The Prize Professions

The Academy Awards are always enormous fun for the media, a rare chance to snigger and sneer—our favorite pastimes!—with absolute impunity. After all, who is more deserving of our derision than a bunch of powerful, ego-mad people who are convinced they do work that really matters, and so obsessed with winning awards for their heroic efforts that it sometimes seems they think of nothing else?

This year was an unusually rich one for Oscar-jeering, because in addition to the usual run of mordant scene pieces from the after-parties (wherein the reporter pretends to be a humble worm in the presence of actual movie stars, only to savage the stars' every move), brutal fashion commentary (what was Gwyneth thinking, girl?), and shock-horror television-ratings stories ("Oscar's 4 1/2-Hour Marathon Yields Lowest Ratings Ever," proclaimed USA Today), there was some authentic, prize-grubbing ugliness for media people to observe and savor.

For more than a month before Oscars night, the entertainment pages were full of allegations that Miramax, which produced In the Bedroom, had run a smear campaign against another leading contender for (and, ultimately, the winner of) the Best Picture Oscar, A Beautiful Mind. Allegations of hidden anti-Semitism and homophobia figured prominently in this very nasty, very tasty little subplot.

On Tuesday of this week, the Los Angeles Times ran a glitzy Oscar feature story. Right next to it at the top of the Style page was a movie-industry column by Patrick Goldstein (who, from the start, did some of the best work on the smear story) under the reformist headline, "Sifting Through the Mud for a Better Way."

Even the news that two black actors, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry, walked away with the top acting honors for the first time in Oscar history didn't dampen our enthusiasm for the sordid backstory, which seemed to confirm everyone's suspicion that those Hollywood vermin will stoop as low as they need to stoop in order to win a prize.

A New York Times story that was ostensibly about Washington's and Berry's victories took a curious turn at the beginning of the fifth paragraph: "This sense of joy and emotional uplift that greeted the wins by Mr. Washington and Ms. Berry was particularly welcome, coming as it did at the end of what many felt was one of the most competitive and negative Oscar races in recent memory." Further down, the story noted: "When asked whether the negative tone and lavish spending of the recent Oscar race might prompt some reforms in the process, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the founder of DreamWorks, said it was too soon to bring up such issues. He did predict that at some point fairly soon the major studios would get together and agree to a voluntary code of ethics to forestall some of the cutthroat tactics and negative campaigning that he said characterized this year's contest."

It's wonderful to see journalists covering the film industry's greedy, grasping underside, a story that has always deserved more coverage than it got. But there's also something comic about journalists running around horrified by an industry that increasingly seems to revolve around the pursuit of valuable prizes. Because there's another industry with a similar problem: ours.

In a week or so, the winners of this year's Pulitzer Prizes will be announced. Judging from the demure coverage the story receives—winning outlets will be careful about how much front-page space they devote to their own triumphs—the untutored reader might think that the Pulitzers occupy a pretty small part of the collective psyche of the media tribe.

Hah. When it comes to fixation on ego-stroking prizes, journalists take a backseat to no one, not even the Hollywood monsters we have such fun lampooning every year. In fact, there are striking similarities between the Oscars and the various awards that we journalists chase. Both are given for work that is performed in a very public way, and that doesn't necessarily need additional attention or validation. A reporter whose work was published in The New York Times is not in the same position as the academic scientist or the obscure poet who hopes a prize will bring his or her work to a broader audience. Both kinds of awards bring the winner more-tangible benefits than the prizes themselves would suggest: Like actors, journalists can see a nice boost to their market value after taking home a prize. And both have given rise to an unfortunate culture of prize-mongering, award-politicking, and formula thinking. Those endless, multipart newspaper series sometimes called Pulitzer Bait are the media analogue of the bombastic tearjerkers that always seem to win Oscars.

In one way, the Oscar race is less unseemly than the media's breathless, yearlong pursuit of prizes: At least it's no secret. Movie studios brazenly run ads promoting their candidates and are open about their lust for Oscars. Journalists do their jockeying mostly in the shadows. This year, when a Wall Street Journal writer used an op-ed column to flay a Pulitzer contender from The Seattle Times, many newspeople thought it was bad form, although such trashings happen in private all the time.

Because journalists are human beings like everyone else—frail, starved for approval—we're unlikely to give up our desire for prizes any time soon. So maybe the answer is not to be less like Hollywood people, but more. Open up our own prize culture, and admit how much we care. In that spirit, here's a confession: I got the idea for this column one day last week, when the media was doing its usual Oscar run-up, and I spent the better part of the afternoon on my latest application for a prize. There's not room here to share all the superlatives I used to describe my work. Let's just say I make Russell Crowe look like a modest, self-effacing fellow.