A Spotlight Delight

Journalism on the Screen, Past Present & Future

In 1999, the summer before my senior year of high school, I attended the Medill-Northwestern Journalism Institute. I and my fellow “Cherubs,” as we were called, spent a month immersed in the theory and practice of reporting, clacking away on our Smith-Coronas, trying to impress the staff (we wanted to get into Medill the following year!) and each other (we wanted to make out!) with our journalism skills (neither worked for me). It wasn’t as nerdy as it sounds.

Okay, maybe it was.

The program featured some special events. We were most excited for movie night, where we’d watch a journalism-related film followed by a Q&A with a special guest involved in it. Would we get All the President’s Men and talk to Bob Woodward after? How about Broadcast News and a special appearance from Albert or James L. Brooks?

Nope and nope. Instead, we got…

Gone in the Night, a made-for-TV movie starring Shannon Doherty and Kevin Dillon about a father wrongfully-convicted of killing his child and the journalists and lawyers who worked for his release. It was based on the book by now-former (controversially) Medill professor David Protess, who was also our speaker.

I don’t remember much about the movie aside form being disappointed it was selected and that it starred Doherty; I had to pull up her IMDB and cross-reference with a fellow Cherub to confirm (something I do remember from that summer: the importance of double-confirmation).

So like a 1960s baseball player seeing modern major league salaries skyrocket or a long-married man watching millennials use Tinder to hook up all the time, I am incredibly jealous of today’s future journalists. We got Gone in the Night, they’ll get Spotlight.

While I never ended up pursuing a journalism career, I’ve always been passionate about the industry; so of course I was surprised, excited and proud Spotlight won the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday. Two things the media love: stories that reflect the best version of themselves, and an underdog. By beating out expecting winner The Revenant, Spotlight was both.

And deservedly so. Not just because it portrayed the Boston Globe reporters as dogged, tireless and, dare I say, heroic, but on the merits of the filmmaking, as well. The writing and direction were restrained and straightforward. Not too flashy or on-the-nose. No guns, car chases or sex. Only one loud Oscar-baity speech (you know the one). Just reporters working a story: following leads, hounding sources, analyzing data, and putting a puzzle together piece by piece.

The moment that best illustrated this restraint came in the postscript. While the Spotlight team’s stories of abuse in the Catholic Church won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003, the postscript doesn’t mention this at all. Instead of congratulating itself, the film stayed focused on the bigger issue, listing the hundreds of cities around the world that have confronted abusive priests since they the stories were first published.

Matthew S Carroll, the mustachioed Spotlight reporter played by Brian D’Arcy James, wrote a deep and moving first-person account of the original reporting, how it got turned into a movie, and what life has been like from premiere through awards season. He recognizes the power the articles had in bringing about systemic change, and the potential for more:

Our original stories in 2002 were a catalyst for helping many survivors get the help they needed, including financial aid from lawsuits and settlements with the Catholic church. Hopefully this movie helps a new generation of survivors, whether abused by priests or others.

Hopefully the movie inspires a new generation of investigative journalists, too.

As for Spotlight the Brand, what’s next — aside from playing to journalism students for the rest of time and severely cutting into Gone in the Night viewership? Much of Media Twitter chimed in with their own ideas for #Spotlight2 — oh, how the media love cynicism and gallows humor — but here’s my more optimistic vision: I would love to see Spotlight get adapted into a television series.

It could work as a procedural, with a new story every week. Or better yet, as a serial (or Serial), with reporters working one story over the course of a season. Spotlight spanned the seven months from July 2001-January 2002; the traditional broadcast TV season lasting roughly the same length. And why not make it an anthology series, like True Detective or American Horror Story? Follow a different newsroom with different reporters in a different location each season.

Like American Pharoah enjoying his post-racing life as a highly-coveted stud, Spotlight could enjoy a long post-Oscar-racing life as a highly-prestigious series. Accounts of journalists breaking major news could provide storylines for decades. I know, I learned all about them as a Cherub.

Maybe they can devote a season to retelling Gone in the Night. I’d watch that.

(Originally published on my personal blog)