The just-released movie Spotlight is about a Boston Globe investigative reporting team circa 2001-02 that uncovered and documented a vast network of child sex abuse by priests in the Catholic Church that had been on-going for decades. More to the point, Spotlight revealed the institutional rot at the very top of the Boston Catholic Church hierarchy, led by then-Cardinal Bernard Law — which marinated church personnel in a code of secret atrocious behavior enabled by systematic lying and deception. In effect, the church gave permission to its foot-soldiers, the parish priests, to engage in whatever sexual antics they wished to, with a tacit promise to shield them from the reach of the courts. The civil authorities of Boston, heavily Catholic due to Boston’s demographics, assisted the church by throwing up every legal obstacle they could to deter the victims and their advocates in the search for justice — and to put an end to the predation of children by priests.
That was the story that Spotlight told, and it did that very economically, without grandstanding. But the movie had another message for me, as someone who has been involved in the media going back more than forty years when I was an investigative newspaper reporter myself. The message was that the institutional support for great journalism that allowed the Globe’s Spotlight reporting team to do its job is now gone-baby-gone. All the newspapers in the USA, and even the TV and radio news networks, are running these days on skeleton crews. At least that is true of the old flagship organizations such as the Boston Globe and CNN. They just don’t have the reporters out in the field. The front-page or flatscreen interface that the public sees conceals ghost organizations that barely have the reporting resources and the reach to discover what is actually going on in the world.
The dying newspapers — and they really are on life-support at this point, including the Globe and The New York Times — can’t pay teams of reporters like the Spotlight crew to work through years-long investigations. But what the movie also ought to remind us is that the hierarchical competence at such an enterprise, the layers of editors who know what they are doing and understand the boundaries and conventions of their own society, is also disastrously AWOL in the new Wowee-Zowie era of instant cell-phone networking, Facebook, and Instagram. In a word, leadership has been made to seem dispensable.
What gets left out of the story, as usual, are the diminishing returns of technology. In the news business — that is, the business of informing society what is actually going on — that blowback is leaving the public not just uninformed or misinformed, but additionally clueless about what they have lost. The result is a society increasingly shaped by delusion and paralysis. For example, The New York Times has gone from being the “newspaper of record” to being the leading dispenser of wishful thinking by a feminized political Left preoccupied with feelings over truth. (This, by the way, helps to account for the remnant media’s hatred of Vladimir Putin, a leader who doesn’t apologize for acting one like one. And, of course, a man.) The Old Gray Lady is also reduced to overt cheerleading for its avatar (Monday’s lead op-ed: HILLARY CLINTON — How I’d Rein In Wall Street Ha!), and making excuses for our grift-and rackets-based polity (Paul Krugman: The Not-So-Bad Economy Ha Ha Ha!).
At the local level, the news situation is simply pathetic. The surviving local newspapers are little more than bulletin boards for news releases from interested parties. They’ve fired all their reporters. Soon the papers will all be gone and the vaunted wondrous Internet will be little more than a grapevine and a rumor mill. The “cloud” that everybody thinks is so marvelous will look more and more like an epochal fog — and we’ll lost in it. These are the wages of our techno-narcissism, a society now marinating in cluelessness the way the Catholic church, as depicted in Spotlight, marinates in pederasty and deceit. It is frankly hard to see a way out of the cultural predicament. Two things, at least, are necessary to break out of this hall of mirrors: men acting like honorable men, and hierarchies of leadership with the integrity to actually lead. For now, the USA is not interested in those things.
Coming in 2016
World Made By Hand 4 (and final)
The third World Made By Hand novel
!! Is available !!
(The Fourth and final is complete
and in production for May 2016 publication)
“Kunstler skewers everything from kitsch to greed, prejudice, bloodshed, and brainwashing in this wily, funny, rip-roaring, and profoundly provocative page- turner, leaving no doubt that the prescriptive yet devilishly satiric A World Made by Hand series will continue.” — Booklist