It’s a lot of intersecting interests that when they work together can do wonderful things. There also are tremendous blind spots.”

The Globe had its own blind spots. Baron, a brilliant editor with the fresh perspective of a newcomer, saw that there might have been a systematic effort by the Archdiocese of Boston to manage and hide the abuse. He pushed the Spotlight team – an editor and three reporters – to dig deeper and determine if Cardinal Bernard Law knew about the abuse, and, if so, what he did about it.

“I give Marty tremendous credit for that,” Canellos said.

Reporting often is about doggedly working through documents and data, knocking on door after door, making phone call after phone call.

The Globe’s reporting led to revelations across the country – and eventually the world – that priests had sexually abused children with little or no consequences.

Baron, who was in Raleigh on Sunday to discuss “Spotlight,” is now the editor of The Washington Post. He’s been called the hero of the movie. And for good reason. Without his intelligence, leadership and vision, the essential facts of the abuse and cover-up might never have been revealed.

But to me, the biggest heroes of the movie are the reporters: Sacha Pfeiffer, Michael Rezendes and Matt Carroll. They were joined later by other Globe reporters who did fine work, especially religion reporter Michael Paulson.

Hardest work

Baron gave smart direction but it was the relentless digging by the reporters, often in the face of resistance and hostility, that uncovered the facts behind the scandal. They did the hardest work.

Reporting might seem glamorous and exciting. Sometimes it is.

But often it involves doggedly working through documents and data, knocking on door after door, making phone call after phone call. Often potential sources don’t want to cooperate.

Historically, this pursuit of verified information has been what set newspapers apart from other sources of information. In an Internet age, that’s even more true. Opinion abounds on websites, blogs and social media.

But serious reporting – especially local reporting – can be hard to find. At The News & Observer, I’m proud to work with excellent beat reporters whose work is knowledgeable and authoritative.

Nobody covers higher education in North Carolina like Jane Stancill. Nobody covers Wake schools like T. Keung Hui. Nobody covers transportation in the Triangle like Bruce Siceloff. I could go on. The reporters – their diligence and expertise – are what distinguish The N&O.

A popular movie can permeate and influence American popular culture like almost nothing else. Canellos hopes “Spotlight” reminds Americans of the value of the press. I do, too, and hope the movie reinforces how vital reporting is to the health of our communities, our country and our democracy.

John Drescher: 919-829-4515, jdrescher@newsobserver.com, @john_drescher

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