Thursday, February 4, 2016

The type of reporter I could never be

There's a moment in Spotlight, which I saw last nightwhen Rachel McAdams' Sacha Pfeiffer knocks on the door of a retired Boston priest, and seems a bit surprised to see the man himself actually answer the door.

When she confirms his identity, for a second a look flashes across her faces that seems to say, "Okay, this is happening" before she launches into her question:

"We have information that you molested kids while serving as a priest. Did you molest kids?"

That's not an exact quote -- unlike a good reporter, I don't take notes when I watch movies -- but it's along those lines, and it's that direct.

In fact, this moment illustrates perfectly why I could never fully give myself over to journalism as a career.

Oh I was on that path. I worked as the reporter and interim editor of a newspaper in Rhode Island from 1996 to 1998, and in 1999 I attended Columbia Journalism School, where the brightest journalism prospects in the country -- dare I say, even the world -- go to take the next steps in their careers. (As well as the ones who can fool them into thinking we fit that description, like me.)

But even before starting at Columbia, I think I knew I didn't have that killer instinct, that courage, that unwavering belief in what is right that distinguishes the kind of journalists we see in Spotlight.

It's not so much that I feared the moment of awkwardness that results from asking an interview subject the question that cuts to the core of their own innocence or guilt. It's rather that I feared the moment of rage at the gall I was displaying at even asking. How dare you ask a question like that? How dare you intrude on the inner sanctum of my own protective shell as a human being who wants to be treated with decency?

Of course, I never dealt with anyone as guilty and as downright despicable as the Catholic priests of the Boston archdiocese, who turned out to be just the first publicly reported among hundreds and thousands of priests the world over who displayed those tendencies. The biggest fish I had to fry were local politicians dancing around some of their own double speak. When I had a story about a police chief who had an unregistered car on his property, it nearly gave me fits.

So just imagine the courage necessary to take on the Catholic church, an institution that counts half of your readership as loyal followers, and accuse it of hiding evidence that priests sexually molested young boys.

I appreciate that kind of courage even more because of my past as a reporter, and it makes seeing a movie like Spotlight all the more rewarding for me. What Spotlight doesn't do is make me wistful for a career path I could have had if I'd made a couple decisions differently. I never had what it takes to stick a microphone in someone's face, either literally or metaphorically, and it was useful to realize that before I threw myself into an arena where I was destined to fail. I suppose it's better to succeed at what I do now, to the extent that I do succeed at it, than to have failed as a reporter.

But that doesn't change one bit my conviction that someone needs to stick those microphones in those faces, and movies that celebrate these proud professionals make me proud to watch them.

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