‘Spotlight’ Oscars Win Is a Necessary Triumph for Beleaguered Journalists

The Best Picture winner is a terrific reminder about what journalism can do, and about the power of film when harnessed to a gripping story

Josh Singer (R) and Tom McCarthy, winners of the award for Best Original Screenplay for 'Spotlight,' attend the 88th Annual Academy Awards Governors Ball at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 28, 2016 in Hollywood, California
Getty Images

At the Anonymous Content party at Sunset Tower on Saturday night, I found myself in a corner with Walter “Robby” Robinson, the Boston Globe editor played by Michael Keaton in “Spotlight.”

“I keep getting emails,” he said. His friends were telling him how urgent it was for “Spotlight” to win Best Picture. “We need it. Journalism needs it,” he said, more as a factual observation than a fervent wish.

In a topsy-turvy night that confounded Oscar expectations, “Spotlight” did that, and it is a most welcome vote of confidence in a profession that has been under siege in recent years.

We knew that “Spotlight” was an underdog. The experts said that “The Revenant” was most likely to win, and “The Big Short” probably had the edge over “Spotlight” after that. The underdog won.

For journalists who’ve been raked over the coals of the Internet revolution, suffered countless newspaper cutbacks, one layoff round after another, changes in media ownership, changes in buildings (smaller), changes in deadlines (right now, all the time, instead of once a day) and the subjugation of their work to the digital tyranny of Google’s search engine — this is a huge validation. A necessary win.

Tom Ortenberg Spotlight Victory
Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson (right) with Tom Ortenberg, CEO of Open Road

You’ve seen the movie: The Boston Globe bravely took on the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. Doing so didn’t make the paper a lot of friends, but it served the mission of journalism, informing its readers about a matter essential to their lives.

The “Spotlight” section series about predatory priests and the cover-up by the Boston diocese pried open a roiling, ugly truth riven through the parochial schools and parishes in the community. And it led the way to the exposure of related scandals everywhere else in the country, and then the world.

This is a terrific reminder about what journalism can do, and a further reminder about the power of film when harnessed to a gripping story, well told.

In this Oscar season, “Spotlight” ended up at the Vatican itself, with filmmakers discussing the scandal at a press conference of 150 journalists in Rome. That’s the kind of impact we’re talking about.

Throughout this Oscar season, I’ve gotten to know the journalists on this film pretty well, since they’ve been as present through the campaign process as the actors. They’re a humble a group, enjoying an unimagined windfall of attention for their work. Most of the time, they wear an attitude of “pinch me now” on their faces.

Which is entirely easy to understand. Most newspapers eliminated their investigative units long ago. (By the way, Carl Bernstein was seen wandering about at the same party on Saturday, a living reminder of a time when investigative journalism toppled a president, and when a movie about that story helped inspire a generation of young people, including me. I drifted past him to hear a woman gushing, “You are my hero…”)

When TheWrap did a video series with the actors interviewing their journalist counterparts, most of the interviews were spent with the actors querying the journalists rather than the other way around. That’s because what these journalists do is really fascinating, slow, painstaking work that sometimes never sees the light of day.

And it never ever expects to see Oscar gold. That is, until now.

Congratulations, journalism. You won a big one.