In the movie, as in life, the editor winging his way from Miami to Boston in 2001 was Marty Baron, whose leadership in the Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning articles exposing systemic sexual abuse within the Catholic church gives “Spotlight” its steadfast moral center. Played by Liev Schreiber with taciturn gravitas, Marty Baron never outshines the reporters whose professionalism and perseverance form the movie’s narrative engine. But as “Spotlight” made its journey from festivals to theaters in 2015, eventually earning the Oscar for the best picture of that year, there was no doubt that Marty was its real-life star.
This week, it was Marty getting caked — although, amid the pandemic, there were no Solo cups or dry, double-frosted confections. Our goodbyes were all the more painful for being relegated to a virtual gathering.
I call him “Marty” because, in the course of “Spotlight’s” release, I was lucky enough to get to know a man who had been something of an enigma since becoming The Washington Post’s executive editor two years before. He may not have been quite as buttoned-up as Schreiber played him, but I was still intimidated by a journalist who was already widely respected when he arrived. Soft-spoken and intensely focused, Marty didn’t strike me as the kind of editor who habitually roamed the open-plan hive of reporters’ desks, hiking up his khakis for an off-the-cuff chat. My form of communing with him was simply to do my job with the integrity, consistency and high standards he expected of the entire newsroom and modeled himself.
I was nervous when I saw “Spotlight” at its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. I was scheduled to meet Marty at a celebration after the screening. What if I hated it? What would I say? Luckily, that dilemma solved itself when the movie turned out to be brilliant.
As a connoisseur of journalism movies, I had cut my cinematic teeth (and began nursing my professional dreams) on such iconic movie editors as Cary Grant’s Walter Burns in “His Girl Friday,” Jason Robards’s Ben Bradlee in “All the President’s Men” and Keaton’s own Henry Hackett in “The Paper.” Unlike those films — two comedies, one a paranoid political thriller — “Spotlight” was a no-frills procedural, as direct and unfussy as Marty himself.
Seizing on my admiration for the film, the studio arranged for me to accompany Marty to “Spotlight” screenings in the Washington area, where we would conduct question-and-answer sessions with audiences who were thrilled to see the real “Spotlight” guy in person. Longtime Washington Post readers were grateful for his leadership in reinvigorating the newspaper’s storied legacy of investigative reporting and ambitious storytelling. Others simply wanted to know more about a famously private public figure. And those “others” included famous visitors to the newsroom — Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt among them — who asked for special dispensation to meet a bona fide American hero. (Remind me to tell you about the time I helped arrange a meeting with Amal Clooney shortly after we moved The Post’s current headquarters, and managed to get her completely lost on the way to the executive editor’s new office.)
Thanks to those trips and the subsequent encounters, I got to see the Marty that many of his friends thought was missing in the film: the Marty who is warm, funny, caring and eager to talk about what’s on his mind. He always got a laugh when asked about Schreiber’s unsmiling portrayal. “Many of my closest friends have said, ‘They don’t capture your sense of humor, your warmth,’” Marty would remark before adding with perfect deadpan timing: “It’s a small minority of people, by the way.”
But the Marty of “Spotlight” was true to an isolated and lonely time in his life, when he had just moved to a new — and notoriously tribal — city, almost immediately taking on one of its most revered institutions. “I was seen as an outsider, not a newcomer,” he once said with a wry smile. “There’s a difference.” By the time Marty left Boston a little more than a decade later, the outsider had become unusually admired for an eternal carpetbagger. The most affecting moment I witnessed on our two-person bus-and-truck tour of “Spotlight” was at the Middleburg Film Festival, when a couple who lived in Boston in 2001 approached Marty with tears in their eyes and thanked him for saving the soul of their city.
Marty accepted their praise with characteristic grace and seemed to settle into enjoying all the accolades as the months wore on. Still, “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy noted when we talked after the live-streamed going-away party, even as Marty “has softened a bit,” a part of his core has remained inviolable. “He’s very private,” McCarthy said. “I think it speaks a little bit to his philosophy of journalism and what’s important. As Marty says, it’s not about who’s right but what’s right. It’s never personal. And I think he lives that. He doesn’t just preach it.”
Coincidentally, McCarthy and “Spotlight” co-writer Josh Singer had arranged to visit the Globe on the day it became official that Marty would be leaving for Washington. Upon hearing the news, Robby Robinson reportedly reacted with a terse two-sentence analysis: “Bad day for the Globe. Good day for The Post.” When Marty received the Freedom of the Press Award from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in 2017 — largely in honor of his spine and tenacity in the face of Donald Trump’s relentless attacks on the media — Singer added: “Little did we know that not only was it a good day for The Post, it was a good day for all of us.”
This week, my Post colleagues and I know exactly what Robinson meant: On Thursday we gathered virtually to watch Marty’s colleagues, friends and fans pay tribute to a brave, principled and relentless journalist who is likely to be remembered as the greatest of our generation.
The “Spotlight” team showed up, including Schreiber, as did Hanks and “The Post” director Steven Spielberg. Marty delivered a brief but meaningful speech in which he expressed his daily mission with his usual economy: “To tell the truth as nearly as the truth can be ascertained” — an ethos that has only become more radical and courageous in the years since the movie came out.
Now freed of the grinding 24/7 news cycle and all of the personal and professional demands it entails, he was already more rested and relaxed. Bad day for The Post. Bad day for democracy. But a good day for the legend I was honored to work for, and even more honored to get to know.