Monday, March 3, 2014

Our View: Why the News
Media Got It Wrong

The press has been proven wrong, again. As it turned out, plenty of Academy members watched and approved of “12 Years a Slave.” It won three Oscars in significant categories: picture, screenplay, supporting actress. That it was nominated in nine categories altogether might have told journalists something about the diligence and sober preferences of Oscar voters. It didn’t, and it’s easy to see why.

Until last night you would have thought that Academy members were a bunch of blockheads, Neanderthals whose taste resides in their knuckles. That’s what you would have taken away from reading the endless tide of criticism over the past few months aimed squarely (and unjustly) at the dullards who make up the Motion Picture Academy. This is how it works: A handful of journalists from a few major newspapers and a couple of industry-focused web sites talk to a trickle of Academy members. One reporter admitted that his sources number a scant 25 individuals.

It’s safe to say that other journalists might have a similar number of sources. But what if a particular columnist talks to 50, 100, or even 500 members? It’s certainly not going to be a representative demographic sampling of the Academy. There’s nothing scientific about it. Are one-third of the 25 (or 50) actors? How many members of the sound, costume, or art directors branches do reporters talk to each year?

The motivation of their sources is another consideration. Academy watchers in the press talk to their same group of carefully cultivated sources each year. It’s a co-dependent relationship. The sources have to be provocative or they will get dropped. They will lose favor with those journalists on whom they rely for career support. Reporters need people to stir the Oscar pot. It gives them something to write about for many months each year. Who wants to read stories about Academy voters who are analytical and thoughtful, who pay close attention to all of the films, who evaluate Cate Blanchett’s work on its own merits? There’s no percentage in that.

On the day after the Academy Awards, the Los Angeles Times ran this headline, “The academy gets it right.” What the newspaper didn’t bother to add was, “And we got it wrong.” You’ll never see that because they don’t believe the speculation that passes for reporting is anything but solid journalism. It’s only academy members who deserve to have their knuckles rapped with a steel ruler.

There will be plenty more of that next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. You can count on it. The news media are not going to change their ways. They cannot survive if they do. Like the movie business, it’s a living, after all.

Note: This is the final day of this blog for this year. Almost like Brigadoon, we'll be back for one week each year. Watch for us next February.

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