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Arts & Life

Robinson's 'Boston Globe' Reporting Figures Into 2 Movies


The Boston Globe's Walter Robinson is the emotional core of the new movie "Spotlight," which celebrates a real team of investigative reporters. Robinson also stands just off camera from the events depicted in a second new film, "Truth." The events portrayed in that film cost Dan Rather his job. NPR's David Folkenflik went to Boston to explore one reporter's role in two very different stories.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: In the lobby of The Boston Globe, visitors will find a plaque stating the mission of Capt. Charles Taylor, considered the paper's founder.

WALTER ROBINSON: (Reading) My temperament has always led me to dwell on the virtues of men and institutions rather than upon their faults and limitations. My disposition has always been to build up rather than to join in tearing down.

FOLKENFLIK: That voice you hear there belongs to Walter Robinson, one of the Globe's leading investigative journalists. And let me just say, he thinks the world has changed a lot since that was written in the 1870s.

ROBINSON: All of us here have a role to produce a newspaper that informs the public and that especially holds institutions and people in power accountable for their actions because, very often, no one else will.

FOLKENFLIK: The new film "Spotlight" carries the name of the investigative team of The Boston Globe as it went up against perhaps the most powerful institution in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Catholic church.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You know, people need the church more than ever right now. You know, you can feel it.

FOLKENFLIK: That's from the movie "Spotlight," a scene in which an advisor to then-Boston Cardinal Bernard Law tries to convince Robinson that the paper's being led astray by a new editor from out of town. Robinson, a lapsed Catholic, is played by Michael Keaton.


MICHAEL KEATON: (As Walter Robinson) This is how it happens, isn't it, Pete?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What's that?

KEATON: (As Walter Robinson) Guy leans on a guy, and suddenly the whole town just looks the other way.

FOLKENFLIK: Former parishioners had sued a priest, accusing him of abusing them as children. The reporters soon found the priest represented not a bad apple, but a blighted orchard. Again, the real Walter Robinson.

ROBINSON: By the end of our first 5 months of reporting, when we started to publish, we had documented that the church had secretly settled cases involving 70 priests. The lawyers involved called it hush money.

FOLKENFLIK: A local story, painstakingly chronicled, transcended borders, leading to Cardinal Law's departure, changes in the American Catholic Church and affecting the Vatican, as well. The Globe had feared protests. Instead, it brought a flood of calls from other victims.

ROBINSON: And a year-and-a-half later, when the tally was finally in in the Boston archdiocese, 250 priests had been credibly accused of abusing children over five decades.

FOLKENFLIK: Robinson's reports also haunt the movie "Truth." Weeks before the hotly contested 2004 elections, then-CBS anchor Dan Rather and investigative producer Mary Mapes reported that a powerful Texas politician had pulled strings to help a young George W. Bush avoid going to Vietnam. They also reported Bush had received preferential treatment in the Texas Air National Guard. In "Truth," Rather and Mapes received the full Hollywood gloss, played with affection by Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett.


ROBERT REDFORD: (As Dan Rather) What are the chances you have something alcoholic in there?

CATE BLANCHETT: (As Mary Mapes) Better than average.

FOLKENFLIK: CBS relied heavily on documents that bloggers and other critics picked apart. The network ultimately conceded it could not authenticate them.


REDFORD: (As Dan Rather) CBS wants to appoint an independent panel to take a look at how the story is put together, and I'm going to announce it tomorrow. (Laughter). I've got to apologize for the story on air.

FOLKENFLIK: Long gone from CBS, the real Rather stands his ground. This from a recent interview with Alec Baldwin on New York Public Radio's "Here's The Thing."


DAN RATHER: This is the salient point - our story was true. A successful attack was launched on us. They couldn't attack the facts. They couldn't attack the truth of the story. So they attacked the process by which we arrived at the truth.

FOLKENFLIK: And that brings us back to Walter Robinson. The future Globe reporter served in Vietnam as a captain in U.S. Army intelligence, and he broke stories in both 2000 and 2004 about Bush's failure to fulfill his military obligations during the war in ways that might have gotten other young men shipped off to the front. Robinson says Rather's stance is indefensible.

ROBINSON: They ended up discrediting everybody else's reporting.

FOLKENFLIK: Robinson says CBS's failings put the issue of the president's service out of reach, despite the Iraq war.

ROBINSON: They had an absolute obligation to make sure those documents were authentic. They did not. Even by their own admission, they didn't meet that standard, and they went on the air with it anyway.

FOLKENFLIK: Go hard. Ask the tough questions. Test what you get. Get it right. Be fair. And then, hit hard. Robinson says the formula for good reporting is simple enough, but as the real-life events that inspired these movies demonstrate, still hard to do well. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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