November 18, 2018

‘Spotlight’ on Marty Baron’s crusade

The Academy Award-nominated drama “Spotlight” tells how a team of Boston Globe journalists uncovered rampant child sexual abuse by priests and the cover-up by the Catholic Church. The clash of institutions is high drama, but the movie’s most powerful human moments come from the istruggles the journalists confront as insiders and outsiders. 

The Globe’s Catholic reporters must face the fact that, because of their own Boston Catholic backgrounds, they ignored just how deep and widespread the abuse was. Their editor, Marty Baron, must deal with the antagonism of those who see him as a Jewish interloper on an anti-Church crusade. 

But when I met the real-life Baron last week, it quickly became apparent that while, yes, he’s indeed Jewish, his crusade has nothing to do with it.

It’s all about being a journalist. 

In fact, Baron didn’t know he stood out as the first Jewish editor of the Boston Globe until he saw himself in “Spotlight.”

Actor Liev Schreiber plays Baron as the gruff, humorless boss who pushes the Globe’s investigative team to go beyond individual stories of abuse to reveal the system that allowed it to persist.

The Church defenders whose feathers he ruffles don’t let him forget that he’s not one of them.  At their first meeting, Boston Cardinal Bernard Law gives him a welcome gift: a catechism.

That emphasis on the fictional Baron’s Jewishness caught the real Baron by surprise. He said as much during a discussion Feb. 9 at the Pacific Palisades home of Austin and Virginia Beutner, where he spoke about the movie along with “Spotlight” co-screenwriter Josh Singer and Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism.

“People asked me why focus on the fact that he’s Jewish,” Singer said to the hundred or so guests gathered in the Beutners’ tented back patio.  “I said, ‘Well, Boston focused on it.’ ”

But Baron, who is now executive editor of the Washington Post, said he wasn’t aware his own religion was an issue. No one mentioned it to his face, though the cardinal really did give him a very heavy copy of the catechism (the exact copy used in the movie).

“I actually considered that maybe I should read this,” Baron said. “But … it’s a really thick book. I figured I got other things to do.”   

Baron laughed — yes, newsflash — he laughed. The real-life Baron, who looks like he could be Schreiber’s older brother, has a warm, if not ready, smile. 

“There are a few friends who say I have a sense of humor,” Baron said, proving he does, indeed, have one. 

Six weeks after he walked into the Globe’s newsroom, terrorists struck the World Trade Center on 9/11. And then came the Church investigation.  

“It was a pretty tense time,” Baron explained. “And for me it was kind of a lonely time. I was not at my most joyful. Someone at the alt weekly in town asked someone at the Globe what I was all about. They said I was about, ‘the joyless pursuit of excellence.’ ”

He unleashed a big smile at that one.

So, how Jewish is this outsider?  In an interview after the public discussion, he told me his mother was born in pre-state Palestine. His father fled Germany in 1936 for Palestine, as well, where he met Baron’s mother. The couple immigrated to Paris in 1952, then moved to Florida.  Baron was born in 1954 and raised in Tampa. He considers himself, “reform, but fairly nonobservant.”

“It’s very deep roots,” he said.

Was he worried that his being Jewish might color people’s perceptions of the story?

“I did think about that,” Baron said. “But what was I going to do? Not pursue the story? That was not an option.” 

Baron put his trust in the men and women reporting it.

“They were great journalists,” he said. “I was quite confident that they would be careful in how they approached the story, and my job was to ultimately read what they ended up coming up with and offer my thoughts.”

After the abuse story broke, Baron encountered some isolated accusations that he was biased by his religion, but overall he received more gratitude than condemnation.

“In the end, people weren’t angry at us,” Baron said.  “They were angry at the Church.”

At a time when serious journalism faces a multi-front battle against clickbait, declining revenues and corporate gobble-ups, the real crusade, Baron stressed, was not against the Church, or any institution, but for serious, independent journalism.

“I think there’s been too much time spent trying to worry about, ‘What does our audience want?’ ” Baron said of today’s media environment. What they crave, he said, is the authenticity that comes from deep, straight reporting. 

“Now that we’ve actually found the facts, we’re going to lay them out for you, and we’re going to tell them to you squarely,” Baron said of the best journalism.  “I think people want that. They appreciate that.”  

Austin Beutner, who was publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune before being pushed out by the Tribune overlords, called “Spotlight” a good example of “what it is we’re losing” when newsrooms are cut and newspapers close down. 

Baron agreed. What guided him in directing his paper’s Spotlight team had nothing to do with his faith in Judaism, but in journalism.

That’s what inspires him, and it’s what he sees in the new generation of reporters in his newsroom.

“They’re not coming into this business to be famous,” he said. “You know, to have a movie made about them.”

Then Baron smiled, again. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

 

______________

 

Corrections: This story was changed to make the following corrections. The 9/11 attacks occured six weeks after Marty Baron entered the newsroom, not six months. Mr. Baron described himself as “reform, but nonobservant.”