I was moved to tears in the darkness of the movie theater watching Spotlight, winner of the Best Picture Oscar. Being –or having been- an investigative reporter myself I remember the times when investigating (not even having internet then, just your precious and invaluable contact book), sources hanged the phone on me like I was a telemarketer or closed the door on my face like I was a Bible saleswoman. But at the end of the day, or the week or the month, I had a great story with all the facts checked, all the sources confirmed and ready to publish hoping to make the world a better place a word at the time.
I remembered with a mix of pleasure and sadness the scoop interview I landed with Jose Maria Ryan, director of the Lemoniz nuclear power plant in the Basque Country, Spain. It was the only interview he ever granted. He was under threats from the terrorist group ETA, protected 24/7 and moved around constantly for security reasons. Throughout contacts and months work, I was able to land the interview.
On the day in question I had to travel to a designated spot and wait. A car picked me up. I was blindfolded and taken somewhere where I did conduct the interview. Jose Maria Ryan was kidnapped and murdered by ETA a few months later (1981). I could talk and talk about other stories I worked on but they will not add any more arguments to the point I want to make.
When the theater lights came on I returned from the past to the present, from Hollywood fiction to street reality. One more recent flash memory rushed into my head:
“Another 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winner left journalism for PR. Here’s why,” the headline of a Columbia Journalism Review article.
…the Pulitzer Prize-winning Daily Breeze reporter who told the Daily Beast that, while living on a reporter’s salary in pricey Los Angeles, “I could make my rent, but it was difficult… It was getting to the point of being scary.”
The story I wrote was possible because my newspaper at the time, DEIA, allowed me to work it. Today, asking an editor or publisher to give you a couple of months to pursue a story gets you the look: “find a new job, darling”. Today you have to turn over two or three 300+ word stories a day, best in the form of a list, sprinkled with funny memes and better tied to the #trendingoftheday. They might look like this: “The 10 best ways to wear pants without your g-string panties showing too much”, “13 questions we have for people who never shower” or “The 19 most adorable dogs in Instagram.”
Spotlight investigative journalism is essential for a free and democratic society but it is mightily expansive. Paying a team of four to investigate a story for months (and sometimes stories do not pan out) is a luxury that these days few media outlets can pay or are willing to pay for. The article of Columbia Journalism Review is my witness.
Another great movie on the Oscars ticket this year touched the subject of lack of investigative reporting although coincidentally. It is The Big Short, in which four denizens in the world of high-finance predict the credit and housing bubble collapse of the mid-2000s, and decide to take on the big banks for their greed and lack of foresight. At some point before deciding to take advantage of the human stupidity and the greed of Wall Street they try to tip off the press in an attempt to prevent the financial crisis of 2007–2008, which was triggered by the build-up of the housing market and the credit bubble. Nobody listened. Nobody investigated. And we all know the butchery that ensued.
Is there hope?
I think so. For once The Washington Post is in the hands of Jeff Bezos. It is not a bad thing as I see it. He has the $ muscle to make it happen. The only other unique factor necessary to achieve it once you have the cash is the willingness to do so. I believe it is in there because not by chance Martin “Marty” Baron is the editor of The Washington Post since December 31, 2012, after having been editor of The Boston Globe since July 2, 2001. Marty, handpicked by Bezos, was precisely the editor when the Spotlight team uncovered the Catholic Church scandalous cover up of the abuse of children. He was the force behind the team. He made it happen.
Concerning myself I miss my old days as an investigative reporter but I have moved on. Now I am a novelist. Fiction gives me the freedom and the pleasure to create my own happy endings. I do not have to have reality checks anymore and I have countless stories to bore my grandchildren with until they send me packing.