Last-Year's Oscar-Winner “Spotlight”: Are We Fooled by the Facts?

Posted on 03-04-2016 by
Tags: writinglegally , attorney movies , top law movies , good lawyer movies , Oscars , movies , legal films , Top Stories

As lawyers, we work in facts, but that doesn’t mean we’re “factual”; i.e., “concerned with what is actually the case rather than interpretations of or reactions to it.” Like everyone else, our blind spot bends to story.

Facts get slathered with storytelling, and most of us gorge ourselves on the goo. Once we’re stuffed, our story-fied heads are just too bloated for the facts.

I try (let me stress … I try) to live by 2 quotes when it comes to the facts:

“Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.” - Bertrand Russell

“The number of those who undergo the fatigue of judging for themselves is very small indeed.” - Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Despite my best intentions, I’m typically fact-blind. I’m a dead-man thinking (Russell) or just plain lazy (Sheridan). Story does the thinking for me. Consider last year’s Best Picture, Spotlight.   

A Slave to Cinema?

Spotlight was my favorite Oscar nominee. It’s a hammer-over-the-head story; the dogged investigation, the cover-ups, the cronyism, the power of good gone bad. I loved it so much I wanted the Pulitzer Prize winning book that inspired it, Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church.

But when I went to buy the book, here’s what Amazon also recommended: Sins of the Press: The Untold Story of The Boston Globe's Reporting on Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church.[1] This is Spotlight’s flip-side … another view of the facts. It gave me pause … Russell and Sheridan-type pause:

What are the true facts behind Spotlight?

For the most part, I believe the Spotlight story. But that’s the problem, I believe the story … as it’s been shaped and told to me. Spotlight the movie sits in front of the facts like a mask in front of a face … it has the form of the facts but not necessarily the true facts.  Regardless of how I succumb to the movie,  Russell/Sheridan demand I do more thinking, more judging. For the sake of the facts, I should venture to the flip-side.[2]

Spotlighting the Bernie Facts

And the same might be said of our recent presidential candidates. For example, Bernie Sanders. In describing Sanders’ economic plan, economics professor Gerald Friedman gushed that:

… median household income would be $82,200 by 2026, far higher than the $59,300 projected by the Congressional Budget Office.

In addition, poverty would plummet to a record low 6% …. The U.S. economy would grow by 5.3% per year, instead of 2.1%, and the nation's $1.3 trillion deficit would turn into a large surplus by Sanders' second term.

If you were a Sanders’ fan,[3] you stopped there. You walked out of the theater, thinking you'd seen the whole movie. Like Spotlight, you were willing to accept the facts as framed.

You’d sooner die than think.

You ran from the fatigue of judging for yourself.

Whether Friedman was right or not, there was a flip-side to his facts. On the flip-side, some left-leaning economists said that Sanders’ numbers didn't add up, pointing to increases in government size and spending.  Austan Goolsbee, formerly chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, went so far as to say that Sanders’ agenda had:

… evolved into magic flying puppies with winning Lotto tickets tied to their collars.

An indictment against Sanders? To a degree, it was, but the counter-facts are always an indictment against something or someone. Everyone suffers from counter-facts … Clinton did, Trump did, Rubio did, etc. What’s important is that you’re willing to pursue the counter facts, to think instead of die, to judge instead of yield.

The Law & The Facts

As I said, lawyers work in facts. One of the first things I learned in law school was how to brief a case, “the facts” included.[4] But lately, when it comes to the law, I’ve noticed that the facts are often somebody else’s facts.

· In Netflix’s “Making a Murderer”, the facts of the crime are the facts as told by the storytellers.

· With the passing of Justice Scalia, Scalia’s character descended into a debate, sometimes without any factual digging into his legal opinions.

We need a better grasp of the facts – not just as lawyers but as human beings too. The lesson is twofold:

· First, if you control the story (the movie, if you will), you control the facts; and

· Second, if your default is to seek out counter-facts, you can’t be controlled by the story.

Admittedly, this is all a bunch of wind. Storytelling will blind us again and again, despite what I say, no matter our defenses.

Which is why it bears repeating, over and over again:

“Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.” - Bertrand Russell

“The number of those who undergo the fatigue of judging for themselves is very small indeed.” - Richard Brinsley Sheridan

[1] A Vatican-owned newspaper recently said that Spotlight "is not anti-Catholic, as has been written."

[2] The flip-side, of course, has an agenda in telling an opposing story, but all storytelling has an agenda, even Spotlight.

[3] I’m not picking on Sanders. I once said that in my opinion, all the candidates were uninspiring, and because of this, my right not to vote was an option.

[4] I.R.A.C. be damned (the acronym doesn’t have an “F” for “facts”). 

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