Former Editor, The Boston Globe, Spotlight Team
Author, The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams
"The Spotlight story had incredible impact way beyond what we ever could have imagined. You think you can have a great story in journalism, but you never know until it runs and you see the impact. This one took off like a rocket ship."
by Heidi Legg
On Saturday I watched the 1976 film All The Presidents Men, with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing The Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who uncover the details of the Watergate scandal that lead to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. It won four Academy Awards and was nominated for eight.
These young reporters not only relied on Deep Throat but also the stewardship of Ben Bradlee Sr., then Editor of The Washington Post, who published the story under extreme political heat and pushed the reporters to get the facts. It was 1972, when Bradlee Sr. first published Bernstein and Woodward’s work. I was one year old when the story broke, but later on as a journalism student, those names - Woodward, Bernstein, and Bradlee – were pretty significant.
As I watched Spotlight last month in the Somerville Theater, trading a pacifier for a glass of wine... some 40 years later, I was struck by the fact that here was another Bradlee stewarding a team of passionate investigative reporters through a story that would rock the country, if not the world. This time it was Ben Bradlee Jr. and The Boston Globe under Marty Baron. The film is nominated this Sunday for six Academy Awards.
Bradlee Jr. brushes off my theory that there must be something the Bradlee family holds as a tenet that draws them towards this type of truth telling, as you will read below. Or maybe it’s their sense of fairness? But I remain unconvinced that it’s ‘dumb luck.’
I sat down with Bradlee to discuss the film’s wild success, the future of print journalism, and why society should worry about a world where independent journalism is devalued.
Given all the Spotlight film attention, what are you working on now?
I wrote a biography about Ted Williams, The Kid, that did well after taking an embarrassingly long time with over 600 hundred interviews and 800 pages, and now this Spotlight movie has come along which has been a very pleasant and surprising distraction. The studio seems to think that there's real value in having the ‘real journalists' out there with the actors talking about the movie. We’ve spent the last few months doing that and now it's nominated for six Oscars at the Academy Awards.
Will you be invited to the Academy Awards?
That would be once in a lifetime fun. We'd all like to and we're hoping to wrangle a ticket.
Were you portrayed accurately in the film?
It's a subjective exercise. I was a Mad Men fan and it was fun to meet John Slattery and hang out. We've become pals and spent a lot of time together now.
Overall, the film is very accurate. It's a movie, not a documentary and there are invented scenes that didn't actually happen with Walter Robinson and Keaton. There are also composite characters: the guys of the Catholic establishment applying pressure on Robinson not to run the story is a collective composite rather than any one individual. Again, it's a movie and not a documentary but, overall, all of us think the movie's terrific and conveys a very accurate portrayal of what happened.
Are you surprised by the critical acclaim for the film?
We didn't expect it. We didn't even expect a movie to be made.
Is the screenplay based on the book, Betrayal, written by all of you?
The Globe wrote the book. About three or four months after the story had exploded, some guy from Newsweek parachuted in and did a cover story for the magazine, as news magazines do, and he secured a book contract. My guys were pissed off at that and thought, 'wait a minute. This is our story. If there's going to be a book, we should do the book,' and I supported that. The Editor of The Boston Globe, Marty Baron, had some concerns about it, maybe legitimate, that it would take us away from the ongoing story. But the reporters said, 'never mind. We'll do it nights and weekends on our own time.’ So we did that, but it turned out to have nothing to do with the movie.
We thought our work was done and we were lucky enough to win the Pulitzer way back in 2003.
It’s incredible to think of all the people you helped. How do you look at this?
Yeah. This story had incredible impact way beyond what we ever could have imagined. You think you can have a great story in journalism, but you never know until it runs and you see the impact. This one took off like a rocket ship.
These two young women, quite inexperienced producers from Hollywood, showed up on our door five or six years after the fact and said, 'we love the story and want to make a movie.' We thought, 'yeah, right.' It's so hard to get a movie made. You have to go through so many hurdles to get financing, to get the right cast. We said we would cooperate, never thinking that it would really get done. They went away for a couple years and then showed up with a great director and a script and then this fabulous ensemble of cast with some very big names: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams – big enough leading names to carry their own movie and yet they subordinated their own egos to play in an ensemble cast.
How was it watching the film? Did any particular scene give you pause? I hear Robinson’s wife is a nurse and thought you all had PTSD after the story was exposed.
Seeing the movie was emotional for us all because it did trigger these memories that you had forgotten. They screened it for us last summer and we saw a rough cut on a very small screen without the sound properly mixed, without the music score, and we liked it and we could tell it was going to be good. But seeing it for the first time on the large screen at the Toronto Film Festival before an audience of 2,500 people and seeing how the audience reacted was really… it was emotional for us all. I don't know about PTSD, but it was an intense experience.
What was the hardest thing about cracking that story?
Well, I'm not sure. Initially, our mission was to try and find out, using the Geoghan case as a springboard, how many bad priests there were in the Boston Archdiocese and we thought there might have been some but not the extent.
That's a powerful scene in the film your guy plays.
Yeah. That was. As my guy, Slattery, says – 'ninety fuckin' priests' –which invariably gets the funniest reaction in the movie every time I see it. I think the most skillful part of what the reporters did was using the church's own directories to help track down the numbers and finding the euphemism that they use: ‘sick leave’ and ‘away on assignment’ or something to disguise the fact that these guys were often in treatment and taken off the shelf for a while before being reassigned. That was probably the most surprising and hardest to get our heads around. I think the movie shows that pretty well.
Did you talk about this investigation with your dad, Ben Bradlee Sr., while it was occurring?
Oh, we would chat about it all the time. We'd talk shop.
Did your dad know about the story?
Sure. Yeah. He didn't have much advice. He didn't get into the nuts and bolts of investigative reporting. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were probably the best things that ever happened to him.
I think his talent was finding the right people for the right jobs and then getting out of their way, and that's not a bad lesson for any leader of any organization.
Both you and your father cracked two of the major American investigative stories of our times. What is it in your family that allows you to do that?
I don't know. I think that's probably dumb luck, don't you?
Did your family discuss values around the home or truth telling?
No. No. I mean, I sort of fell into journalism. I never followed him into it. I started as a reporter in California in 1972, right when the Watergate case had happened. He was not by any means a household name yet.
But wasn’t he the one who decided to publish the story in The Washington Post and took a lot of risk and heat for it?
Well, of course, and they deserve enormous credit for courage really. They were the only ones out there pushing that story.
Isn't the sex abuse story the same? Or was it, as you say, dumb luck?
I don't think there's any guiding principal or sort of glue. I don't want to shoot down your theory. I'm proud of what he did and he was proud of me.
When you're the editor, how do you sort through instincts and doubt?
Before you undertake a project, you do a lot of preliminary work to see if it's there. At The Globe, clergy sexual abuse was not an unfamiliar subject to us. It wasn't the first time we'd undertaken it. Before, when I was Metro editor in charge of all the local coverage, back when The Globe was really healthy and still had 100 reporters under me at Metro, we had taken a run at another bad priest called Father Porter. We ran dozens of stories on that guy and we were very aggressive, but we ultimately hit a wall on the story. We weren't able to get the internal church documents that we were able to get in the Geoghan case, which showed the extent of the cover-up, and so I shut the coverage down. We did a lot of good work but you don't hit a homerun on every story. You hit singles. You hit doubles. I thought at the time that you can't keep writing and writing and writing if you don't have it, because you have to be fair to the church.
When Marty Baron came along and proposed this story on Geoghan, I think I was initially skeptical, as the movie portrays me. But it wasn't long before the reporters were digging up some terrific stuff, and that is when you just know in your gut that the story's there. Then we were all in.
Do you have internal rules that keep you from losing your critical eye when reporting on powerful people?
You have got to be right, you know? You can't make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes but the stakes were very high in this Catholic Church story and we had to be right. In terms of standards that you set for yourself, I think all reporters have to be very careful and it's in your gut. That's what editors are for too – to make sure that you still meet the fundamental standards of fairness, that you get the other side to report, and that you're not wishing the story to be true more than it actually is true. I think that those standards become self-evident when you're reporting on a story and also, if you're the editor when you're reviewing the story.
Is time your friend with storytelling?
Well, time can be your friend when you know that you're being given a decent amount of time to pursue the story, and you know you don't have to rush it and cut corners.
How long do you wait as an editor before you know the story's angle?
I don't think there's any set answer. It depends on how the reporting is going and who you get to help you, what kind of sources you develop, what kind of documentation you can gather to prove your point – but, yes, being given the time to do that is a luxury and it's being threatened today by the economics of newspapering.
I think one of the most important messages of the movie is to underscore the value of investigative reporting to a democracy and it points to the need to always be able to hold institutions accountable. In the climate we're in – where the Internet has really threatened newspapers and their viability economically – it matters. Unfortunately, newspapers are losing money and people are getting laid off, and in that atmosphere it becomes easier for editors to conclude that investigative reporting is a luxury that they can no longer afford when, really, it is a necessity.
I would argue that it is in long-format storytelling in general.
Yeah, in narrative journalism, as well.
Why did you leave The Globe to write the biography on Ted Williams?
The clergy story was essentially winding down. I knew it was the story of a lifetime. I happened to have reached my twenty-five-year mark at the paper, which was a cause for taking stock of where you are in life. It also qualified me for my modest pension. Williams died and he was a childhood hero of mine. I was struck in his death how much interest there still was in his life, and I got a good publishing deal with Little Brown and out I went.
Did you discover anything about yourself by writing about Ted Williams?
I don't know. He was a rich subject and he held my interest and, in journalism, one thing I learned is how passionate people are about sports. There is a kind of snobbery in journalism about sports. We used to refer to it as ‘the toy department,’ which is snobby and elitist, but I learned how passionate people are about sports and how sports are a really good window into writing about people and the culture. That was one of the most important lessons I learned. I'm still deciding whether or not to have my next topic be in sports.
What do you see as the future of journalism? Any advice?
I'm worried certainly about the future of newspapers, and we are now dealing with a couple of generations of younger people who have grown up with the idea that news should be free and who don't seem willing to pay for it.
If you think about it, what business can survive by giving away their product? Newspapers are really struggling with the whole pay wall concept and with how to get people to pay for their product. Only the specialized publications like the Wall Street Journal with a business clientele or the New York Times, to a certain extent, seem to be succeeding. We are still waiting for sort of a savior, if you will, someone who can discover the right economic model so that papers can thrive again.
What happens to society if this old school journalism ceases to exist?
I think it's a big loss and I think we're struggling with that very important question right now. Who's going to hold institutions accountable if not newspapers? Despite the growth of online journalism and all these multi-platforms, it's newspapers – even in their diminished state – which have the most horses, which have the most reporters.
But let’s be real, young kids won't pick up a paper. It's 'print' now, not 'paper.'
I'd give print another ten years, as the baby boomers who are still wedded to print and who like to hold it in their hand die out. It'll all migrate to digital and even an older fart like me, I must say, is getting used to digital.
But I don't think everything's going to turn to video and print will die out. I think there's always going to be a demand for the written word.
What about long format? Most editors want a story in 500 words when I pitch them.
That's depressing. That's depressing and I wonder what people are thinking. People say in the abstract, ‘yes, investigative journalism is important and yes, narrative journalism is important,’ but they don't seem to put the money where their mouth is.
I mean, life seems to have changed and people's time seems to be much more limited than it was. We used to do surveys about the Sunday paper, which was always the cash cow for The Globe and other newspapers, and people would say, 'it's just so fat, you know? We don't have time to read it the way we used to.' That seems to be a factor too.
Does reading long form fit into people's lifestyles? Look, I was talking to a college kid the other day, and she said she was really interested in seeing the movie, really interested in investigative reporting, but that newspapers seem unhealthy and asked what she should she do.
I said, 'never mind. Just go into it and follow your gut and hope that it will migrate on to enough different platforms that you'll create a market.' And follow your heart. You have to follow your passion.
Any news on the new president of the Boston Public Library? I see you're on the search team.
You're doing your homework. No. We're still in the early stages of that.
You want to share the story here first?
There's no candidate. It is still too early to name a shortlist.
You wrote about a great Red Sox player and now the Red Sox owner owns The Globe. Any thoughts?
Yeah - small world, huh? I think The Globe today, especially given the pressures on daily newspapering, is doing great. While the trend may be to cut on investigative journalism, not only is the Spotlight team alive and well, but they've gone from four reporters when I was there to six today. So, they're bucking the trend and hanging in there. I think they still do a very good job.
Which are the top US newspapers today?
When you look at national papers, it's different than The Boston Globe, which is a regional paper. We used to have ten foreign bureaus at The Globe. It’s been a regional paper that chose to make its mark selectively in national and foreign affairs, and we still have a good size Washington bureau with five or six reporters. There are national newspapers like The Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, but I'd certainly put the Globe in the top ten newspapers.
Favorite place for breakfast?
I have my own breakfast right here.
When you were covering the city, where did you go?
It used to be the Tasty Sandwich Shop. Have you heard of it? It was in the heart of Harvard Square but Harvard Square has changed so much. It's like nothing but banks and chains now.
I have a great neighborhood place around here that I really like called The Abbey.
I thought you were going to say Shepard or Julia.
Favorite place to interview a source?
You can't reveal secrets like that. It'd screw it up for the current generation. Let me take a pass.
Where do you unwind in Boston?
I'm not that nostalgic. I like my neighborhood place, The Abbey.
Favorite other city in the world?
What do you read in the morning?
The Globe, The New York Times, and Politico – I guess those are my go-to websites.
Want to predict the presidential election?
Spotlight is about the Boston Globe’s investigative team uncovering the Boston Archdiocese’s priest sex abuse scandal and is nominated for six Academy Awards. In addition to being named a finalist for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing, Tom McCarthy was nominated for Best Director, Mark Ruffalo was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and Rachel McAdams was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Bradlee is played by John Slattery in Spotlight.