Journalist Walter Robinson

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Walter Robinson is an investigative reporter and editor who led the Boston Globe’s report on the Roman Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal. That effort was recounted in the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight,” with Robinson portrayed by actor Michael Keaton. Robinson is a Donald W. Reynolds visiting professor in Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and will talk about his career and his role at ASU.

TED: Walter Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter and Editor who led "spotlight," the Boston Globe's investigative team that broke on the Roman Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in Boston. That reporting effort was the focus of the Oscar-winning film "Spotlight," with Robinson portrayed by actor Michael Keaton.

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ACTOR 1: We got law, this is it.

ACTOR (MICHAEL KEATON): No, this is the law covering for one priest. There's another 90 out there.

ACTOR 1: Yeah, and we'll print that when we get it, but we've got to go with this now.

ACTOR (MICHAEL KEATON): No I'm not going to rush this story Mike.

ACTOR 1: We don't have a choice, Robbie! If we don't rush to print, somebody else is going to find these letters and butcher the story. Joe Quimby from the Herald was at the courthouse!

ACTOR 2: Mike!

ACTOR 1: What, why are we hesitating? Ben told us to get law. This is law!

ACTOR (MICHAEL KEATON): Ben told us to get the system. We need the full scope. That's the only thing that will put an end to this.

ACTOR 1: Then let's take it up to ben and let him decide.

ACTOR (MICHAEL KEATON): We'll take it to ben when I say it's time.

ACTOR 1: It's time, Robbie. It's time!

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TED SIMONS: Joining us now is Robbie, Walter Robinson, a Donald W. Reynolds visiting professor at ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. I feel like I know you after watching that film. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.
WALTER ROBINSON: Delighted to be here.

TED: You're here to teach journalism at the Cronkite school.

WALTER: I am. I'm excited about it, it's a great, great institution and does so much to train students to actually do journalism.

TED: Well with that in mind, what was the big lesson of the Catholic clergy sex scandal? What was the journalistic lesson there?

WALTER: Well,here were several, but the preeminent one, in my mind, is that too often journalists let our most iconic institutions off the hook. We don't give them the same kind of scrutiny we give to politicians, and we actually owe it to them to hold them as accountable as we do other institutions and this was clearly a case where across the country, the church got away with -- you know, thousands and thousands of children abused over years, and nobody was the wiser.

TED: Is it a fear to hold these iconic institutions accountable? Is it just a natural aversion, what's going on here?

WALTER: I think in any community, we look up to certain institutions, we have expectations for them--certainly the Catholic church. But, you know, art museums… we don't subject them to the same kind of scrutiny. We forget sometimes that they're like all institutions: they're run by fallible human beings and if we want them to meet our expectations, we need to give them extra scrutiny.

TED: Were you hesitant at all? Either cognizant of it or looking back afterwards, were you hesitant to take on the church?

WALTER: Not at all. As soon as we got the assignment and as soon as we talked to the first victim, I think we were angry at what we found out. And it really drove us to get the story and to get it in--it was five months' time, between the time we were assigned that story and the time we began to publish. And our concern over what had happened, as we learned more and more, really drove us to the finish line.

TED: Did the Spotlight team make mistakes along the way?

WALTER: We make mistakes every day. A lot of our mistakes, fortunately, are made before publication and we catch them… but we go down a lot of cul-de-sacs, and in the film, it's pretty accurately portrayed. We thought the story was "a", but it was really "b", but it was kind of "b squared." We started out with one priest, and when we got to 13 we thought that that was the mother-of-all stories. And it turned out to be, by the time we published, it was over 90 and eventually 250 priests in Boston.

TED: So many of those priests, so many victims--I think the last scene in the film, which I think shows just how many people were affected by this. How does -- and your paper had this story years earlier, buried in the metro section.

WALTER: Yes.

TED: How does this go on and it just goes on?

WALTER: Well, you know, the news business is kind of a messy endeavor, every day. An average big city newspaper, there are hundreds of story ideas that come in over the transom, by phone and by fax, and we miss them. Inevitably we all miss stories. And one thing that every archdiocese in the United States had in common, is that it had a major newspaper within a few miles, so there were clues missed pretty much everywhere.

We missed them in Boston, other cities, this was an international criminal conspiracy. I hate to be so blunt, but it was. Where the church was engaged in the cover up -- they were covering up the crimes of thousands of priests and enabling the behavior to continue. And it went pretty much unnoticed for years.

TED: What's the aftermath now? The Roman Catholic church in Boston, changed?

WALTER: Things in Boston have changed a lot. There was more accountability there than probably anywhere. The Catholic Church in America, most dioceses have implemented strict new rules that -- to screen out bad actors before they become priests. To train caregivers and adults and children to be on the lookout.

I think the incidence of abuse of children by priests has gone way down and that's a really good thing. Outside of the United States, not so much progress. Many countries where priests abuse children are still moved from one parish to another.

TED: The film: after your first saw it, what were your thoughts?

WALTER: Well, it was a very emotional experience for us, we all saw it-- it was a year ago at the Toronto Film Festival and we were in this theater with 2500 other people, mostly film buffs, and we were blown away by the film and how authentic it was and how it captured the actual work we had done.

And the film ended and… look, first of all, we never thought the film would be made. And there was a series of coincidences which it -- coincidences without which it would never have been made. And then we thought, well, it would play at the art house and then disappear. Well, the film opened in Toronto and the audience began an ovation, it went through all the credits, and then the director brought the cast on stage and the ovation continued. And then they brought the real journalists on stage and it became a standing ovation, and all of a sudden we realized, maybe people will want to see this film.

TED: Did you see Michael Keaton - I mean I've got to tell you, from the photos of you back in the day, he kind of looks a little bit like you, hair the same and skin color and everything the same… did you see yourself in Michael Keaton's performance?

WALTER: Oh, yeah. I mean, well, these actors seldom get to become real people, so they dogged us. Michael became my BFF. But really, a lot of that was getting to know me, learning my speech and my gestures and all of that stuff. I'm convinced to this day, that if he robbed a bank, the police would arrest me.

TED: So they got it right. And did they get the little things right?

WALTER: They got the little things right. The director, Tom McCarthy and the screenwriter, Josh Singer, who co-wrote the screenplay spent weeks and weeks with us. And every little detail--I'll give you an example. Rachel McAdams played Sasha Pfeiffer. And they spent a lot of time together. When they would go out for a walk, Sasha noticed that Rachel was sort of holding back. And so she finally asked her-- Rachel said, well, I was trying to learn your gait so I can walk like you. I mean, that's the kind of care and attention -- they're great actors.

TED: This has been described as the last great newspaper film. What do you think about that?

WALTER: Well I'd like to think there will be others, but realistically, how much longer are we going to have newspapers that are actually printed and delivered eight or 10 hours after the events they report happen? I don't think it will be the last great journalism movie.

TED: Well and that's a good point, it's not going to be the last great, perhaps, investigative reporting movie.

WALTER: No, and we all hope that one thing this film does is spur discussion among journalists about the importance of investigative reporting, about holding powerful institutions and people accountable.

TED: Is that a discussion that needs to happen?

WALTER: Oh, yes, because many papers have cut back on investigative reporting, even though when you ask readers what they consider most important, that's what they consider most important.

TED: And that's not an easy business. You had a team there, a team that, as you said, spent five months on this one individual project. I mean, you have to commit. You have to spend resources.

WALTER: It costs money. But in the long run, when you look at a story like this--and there are lots of great investigative work that's still being done--these are the stories that change things in society. These are the -- this is how we address iniquities in our society. By good, strong, powerful journalism.

TED: Well, congratulations on all of your success and a great career. Welcome to the Cronkite School, I'm sure you'll do good work here as well.

WALTER: I hope so. Thank you.

TED: And that's it for now, I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening!

Walter Robinson, investigative reporter and editor & Donald W. Reynolds visiting professor at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication

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