Why journalism still matters — go see “Spotlight”

In business, Crime, History, journalism, Media, movies, religion, U.S. on November 20, 2015 at 1:03 pm

By Caitlin Kelly


The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

Their clothes are drab, cheap, poorly- fitting.

All they do is sit at desks or talk on the phone or knock on doors.

Their work takes months.

Why on earth would this make a compelling film?

I admit it, I’m biased, having worked as a journalist for more than 20 years. I’ve been doing it since my undergraduate years at university and still enjoy it, even though 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008 and thousands more are losing their jobs every year now.

The film is about the Boston Globe’s investigative team, called Spotlight, and their controversial and much-challenged decision to look into allegations of child abuse within the Catholic church there.


The cast is terrific — fellow Canadian Rachel McAdams, John Slattery (of Mad Men), Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci.

The newsroom looks like every newsroom everywhere, overlit, ugly, standard-issue desks and chairs, glass-walled executive offices. Its power structure,  (interesting how it parallels the church they investigate, and how every senior editor is male), also deeply familiar.

The mix of political cynicism and compassion for the people they’re covering — and the remorse they feel as they realize they knew about the story years before and ignored it — also resonate.

But what left me in tears was how truthful is the portrayal of my work, certainly as part of a daily newspaper staff; I worked at the Globe & Mail, the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News.

It takes patience.

It takes persistence.

It takes a ton of tedious-but-essential detail work like reading old directories and chasing down court documents.

It takes a belief that what you’re doing all day, for months, actually might make a substantive difference — at best — in the lives of your readers.

Working as a news or investigative reporter is a weird mix of aggressive digging, pressure to stop digging, (by angry sources, power brokers, bosses worried you won’t bring home the goods), and the growing conviction that you’re on a huge story you have to get, no matter the cost.

Your co-workers may question and resent you — since they’re expected to crank out copy every day, possibly multiple times a day — and your team has yet to show anything in print, even after months of work.

The people you’re investigating will do anything to shut you down, from polite threats over a cocktail to appeals to your civic pride. (It can get much more bare-knuckled than that.)

The film shows reporters doing what no film ever shows — reporting.

That means knocking on door after door, some of them slammed in your face, some of them suddenly opened and a confession spilling out so fast you write it down as you walk away, as McAdams does in one scene.

It can mean sitting with, and witnessing, incredible pain when someone tells you they have been molested or raped, but not hugging them or saying anything — instead, as McAdams does — saying quietly, “We need specific language.”


Me, hard at work on assignment in Bilwi, Nicaragua.

To anyone but a reporter, she sounds shockingly callous and cold. Why isn’t she comforting the man telling her his secrets?

Because that’s not our job. (Even if, and it often is, our social impulse.)

I’ve been in that place, as someone who had been raped told me her story. It’s a delicate moment you’re neither trained or prepared for, like holding a water balloon — one false move and it shatters. You have to be calm, quiet, empathetic and just listen. Your job is to witness, not to emote or react.

I loved that the female reporter is portrayed as dogged and relentless as her two male peers. We are!

I love that her nails are bare, that she wears no jewelery but a plain wedding band and apparently little make-up. In the world of news journalism, that shit really doesn’t matter. It’s one reason I love it and felt comfortable within it.

It was powerful to see the conflict between the reporter’s private feelings — about faith, about the Church, about their own history — and the work they were doing. I know reporters personally who covered this story and what it did to them emotionally. This rang true.

I loved seeing a brief glimpse of a friend’s book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation, and his name in the final credits; Jason Berry, a New Orleans journalist, was one of the first to write about this issue. I met Jason in Paris many years ago when we were both chosen to participate in a year-long European journalism fellowship.

When I left the theater to use the bathroom, three women my age there had just seen it as well — and we got into a long, deep, impassioned and personal conversation about the film and why journalists want to do that kind of work. It was an amazing encounter for all of us, one of whom works with Catholic church abuse victims.

I told them about my two books and the kind of interviews I’ve done that were equally soul-searing, and my hope that sharing them with a larger audience would be useful somehow. It made me realize, sadly, how rarely I get to talk to non-journalists about my work and why I believe so deeply in the value of it, still. It moved me to hear from three others that it matters to them as well.

If you care at all about journalism and why, at best, people still want to do it for a living — and I know that many people simply hate journalists and don’t trust us — go see this film!


The gift of hospitality

In behavior, domestic life, family, life, love, parenting, travel on November 18, 2015 at 2:17 pm

By Caitlin Kelly


A shared meal is a gift

How often — ever? — do you welcome guests into your home?

In some cultures, it’s normal to ask even people you don’t know very well in for a drink or a meal or to spend the night. In others, people can take years before they decide to open the door to you.

As the holiday season starts in the U.S. with Thanksgiving, thousands of people will be visiting friends and family, settling into unfamiliar beds, padding down the hallway to a new bathroom and wondering how best to behave.

I love having people come for dinner and our sofa is well-worn from the many visits we’ve had, sometimes for a week or more, from family and out-of-town friends. (We live and work in a one-bedroom apartment. I’d kill for a proper guest room!)

I love the intimacy of spending time in someone’s home and they in mine. You get to see their family photos (or lack of same), their choices of art and design, their books. Every fridge’s contents is a revelation. (You’ll always find maple syrup, eggs and half-and-half in ours.)

I love the ease of a morning spent in pajamas reading the paper or sitting by the evening fire at my Dad’s house, settling in. There’s no rush to get out of a crowded, noisy cafe or restaurant, no bill, no harried waiter or busboy.

In a few days together, you’ve got time. Time to drop and return to a deeper or more difficult conversation or to discuss things you never get to in all those quick meetings — who they first loved or what they studied in college or why they love Mozart so much.

One of the members of our jazz dance class recently had us over for a post-class hot tub session (bliss!) and lunch.

It was the most fun I’d had in a long time. Seven of us squished into the hot tub, the first time I’d seen any of us not in our workout clothes. Lunch became a hilarious and occasionally R-rated conversation that revealed all sorts of new things about one another.


Cooking at the house we rented last year in Ireland

It was, I later realized, a true gift.

It takes time, energy, planning and an open heart to welcome people into your home. (Tidying it up can feel like too much of a chore.)

If you’ve got multiple small children, it can simply feel impossible.

But what a pleasure to sit in someone’s home, to see their taste, to enjoy their cooking and conversation.

Now that we all live so virtually most of the time, being in someone else’s space feels more important to me than ever.


Quiche is a quick, easy and affordable way to feed a few people…

We’ll be driving five hours from New York to suburban D.C. to visit friends there for Thanksgiving. Dear friends, they’ve welcomed us into their home many times before, so we know their enormous dog will be at the door, soon shedding blond fur all over our New York uniform of black clothing. We know their fridge will be full and that it’s OK to raid it.

I look forward to helping my friend prepare the meal for all her family.

And — talk about unlikely! — I recently expressed a vague wish to learn to play the cello. I don’t even know how to read music and the only instrument I played in earlier life was the guitar.

My friend has a cello she’s going to let me try when we’re at her house. What a moment that’s likely to be. (Dog runs away in terror.)

Who will you welcome into your home this season?

Are you looking forward to it, dreading it — or avoiding it altogether?

What matters most to you?

In behavior, business, domestic life, family, life, parenting, work on November 14, 2015 at 1:04 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

When you wish upon a star...

When you wish upon a star…

I know a younger writer who — ho hum — has produced five books and four children in less than a decade.

Laura Vanderkam is happily and lucratively obsessed with the notion of time management, which isn’t as compelling to me. (But it’s clearly working for her!)

I do love her stance on a default phrase we often use — “I’m too busy”.

No, she says, the words you want, and want to mean, are “It’s not a priority.”


Travel! I live for this. I work for this. Probably my number one priority

The things you devote the most of your time to become, de facto, your priorities.

It’s where we invest the bulk of our energy, money and attention. Our hopes and dreams.

We sacrifice other things to make sure these are, and remain, a central part of our life.

It might be your pet(s) or children or partner or your job.

It might be a passion project.

It could be competing in triathlons and beating your own personal record, time and again.

It might be setting up a charitable foundation, as several people I know have done.

It might — as several friends of mine are facing — be recovering, far more slowly than they’d hope, from surgery, illness or accident, losing hours and hours to maintaining or trying to regain their health and strength.

Sometimes life makes sure whatever we think is a priority…isn’t anymore.

Time to just sit still and enjoy the beauty all around us

I value making time to just sit still and enjoy the beauty around us

I think about this a lot because, like many of you, my life is filled with so many simultaneous things I hope to accomplish personally, professionally, intellectually, physically — from losing at least 30 pounds to publishing several more books.

So I make time to take a jazz dance class on Monday and Friday mornings which leaves my sweat in puddles on the floor and am finishing up my third book proposal, with a publisher already asking to see it.

I want my marriage (my second, 15 years in) to keep thriving, which means paying attention to my husband and his needs.

So we have both chosen to stay freelance (which means a sort of financial tapdance many can’t tolerate) so we can now sit and eat a mid-day meal at home together or travel much more often and widely because, as long as we have work and wi-fi, we can still earn a living.

A resort we love to visit...saving up for it means we make it a priority

A resort we love to visit…saving up for it means we make it a priority

I love to travel and am always planning the next journey, whether a road trip, a visit to a friend out-of-state or another flight across an ocean.

So I try to stay healthy enough to work hard, then take breaks. We nurture our relationships, so we have places to stay and friends to visit. We save money so we can afford flights, car rental, meals and lodging.

I want to make enough money to enjoy some real luxuries, whether beautiful new clothing, well-made accessories, regular massages.

Yet I also want to keep enough of a savings cushion I never have to fear poverty.

(That’s an ongoing conflict for me!)

I want to do work that deeply challenges me intellectually, no matter how much that can scare me.

What if I fail?

I now co-chair a volunteer board, The Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, (which sends a grant of up to $4,000 within a week or so to a needy writer who meets the criteria), so I’m testing and growing my leadership skills.

It’s already proving a real challenge to manage all the goals we’ve set for ourselves.

But which of all of these is most important and why?

How about you?
What matters most to you — and are you putting that first in your life right now?


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