The Spotlight and NCR

Tom Fox, the soon to be retiring NCR publisher, may choke on his English muffin out of sheer modesty if he reads this, but I see clear shades of him and NCR in the fabulous movie, "Spotlight."

As throngs of viewers have discovered, the film depicts the Boston Globe's exposure of the child abuse scandal in that city that shows both church and newspaper with rare candor. The church fights to keep its secrets and the Globe confronts its own pattern of protecting the church from bad news a means of pleasing its 40 percent Catholic readership.

The turning point is the arrival of the Globe's new editor, Marty Baron, who insists on pursuing the evidence of major harm regardless of the reaction of the church or the public. Courage finds its way where fear of the archdiocese stifled coverage. Step by step the case unfolds, to the shock of the reporters themselves.

What elevates this movie to uncommon ground is that it neither villifies the church as a whole or casts the Globe as a purist hero. It focuses on the machinations of the criminal priests and their mishandling by Cardinal Law, but never impugns the integrity of  a single staple of Catholic belief itself, except as its own teachings are violated. Law is sunk by his own actions, not because he's being defiled for upholding the church's core values and beliefs.

Likewise, the investigative team, led by actor Michael Keaton who's previous triumph as editor in "The Paper" makes him the go-to player of journalists, displays ambivalence, flights of ego, impatience and religious ambiguities just like real newspaper people have a way of doing. Getting to the truth, or a semblance of it, is hard work detoured at every turn by hard wired assumptions that may conflict with it. To the Globe's great distinction, the team under Baron's soft-spoken prodding, stays the course and delivers the awful facts.

Visit EarthBeat, NCR's new reporting project that explores the ways Catholics and other faith groups are taking action on the climate crisis.

For decades, NCR has exhibited those same qualities under the aegis of Tom Fox. The paper's constituency and setting strikingly contrast with those of a purely secular publication like the Globe, which in some ways has made the goal of truthfulness tougher. Most obviously, having "Catholic" in its name has led many to believe it belongs to the institution and therefore exists to promote the church's own version of itself whereas in reality it is independent and relatively crusading.

Tom Fox was until a few months ago the inheritor of that record of confronting the often unwelcome stories of wrongdoing and injustice. As publisher, he heard the often barbed protests and, if I'm not mistaken, veiled warnings from both laity and top rungs of hierarchy. In fact, no similar publication existed to screen the church's practices and decisions for signs that Vatican II was either being enhanced or curtailed, that clergy were being treated justly or unjustly by the church's own standards, or that things were either what the church portrayed them to be or not. It was overseen from a Catholic "progressive" frame of mind, but like all papers that let you know where they stand editorially, NCR let you know where they stood in matters of opinion.

Like the Globe, Fox and his sterling staff didn't back down or gloat over revelations. It was NCR that virtually broke the story of priests abusing children. Jason Berry, whose pioneering book on the subject makes a brief appearance in the movie, started the hard work of uncovering the atrocities and the paper carried on from there.

I don't recall a single instance where Fox attacked the central beliefs of the Catholic church. He remained committed both to sound journalism and Catholic faith, however difficult it was to forget the distinctions between the founding dogma of the church and its flawed manifestation as the church. I looked for his name in the movie credits.


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