The Movie “Spotlight”: Philosophical Reflections

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, August 14, 2016.)

Last night I watched “Spotlight,” one of the finest films I’ve seen in years.

The film follows The Boston Globes “Spotlight” team, the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative journalist unit in the United States,[6] and its investigation into cases of widespread and systemic child sex abuse in the Boston area by numerous Roman Catholic priests. It is based on a series of stories by the “Spotlight” team that earned The Globe the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.[7] … The film … was named one of the finest films of 2015 by various publications. Spotlight won the Academy Award for Best Picture along with Best Original Screenplay … (from Wikipedia)

I am no expert on pedophilia and there is no consensus about its causes even among experts. However, pedophilia does not appear more prevalent among Catholic clergy than among other professions. The best estimates are that about 4% of the general population are pedophiles and between 90 and 99% of these are men. This is consistent with “the best available data … [that] 4% of Catholic priests in the USA sexually victimized minors during the past half century.”

Still, we recoil when abuse is perpetrated by those who claim to be moral exemplars. Many expect the mafia or military to be violent and corrupt, but not the clergy. But it doesn’t take much life experience to learn that hypocrisy is a defining trait of human beings. If someone boasts about his moral character, it’s a good bet that he is a scoundrel. As for the subsequent cover up, churches, governments, businesses, political parties and individuals usually try to hide their misdeeds, even if others are hurt in the process. This is a  near truism of human life. 

Another thing that struck me was how costly and difficult it is to do investigative reporting. It really takes a lot of work to uncover corruption, and the supposed purveyors of decency do their best to keep their hypocrisy hidden. Thus it is easy to understand attacks on the media by the rich and powerful, inasmuch as they know that a really free press is one of the only constraints on their power.

In response, a few of the most powerful have simply bought the media. Most people don’t realize that 90% of all the media  in the United States is owned by one of 6 corporations. “With the country’s widest disseminators of news, commentary, and ideas firmly entrenched among a small number of the world’s wealthiest corporations, it may not be surprising that their news and commentary is limited to an unrepresentative narrow spectrum of politics.” – (Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley)

Given this state of affairs the spotlight investigative team deserves our unending praise for uncovering just a small bit of the corruption that surrounds us. I also thank them for reminding me once again that a defining trait of many human beings is hypocrisy.

2 thoughts on “The Movie “Spotlight”: Philosophical Reflections

  1. I have seen Spotlight – an excellent film.

    The golden age of journalism in the US was actually in the 1970s and early 80s. Investigative journalism, war coverage, and business coverage were all more transparent than before or after that time. Expense didn’t matter-newspapers were rich. Journalism was a recognized profession for which education and training were required and within which ethical and journalistic standards (such as objectivity) were applied.

    Because of the Internet, journalism as I knew it has been destroyed. Investigative reporting has been removed from most newspapers and TV news chases after small consumer rights incidents.

    Investigative reporting is now performed only by non-profits like Berkeley’s Center for Investigative Reporting (co-founded by Lowell Bergman) , which exclusively produces and sells investigative content to papers that subscribe to the service (like the Associated Press model).

    But as you pointed out, all this has been circumvented largely by corporate buyers who consolidated media power by buying everything up at fire sale prices. Journalistic organizations and academia never figured out how to interest young people in the craft but the intranet spawned “citizen journalism,” where the untrained could flourish. The intranet became a medium of assertion backed by few or no facts, whereas the news organizations of the 70s were media of verification where fact checking was an important job of the editorial team.

    They were not perfect, but they did use the standard of verification and they were diverse, often family-owned with dedicated reporters and editors who understood their role in society.

    Today our media is not free and is not mass media. It is diffuse, operates with no journalistic standards and is wholly unobjective.

    A sad state of affairs and one of the signs that our national culture is in serious decline.

  2. Thanks for your comments. I pretty much agree with everything you say. The major news organizations, as I understand it, used to consider news a public service, to inform citizens. Obviously that is no longer the case.

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