‘Spotlight’ review

I saw “Spotlight” last weekend and haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. So I thought I’d write a review of it, my first film review in years (I used to write them all the time).

If you’re not familiar with the premise, it focuses on the Spotlight investigative reporting unit at The Boston Globe (reporters Matt Carroll, Michael Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer and their editor, Walter V. Robinson) and its investigation of allegations of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The investigation won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and helped uncover wider abuse on a global scale.

Journalists of my generation arguably don’t (didn’t!) have a “newspaper film” for our era. There’s “Citizen Kane” and “All the President’s Men,” both far removed (socially, culturally and technologically) from our current time. Even “Spotlight,” taking place 13-14 years ago in 2001-02, feels slightly dated, a definite product of its time (which is an observation, not a quality judgment; it could be called a period piece).

The organic growth of the investigation, done at the urging of new editor Marty Baron (who’s now leading The Washington Post), is something amazing to watch. It’s a testament to the menial work involved in deep digging; in one scene, the team works through a spreadsheet line by line, collecting what they need. Old newspaper clips are dug out of the archives, doors are knocked on, sources are met in coffee shops and parks and offices, and legal documents are sifted through. When the final story lands on doorsteps, you know where it came from.

And the story is what’s essential here. The focus is always on the story. We get to know the reporters and editors (an assortment of outsiders with a fresh perspective, lapsed Catholic Boston-breds and veterans who maybe should have pursued this story sooner). We appreciate their motivations and feel for them as they hit roadblocks and try to wade through paperwork and finesse sources. But they are not the focus; it is the story. And the actors (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber and Brian d’Arcy James play the Globe reporters/editors) successfully convey the motivations of the staff without making it all about them.

Finally, everything feels earned. When there is an outburst, it springs from genuine, earned frustration, not self-righteous grandstanding. The obstacles to the story are not death threats or bricks through windows, but bureaucratic red tape and slammed doors. It feels raw and earthy. The basement Spotlight newsroom feels lived in, the journalists dress like they don’t care how they look (and why would they?) and the city of Boston feels organic and alive. The abuse that is the focus of the investigation is like a horde of cockroaches that scatters when you turn on the light or lift up the rug. There is no sudden horrific epiphany or silver bullet, just confirmations of what these people had already figured out for themselves but needed proof of to include in the report.

This is the kind of film that necessitates discussion and reflection. We may not see another film about journalism this good for a long, long time.

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Some summer self-improvement

I read constantly. All day, nearly every day, for my job. I read for a living. Because of that, when I’m off the clock, whatever I do, I really do not want to keep reading. It hit me, while I was on a recent flight and trying to find something to fill my time, that something I used to love to do was now almost unbearable.

So as this summer continues and as it starts to wind down, I’m making a pledge to myself: I’m going to read more for pleasure, even if I don’t want to. Once I start reading, I don’t regret doing it. It’s just getting the urge to start. I’m deep into a Tom Holland historical non-fiction book about the end of the ancient world and the rise of Islam, “The Shadow of the Sword.” Next I’m planning to check off a book that’s long been on my list: Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods.”

I actually have my boyfriend to thank for this jump start. Sensing that I was becoming listless and in need of a hobby besides coming from and going to work and Netflix, he nudged me back toward my books. I’m also planning to take some time for myself to pick up some basic coding skills (which he’s promised to teach me at some point, but I’d like a head start).

Lately I’ve been trying to be more conscientious about myself and how I use my time. I wouldn’t call it a full-on existential crisis, but merely a renewed understanding that my time is limited and that zoning out to old “Friends” episodes is probably not the best use of it (I’m on season 9 now, though, so almost done). I’m also thinking about possible career moves in the future and am afraid of limiting myself or being pigeon-holed. A hobby might very well one day lead to a new career, or it can help keep me sane. Either way, I’m making this my summer of self-improvement.

‘House of Cards’ has a lady journo problem

Caution that there are some spoilers here, up to about the last 2-3 episodes of the third season. I don’t think it’s anything drastic but use your discretion.

The first thing a lot of people would ask me, when I told them I watched “House of Cards,” is what I thought of Zoe Barnes.

I’m a female journalist, she was a female journalist and most of my non-journalist friends and family apparently assumed that I’d root for her or find her to be some kindred spirit.

I did not.

I actually found her to be an entitled, unethical brat. At some point in the social media age, journalists became aware of themselves as a “brand” apart from the outlet for which they worked. The best reporters and editors brought their own followings along no matter where they worked. In that sense, Zoe’s aggressive self-promotion seemed like a response to this trend of “personal branding.”

But it will never be a trend to become sexually and emotionally involved with a source. So rather than root for Zoe when she began sleeping with Frank Underwood and launching her career off the manipulated intel he gave her (she more or less acted as his one-woman PR firm), I felt no camaraderie, only disgust. And when Janine Gorsky, who had been set up as a more experienced, more hard-nosed alternative to Zoe, confided to Zoe that she had in the past been “sucking, screwing, and jerking anything that moved just to get a story,” my confidence that “Cards” would ever get female journalists right plummeted. It was not just an issue with Zoe; it was lady journos in general, it seemed.

There was a brief flicker of hope near the end of Season 2 and through the early part of Season 3 when Ayla Sayyad replaced Zoe as the series’ journalism focus. She seemed to ask decent questions and managed to avoid sleeping with a source (that we saw) throughout her duration. Her reward for appearing to meet the bare competency threshold? Being dismissed from the White House press corps, sold out by a fellow journalist in exchange for access to information that had been under a moratorium. (And also, that is absolutely not how White House press credentials work.)

Kate Baldwin, Ayla’s successor, showed up with a lot of promise. She vowed to ask tougher questions and had hallmarks of being a grizzled veteran. That promise took a swan dive as soon as she began an affair with Thomas Yates, who was on the president’s payroll as, let’s call a spade a spade, a propagandist. That Thomas started out as an (uncooperative) source wasn’t a deterrent, nor did Kate seem particularly bothered by not covering scheduled events (aka the job for which she was getting paid) in order to have a tryst in a hotel room on the trail. To her credit, Kate does point out the conflict of interest when Thomas tries to leak to her a chapter of the book he’s writing, but at that point it’s too late and it comes off as incredibly half-assed.

So of the four prominent female journalists in the series, three of them have slept with their sources, one of them was railroaded out of her beat and one of them printed a congressman’s talking points more or less verbatim for the sole purpose of advancing her own career. Male journalists, interestingly, haven’t played as large of a role in the series. Tom Hammerschmidt, Zoe’s old boss, is treated as a hardass dinosaur who’s behind the times. Lucas Goodwin comes off as lovesick over Zoe and too easily falls into a trap, but there are hints that his previous work has been of good quality and effected change. Kate’s editor at the fictional Telegraph has a brief appearance, but all he really does is squash her barnstorming writing by pointing out the silly notion that writing a full-on column is not good practice for a supposedly impartial news reporter (and Kate’s response is to just move into column-writing, even at the expense of her climb up the masthead). All of the male journalists we meet have one major thing in common: We see none of them sleeping with sources.

Is this what Beau Willimon and Co. actually think female journalists (or journalists in general) do? I hope not. Is our line of work being made more tawdry for the sake of drama? Surely. Is there something more scintillating about a female reporter who can’t manage to not bang a source? I guess? I do know dozens of female reporters and editors, and every one of them takes her job very seriously. They’re talented enough and connected enough to rely on their skills and reputations. And seeing their work distilled into what’s on display in “House of Cards” is incredibly depressing, even though I do enjoy the show.

And yes, the show is fictional. It does not accurately convey the realities of Congress, the White House, lobbying, the United Nations, bilateral agreements, … nth. But being a female journalist is one thing that I at least have the experience to speak out about. Give us a female reporter or editor who isn’t a stenographer, a backstabber, a liar and/or a source bedmate. Too much to ask?

Finding your voice

Not too long ago, I was having dinner with some friends, a couple. One of them described a book she had just read, but couldn’t think of the author or the title. Based on her synopsis, I remarked that it “sounded like something Chuck Palahniuk would write.” She ended up looking up the book on her phone, and the author was … Chuck Palahniuk. Her girlfriend was impressed that I could identify the author correctly — I hadn’t actually read the book.

I’ve thought about that exchange since it happened, and I’m still torn on whether, from a writer’s perspective, it’s good or bad or both or neither. On the one hand, here is a writer with such a developed voice and tone that a mere summary of a book was enough for me to identify him. On the other, from a more cynical perspective, it could be seen as the mark of someone who perhaps relies too much on a singular focus.

As a writer who does far too little of her own writing, I fell on the side of positivity (how un-Palahniuk of me) and settled on the former interpretation. I’d honestly love for someone down the line to read something I’ve written, or hear about something I’ve written, and positively ID me as the author. Really, it shows a familiarity with the overall body of work, and that’s something an author should strive for.

(The book was “Invisible Monsters,” I think.)

Advice I’d give my younger self in J School

Last night, I had drinks and caught up with one of my friends from university who also lives in D.C. As is our habit whenever we get together, talk inevitably turned back to the college days, when we were on the student newspaper. I remember my last semester, when I worked a second time as the Kansan.com managing editor instead of being editor-in-chief. At the time I was disappointed but ultimately accepting. Looking back at where I’ve been since, it may have been a blessing in disguise at best, and irrelevant at worst.

So I’d tell my disappointed 21-year-old self, “Don’t sweat it. It will work out.”

While I learned a lot at the Kansan about production, teamwork, ethics and judgment, and made some amazing friends there, many of whom I still keep in touch with now, it was my internships that ultimately propelled my professional career, now that I look back. No one at The Columbus Dispatch cared that I wasn’t the editor; they liked my Dow Jones internship, which I earned by passing an editing exam and essay, not because of where I was on the Kansan staff. No one at The Kansas City Star cared, either; they liked my previous two internships. And POLITICO ultimately valued my three internships, my knowledge of online publishing (which I polished as Kansan.com editor and wouldn’t have had much of a chance to work on as editor, where most of my focus would have been on the paper) and my master’s degree.

My friend was in much the same position. After not being chosen for editorial leadership, she took up internships at smaller Kansas newspapers and eventually ended up in D.C. as the editor of a political news website, and will soon be a White House reporter for the bureau of a major publication. Another fellow alumna works at The Hill after having interned there. Just about everyone I work with on production at my current job had impressive internship experience that stands out. Two of my friends who are copy editors for major, large-market daily newspapers were “only” ever copy chiefs at the Kansan, but they each had strong summer internship experience. Another close friend had mid-level editorial leadership experience but branched out to editing and social media work for the university city government, and now does travel writing.

It’s probably only because I’m a few years out of university that I can look back with clearer eyes. To be blunt, I don’t see much of a correlation between the professional success of my fellow students and what positions they held on the campus paper. The ones who’ve gone the furthest (in terms of the relative size/prestige of the publications where they now work, if they work for one) made the best use of internships and outside-of-school reporting/editing opportunities, regardless of whatever work they did for the Kansan (which, to be fair, provided many of us with our first clips). That isn’t to say that former Kansan editors don’t or haven’t achieved substantial professional success (I know a married pair who’ve both gone extremely far, including a Pulitzer), just that there’s not really much of a link, from where I’m sitting. Being editor of the Kansan is not a guarantee of professional success, and not being editor of the Kansan isn’t going to keep you from professional success.

So that is what I would tell myself, if I could go back: Enjoy the student newspaper. Have fun, learn the process and make friends. But it is a stepping stone to other things that are stepping stones in and of themselves. In the professional world, no one will care all that much. I have fond memories of the Kansan, but the environment, pace and workload of my job now resemble it about as much as a Nilla Wafer resembles a wedding cake. And that’s fine, and doesn’t have to diminish the value of my campus newspaper experience. It just puts a lot of things into perspective, and I’m glad to have it.

Refusing a bite of the apple

I might be one of a rare breed of female twentysomething journalists who consider themselves city mice: I have never made any serious, good-faith attempt to “make it” in New York, nor have I ever wanted to and honestly, unless an amazing opportunity arises or I move for a partner, I sincerely can see myself never wanting to.

A friend of mine shared this blog entry today, which I read and which maybe finally made me realize why I never sought that city the way so many women my age and in my profession do. New York City, the presumed epicenter of culture, literature and intellectual thought, is crowding out (and has been crowding out) the very people who contribute those things to the city. Creativity must be nurtured, and that requires basic security, energy and time, things that can be difficult if not impossible to attain in the city, especially if, like the blog author, you have to work a “real” job to make ends meet. The author decided to ultimately sacrifice location for that trifecta she needed to do something fulfilling, and left.

Which brings me back to myself; reading that, I have to wonder if I always knew, subconsciously, that I wouldn’t find in New York what I needed to fulfill me. Rather than needing to live there to realize that, maybe I always had a sense that it wasn’t really worth it. It wasn’t worth paying four figures to live with a bunch of other people in some outer borough, or doing a menial and unrewarding job, or going without food, just to be able to say, “I live in New York.” If “living in New York” doesn’t really come with the actual lifestyle implied by “living in New York” (creative freedom and intellectual growth), then what the bloody hell good is it? It’s an empty phrase, designed to impress outsiders or people from home; it would have no bearing on how I actually lived my life. That air of superiority, given the living circumstances of so many people like me in the city, just felt unearned, and I’d be damned if I moved there to perpetuate it.

And obviously it’s different for different people. I have friends there who love it, and I freely admit that I’d feel perfectly happy living in that other New York-esque metropolis with which I’m so familiar (London, I mean London). But after reading the blog entry and seeing a woman who might, in another life, have been me, it clicked. I had “gotten it” before I really even knew what I had “gotten.”

But then again, I never really knew or noticed how prevalent “Good-bye, New York” writings were. Time and again, young women aspire to go to New York, do so and then leave, for one reason or another. Maybe I just cut out the middleman.

In all fairness I do say this as a Washingtonian (via the Midwest and some stints in Britain), living in a place that isn’t exactly inexpensive. Many people in D.C. view it as a step on the way to New York, including at least a few of my friends. The District’s alleged inferiority complex is often remarked upon, and I’d be lying if I didn’t find the Times’s sometimes downright snotty coverage of the city (including, at times, bush-league geographic errors) to be grating. It seems like no matter what D.C. has, New York has more of it. Which is to be expected, as New York has more than 8 million people and D.C. only recently topped about 650,000, although it’s only getting bigger. But often, any criticism of New York by a D.C.-er brings allegations of jealousy or attempts at one-upping.

Which is why I found Andrew Sullivan’s own farewell to New York to be comforting; it’s rare (at least in my experience) to have someone that high-profile in the creative/journalistic community so publicly and forcefully side with D.C. over New York. For once, we’re not the ones being jilted. And Sullivan noticed that, too. It was “incomprehensible” to New Yorkers, he said, that a person might choose D.C. over their city.

And that’s at least partly why he left.