Why Walter “Robby” Robinson Gets My Oscar Vote in the Movie Spotlight

By Jack Limpert

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Michael Keaton with Spotlight editor Walter Robinson.

When the Academy Awards are presented on February 28, two of the actors in the movie Spotlight could win Oscars: Mark Ruffalo, who played Michael Rezendes as a slightly crazed Boston Globe reporter, and Rachel McAdams, who played Sacha Pfeiffer, another high-energy Globe reporter and the only woman with a real part in a movie. Left out of the Oscars were Michael Keaton, who played Walter Robinson, editor of the Spotlight team, and Liev Schreiber, who played Marty Baron, then the editor of the Boston Globe.

If journalists were giving Oscars to the Spotlight cast, I’d say Michael Keaton as Walter “Robby” Robinson should edge out Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron.

Schreiber as Marty Baron was tough in the same way that Jason Robards was memorable as Ben Bradlee in All the President’s Men, the 1974 movie that was as good about how real journalism gets done as Spotlight was in 2015. Robards won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Baron played a crucial role in publishing the stories about the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. He was the outsider—from the Miami Herald—who came in after the stories were under way; he pushed the reporting from just stories on individual priests into an attack on the system, holding Cardinal Law and the Catholic church responsible for the abuse by the priests. He really was an outsider—he was Jewish, he was unmarried. That last comment about Baron was left hanging in the movie—you’d have to guess that in Boston in 2002 the attacks on Baron went beyond his being single and in his 40s.

Baron was the tough outsider not interested in being pals with anyone in Boston.

Robinson was a Boston lifer. He’d gone to school and church with members of the Boston establishment. On a personal level, he paid a higher price than Baron for publishing the stories. He played golf with and hung out with the people who didn’t want the abuse story blown up into a full-scale attack on the Catholic church. Baron could stand aside, Robinson lived with these people.

As journalists, both Baron and Robinson were terrific. But for any editor or reporter who has had to live with the pressures of being a local journalist, I’d give Robinson the edge.
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The role that the publisher of the Globe played in giving a reluctant okay to publishing the stories was left ambiguous in a brief scene with Baron. By 2002, the Globe had been owned by the New York Times Company for almost 10 years. If the Globe in 2002 had still been owned locally, would the owner-publisher have been willing to attack the Cardinal and the Catholic church the way Baron and the Globe did?

The role of Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) as deputy managing editor in charge of the Spotlight team also seemed unclear. With his father, Watergate, and All the President’s Men in the background, Ben Jr. seemed overshadowed by Baron, Robinson, and the Spotlight reporters. He left the Globe in 2004 to write a book about Ted Williams.

As a longtime editor, I have nothing but admiration for Baron, Robinson, and the other journalists who did the stories that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and inspired the movie. I was never in their journalistic league but as an editor, at both newspapers and the Washingtonian, I saw and felt the pressure “to do what’s best for the city” and “to do what’s best for our publication.”

When I was with UPI in the 1960s, I got to know the local publisher-owner of a lot of newspapers in Illinois and Michigan. They belonged to the Rotary Club with the rest of the city’s leaders and I think few of them would have done what Baron and the Globe did.

Would the publisher of a paper owned by Gannett or one of the other big chains have done what Baron, Robinson, and the Boston Globe did?

Finally, what the Globe did in taking on the establishment and the Catholic church echoed what a lot of good editors and reporters did in covering civil rights in the 1960s. From big papers like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to a small weekly paper in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, editors and reporters were courageous in covering the civil rights movement in their local communities despite pressures to stop rocking the boat so much. (The owner-publisher of that weekly paper in Rolling Fork was the father of Ken DeCell, for many years an editor at the Washingtonian.)

Comments

  1. You don’t have to imagine it; Boston conservatives and gossips really *did* try to wage a homophobic rumor campaign against Baron. There was one anti-gay marriage blog in particular that was obsessed with the idea that the Globe was run by a secret gay cabal, and Baron was one of their public targets. He could have been dating Christie Brinkley and people still would have attacked him for being such a big fan of the arts. For such a liberal state, Massachusetts can be very hostile at times.

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