Daedalus Howell on the importance of journalism
By David Templeton
“Happy New Year,” says Daedalus Howell, author and journalist, toasting with a glass of his favorite, delicious red wine. “I’ve really been looking forward to talking about Spotlight, ever since I first saw it in November.” Howell, a Petaluma native, has spent years in Hollywood (his IMDB profile is crammed with short films bearing unusual names), followed by a stint running a marketing media company in Sonoma, before resettling in his home town, where we are meeting now to talk about the acclaimed newspaper-themed movie—nominated for Best Film and a slew of other Oscars. It’s the true story of the Boston Globe’s elite team of investigative reporters, called Spotlight, and how they busted the Catholic Church for covering up hundreds of incidents of child abuse in Boston and beyond.
“It’s been a couple of months since I first saw Spotlight,” Howell says, “but it really had a huge and immediate impact on me—as a longtime journalist who’s been wondering for a while if the newspaper business is still all that relevant.”
It’s a question shared by the protagonist of Howell’s new novel, Quantum Deadline, which he’ll be reading from at Mill Valley’s Depot Bookstore and Cafe on Thursday, February 25, at 7pm. The hard-to-categorize novel, a kind of nourishing, comedic, satirical sci-fi mystery is about a disgraced newspaper journalist—also named Daedalus Howell—who encounters an adolescent thief from another universe and sets out on a mission to find the truth, save the boy from an evil technology kingpin, dodge the killers sent to stop him and possibly file the story before deadline.
“What appealed to me more than anything about Spotlight,” says Howell, “was the vibe of the movie. The idea that journalism is meaningful and can change lives for the better. That’s an idea I once had, but it’s an idea that’s been lost to me for some time. Spotlight, this movie about journalists doing journalism—making calls, knocking on doors, going through records, talking to people, whatever it takes to get the story—this movie brought that back to me front and center, and made me a believer again in the possibilities of journalism.
“It also highlighted the potential ridiculousness of my own career, which has mostly been arts and entertainment journalism,” he continues. “Yes, there have been some forays into hard news, but those experiences have been few and far between. As a consequence of this movie, it’s really inspired me to want to do something more significant.”
Howell pauses a moment, then laughs.
“But, you know, first I have to finish promoting my science-fiction novel about people from other dimensions,” he says, illustrating the struggle of artistic people who have crazy, creative ideas, and still want to do something that actually matters. “So, let’s drink to contradictions.”
“To contradictions,” I echo, lifting my glass.
Howell, of course, is not alone.
I too, a lifelong arts and entertainment writer, was forced to analyze the relative importance of covering film festivals, theatrical world premieres, book signings and puppet show adaptations of Shakespeare tragedies, when I might instead be rooting out corruption and forcing tearful confessions from guilty perpetrators.
“I think Spotlight has had that effect on every journalist,” Howell says. “I think it’s reminded us that, even in a world where most people would rather click on lists of which celebrities are using which skin product, there is still meaningful journalism, journalism of consequence, that is out there to do. And perhaps we should try to do better.
“Not to denigrate anything that any of our colleagues are doing, including you and me,” he goes on, “but there’s been a certain lack of deep diving in most of the journalism I see these days. I think that the powers that be have forgotten that that’s our job, to find those stories, and get those stories into the hands of our readers.”
“But is that what the readers want?” I ask.
Who, beside journalists and film critics, have really felt the inky excitement generated by director Tom McCarthy’s love letter to the hardworking reporters who, against all odds, battled intense opposition to tell the public about an unspeakable injustice? Spotlight, after all, has made just $32 million in 80 days, a mere fraction of what The Revenant—with it’s brutal bear attack and graphic horse disembowelments—has made in a third of that time. How much can people care about the future of good journalism if they didn’t even bother to see the best movie about the subject since All the President’s Men?
“It doesn’t matter,” Howell replies. “It’s OK if only journalists went to see Spotlight, because it’s those journalists who can then say something about it in public. They can be inspired to dig a little deeper, to not give into despair and to keep telling the stories that need to be told.
“Even if you and I are the only two people in the North Bay who saw that film,” he adds, “it’s OK, because at least we’re very ‘blabby.’ We talk a lot, and we have our fingers on the keyboards, so even if just a few people read us, the word will still get out there. And that word is not just, ‘Go see Spotlight, people!’
“The word is, ‘Demand more of your journalists! Demand more of the coverage you get from your newspapers or the website you get your news from. Yeah, print may be dead, or dying or in a coma.
“And journalism may be changing,” he says, “but it’s still alive. And it still matters. And it’s up to all of us to keep it that way.
“So let’s drink to that.”
Yeah. Let’s drink to that.