‘We report the truth as much as fairly and fully as we possibly can’

Walter-V-RobinsonWalter V Robinson is a Pulitzer prize-winning investigative journalist for The Boston Globe, where he has been working as a reporter and editor for the past 44 years. Robinson, currently the Editor at Large at the Globe, also led the Spotlight investigative team, whose reports around 2002 on the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, gained them the Pulitzer Prize, the following year. The movie was recently developed into a Hollywood movie, which also won an Oscar. 

Muktadir Rashid of New Age had the exclusive opportunity to sit down with this experienced journalist during the Second Asian Investigative Journalism Conference in Kathmundu recently 

How did you feel when Michael Keaton played you in the movie ‘Spotlight’?
Well, they picked the only actor in Hollywood who has less hair than me. I felt very good because he is a great actor. You know, he once played a metro editor of a big newspaper in the movie called ‘The Paper’ (1994). It’s a great movie; you should see it. When he did that in the 1990s, I was the metro editor at the Globe. So when they said he was going to do the movie, I said this is great. He is one of the best actors in the US. It worked out pretty good.

How much of his portrayal of you was accurate?
He was very faithful to what had really happened. I mean the film [Spotlight] was very authentic in [portraying] the ways in which journalists stumble around, argue among themselves and take forever to find stuff out. So the actors, they all spent a lot of time with us to get to know how we talk, how our eyebrows go up and down, how we do this and that. And they had lots of questions about journalism like when you take a notebook out, when you do an interview etc. They wanted to know all the nitty-gritty because they really loved the story and they wanted to get it right. So that was good.

When did you join the Globe?
I was first hired by the Globe as a college intern reporter. But I believe my history with journalism had begun when I was 11 years old. Every morning around five, I used to get on my bicycle and paddle three blocks, where under the street lamp there was usually a bundle of newspaper for me to deliver.
The first thing that I did every morning, and even during winter, is to read the paper before dropping them off at the doorstep of the subscribers.
I read the morning paper with wonder because it empowered me. At the age of 11, I was the first person in my community who knew the news. Back then, I began to dream…I still wake up every day, eager to be the first person to find out what is happening

How far do you think investigative journalism has progressed in the global sphere?
Actually I am partly here [the Asian Investigative Journalism Conference] to learn about the global sphere. Because my investigative reporting mostly was confined to the US. I did some reporting in Europe in the 1990s, but it was not much. I think what we heard here [the conference] is an example of what is possible. And what is possible is one way for journalists in many countries where it’s difficult to do investigative reporting. And to be able to do what we all want to do and that is to hold powerful institutions accountable.
So I am very heartened by how most reporters will be and hopeful for the future.

Unlike the Western and developed countries, documents and other information are not easily accessible by the investigative journalist in South Asian countries. How do you think the journalist in these countries can tackle such problems?
I think, the biggest obstacle many journalists face in United States and here is our editors. Because, very often, the editors want to say ‘Wait a minute. I do not think we should do that.’ I mean that happens in the US for various reasons. But maybe in Bangladesh or China or Pakistan, the question is always that is it dangerous for us to do this. And, that is a different kind of question.
So to me, when you have that kind of resistance, the best way forward is to chip away. Because what’s in front of us is a big block of granite and we all have a chisel. We just chip away a little bit at a time, until we get what we need. Sometimes, we can’t go so far but its sometimes two steps forward and one step back….It’s difficult. It’s difficult to get institutions to be accountable.
In US, all we can do is to write an angry letter to the editor. So, we [the West and the developing countries] do not have the same problems. At the same time, reporters in US, we do not appreciate the freedom we have. So, someday we may have the free, but not the press. You know we may have freedom to do investigative reporting but we may no reporter to do it. Because, our public, the American public, I should say, is not serious about serious news. It’s a big problem for United States.

Investigative journalism takes a lot of patience and courage. As such, what kind of mindset should any investigative journalist have?
As journalists, we all get up every morning and find out what is going on. And, we are not satisfied with the official version and we want to get the truth. So, that is what we do: We report the truth as much as fairly and fully as we possibly can. And, that’s what makes us gratified and that’s what makes what we do important. It’s difficult particularly when the government gets in our way. But I think a lot of people in every government believe the truth should be known.