Kill the Carpetbagger

The case against the New York Times’ saturation Oscar coverage.

Read more of Slate’s Oscars coverage.

David Carr

Do you know that the Academy Awards will be given out on Feb. 22? Of course you do! You can’t open a newspaper or magazine these days—or click onto a culture-news Web site—without being bombarded by Oscar coverage. A Nexis database search turns up, in the New York Times, 251 mentions of the phrase Academy Awards or the word Oscars since Jan. 1. That’s more mentions in the Times than for the words Pakistan (186), Geithner (169), foreclosure (142), or Blagojevich (66). In 2008, Academy Awards or Oscars appeared in the Times no fewer than 1,383 times. That was down slightly from 2007 (1,455 times), but in general the trend has been upward: 1,259 mentions in 2003, 1,282 mentions in 2004, 1,327 mentions in 2005, 1,341 mentions in 2006. As recently as 1995, there were only 810.

While Times Oscar coverage has been trending upward, the American public’s interest in the Academy Awards, as measured by Nielsen ratings, has mostly been trending downward: 20.4 percent of U.S. households watched in 2003 (when interest was said to be dampened by the start of the Iraq war), 26 percent watched in 2004, 25.4 percent in 2005, 22.9 percent in 2006, 23 percent in 2007, and a truly dismal 17.9 percent in 2008. The 2008 Oscar ratings were the lowest ever recorded. Thirty-two million Americans watched, compared with the peak Oscar audience of 55 million in 1998. Anticipating lousy ratings again this year, ABC has dropped its ad rate for a 30-second commercial from $1.7 million to $1.4 million and has persuaded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to lift its previous (and somewhat fastidious) ban against movie advertising during the broadcast.

You might argue that the Oscars’ ratings decline merely reflects the shrinking of network audience share during the past decade, a trend typically attributed to the proliferation of cable channels. But Nielsen ratings for the Super Bowl, the other annual event that traditionally has drawn a huge TV audience, have mostly nosed upward during the same period: 40.7 of U.S. households watched in 2003, 41.4 percent watched in 2004, 41.1 percent in 2005, 41.6 percent in 2006, 42.6 percent in 2007, 43.1 percent in 2008, and 42 percent earlier this month. You might argue that the Oscars’ declining number of viewers merely shows that the TV audience is migrating to the Internet. But Nielsen declared the 2009 Super Bowl the “most watched Super Bowl game ever,” drawing an audience of 98.7 million TV viewers. That’s more than three times as many people as watched last year’s Oscars. (I’m counting only the U.S. audience because there’s no reliable way to calculate either audience share or the absolute number of TV viewers worldwide; the frequent claim that the Super Bowl and the Oscars draw a worldwide audience of 1 billion or more is pure invention.) And, anyway, the Internet audience is losing interest in the Oscars, too. According to Nielsen, Web traffic to Oscar-related sites on the day after the 2008 Academy Awards was down 26 percent compared with the previous year.

In light of these data, New York Times, hear my plea: Free David Carr!

Carr’s weekly column in the Times business section, “The Media Equation,” is one of the most reliably interesting features in the paper. His 2008 book, The Night of the Gun, was one of the most gripping memoirs that I’ve ever read. But Carr’s seasonal print column, blog, and video blog about the Oscars, all called “The Carpetbagger,” constitute a steady stream of drivel unworthy of either Carr or the Times. Perhaps some of the fault lies with Carr—I’m told Tom O’Neill’s “The Envelope” in the Los Angeles Times dishes better gossip—but the underlying problem is the topic, about which not much of interest can be said. I speak as a lifelong movie buff who watches the Oscars nearly every year, forgets who won within 24 hours, and doesn’t think about them again until I watch the next year’s broadcast. (I exhausted my professional interest in Oscar kibitzing with this 2001 column about the Academy Awards’ left-wing nominating process.)

Pick a “Carpetbagger” entry, any entry. A Feb. 18 blog item makes fun of Mickey Rourke’s clothes. A Feb. 12 print column (“In Praise of Long-Shot Oscar Nominees”) informs us that “when some people say they are thrilled just to be nominated, they really mean it” and advises, “we should be thrilled along with them.” A Jan. 29 print column (“Riveting Tales for Dark Days”) takes a more self-mocking tack: “Yes, amid the relentless reports of layoffs and bailouts, recession and war, I’m going deep on whether there is a serious race for best actor between Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke.” The video blog at least demonstrates that Carr is endlessly game—with his raspy voice, goofy appearance, and high enthusiasm, he plays the quirky naif, a wide-eyed persona intriguingly at odds with what readers of The Night of the Gun learned about his darker past. I would guess that Carr has always projected some version of this guileless self in practicing his reportorial craft. I would also guess that in other contexts, he doesn’t come across as a sycophant and a fool. Watch Carr snowboard his very first time (whoops!) with Woody Harrelson while attending Sundance! Check out those zany New Year’s Eve sunglasses as Carr interviews moviegoers in Times Square! Um, how is this any different from the crap on the E! channel?

I don’t wish to belabor the point. Carr is an excellent journalist who’s apparently too star-struck, or good-natured, or spooked by the newspaper economy to decline this dog of an assignment. Maybe Americans really are more interested in endless Oscar handicapping than they are in contemplating a possible Islamist regime with a nuclear bomb, or the treasury secretary’s attempts to solve the banking crisis, or the unaffordable mortgages that might tip the U.S. economy into a full-fledged Depression. (If they’re sick of Rod Blagojevich, I’m not sure I can blame them.) Me, I’d rather go to the movies.

[Update, Feb. 19: Carr replies that he’s “always thought of his part-time Oscar gig as a way to crack wise and go all smarty pants without constantly making all those ugly phone calls that real reporting entails. Sort of like working at Slate.” To read his entire blog entry, click here.]