Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Neigh sayers

It was only about two hours after the end of the Golden Globes ceremony when I got a jarring reminder that the horse race was again in full gallop. My clock radio sprang into life and some Irish news reader person announced that the big winners were Brokeback Mountain and Walk the Line. Then I held my breath and waited for the next bit. I knew it was coming. I could mouth the words along with the RTÉ drone: “The Golden Globes are a frequent indicator of the Academy Awards.” There, I didn’t have to wait long at all.

That is a phrase that gets inserted into almost every broadcast headline summary of the Golden Globes, with no qualification or justification, as if the news reader were just adding a note, “And, incidentally, the sky is blue.” It’s almost like an embarrassed attempt to justify why a public broadcaster is wasting any valuable air time at all talking about the Golden Globes, i.e. this is important because it gives us an inside track into who might win the awards that really do matter.

I didn’t write about the Golden Globes last week, partly because it might have been a hypocritical since I more or less trashed these awards and the group voting on them (I seem to recall referring to them as “whores”) thirteen months ago, but mostly because I thought it was more important to talk about Shelley Winters. As it happens, I only saw about half the program anyway. Which half? Well, the good half. Which one was that? Well, it’s complicated. You see, I had a choice of two delayed broadcasts to watch, the 90-minute one and the three-hour one. I chose the 90-minute one because 1) it was available sooner and 2) it was shorter. In the abridged version, somebody just chopped out the bits they thought were boring and, presto, half the program was gone. Watching this version was a bit like watching a DVD alongside a friend with an itchy finger on the remote, who jumps ahead every time he starts to get bored. This can be annoying, but in the end you are grateful that you are going to bed at 2 a.m. instead 3:30 a.m.

This means I basically saw a whole different Golden Globes show than people watching it live in the U.S. In its coverage of the show, the Los Angeles Times whined that “the three-hour NBC telecast often played like a dull parody of its former self… you had to wonder if the winners left their senses of humor at home. Movie winner after movie winner thanked an endless barrage of agents, producers, studio executives, publicists and children.” The show I saw, on the other hand, was fast-paced and frequently amusing. It seemed as though every recipient was turning his or her acceptance speech into a comedy routine, often with hilarious results. The best had to be Geena Davis (for Commander in Chief), who had the audience going “ahh-h-h-h” over a story about the little girl who tugged on the actor’s dress and said that Davis had inspired her to grow up and become president someday—before Davis admitted that she had made it all up. A close second was Davis’s screen husband from the Stuart Little movies, Hugh Laurie (for House), who picked names of people to thank at random (the script supervisor and a hairdresser, as it turned out) from his trouser pocket.

But back to my original train of thought. When the end-of-the-calendar-year awards season gets in gear, there are always two things to look forward to in the media. One is the horse race coverage, which really takes off with the Golden Globes. The other thing is the inevitable political controversies. In recent years it has become de rigueur for politically engaged people to root for or against certain movies because of perceived political and/or social agendas. Last year, of course, the celluloid lightning rods were Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 and Mel Gibson’s personal re-enactment of The Passion of the Christ. These movies were unusual in that they were deliberately aimed at certain groups with strong political and/or religious convictions and were, thereby, virtually guaranteed to annoy or antagonize certain other groups. Also, a more interesting controversy was sparked by Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, which just wanted to tell a story and got caught between partisans over the issue of death with dignity. As it happens, the 2005 crop of movies has more than its share of themes that were bound to inspire political/social/religious controversy, as well. But more on that next time. I still haven’t finished discussing the horse race coverage.

I have two burning questions about the media’s horse race coverage. One is, why are we so drawn to horse race coverage in the first place. And the other is, why are the Irish so bad at it? The first question speaks to something about human beings, our need for stories and our need for stories to have endings. We love a good story, and I suppose the competition among beautiful Hollywood people, complete with egos and fantasy lifestyles (in our minds anyway) qualifies as a good story. And we naturally want to know how the story ends. Being impatient creatures, when the end of the story doesn’t come soon enough, then we try to get a sneak peak at the end through predictions and speculation. Coverage of earlier awards and the reporting of speculation of Hollywood insiders feeds into this need.

But, given the craving of horse race coverage among so much of the public, why isn’t the coverage better than it is? Well, because, information-wise, horse race coverage is fulfilling a desire rather than a need. Nobody needs to know who is going to win the Oscars before they are actually given out. But people would like to know. There is little incentive to burnish the quality of “news” coverage that is essentially optional. And, while there is a sincere desire among the public for Oscar horse race coverage, it should not be overlooked that the news outlets, which generally belong to the same industry as the movie studios, have an self-interest in hyping the movie business.

And why are the Irish media in particular even worse at horse race coverage than most media in general? After all, nobody loves a horse race, either literally or figuratively, more than the Irish. At certain times of the year in Ireland, regularly scheduled TV and radio programming is preempted in order to present wall-to-wall coverage of certain major horse racing events in Ireland and the UK. Virtually every town or village that has at least a couple of pubs and a church also has at least one bookmaker’s office. And every July, once the city of Galway has gotten its film fleadh and its arts festival out of the way, the whole city shuts down and goes crazy over the annual Galway Races, where you can meet virtually every politician and society figure in the whole country. I think it is safe to say that the Irish like a horse race.

So if the Irish are so big into literal horse races, it may (or may not) follow that they would be big into figurative ones as well. But being “big into” is not the same as being “good at,” as Irish coverage of last year’s American presidential election demonstrated. To be sure, there was intense interest among the Irish in the race between George W. Bush and John Kerry. This was largely due to the vehement antipathy that so many Irish people (not to mention Europeans in general) feel for Bush. During the campaign, people I barely knew would come up to me and tell me about their grandfather born in America and wondering if this would somehow qualify them to vote in the American election so that they could vote against Bush. (In fairness, I do meet the odd Irish person who does like Bush, but these people generally have relatives in Texas.) So, I suppose it was no surprise that Irish media coverage of the campaign was highly favorable to Kerry and pretty negative on Bush. And I don’t mean in terms of their positions or character, but in terms of how they were doing in the horse race. The media, as it does here, was pretty much giving its audience what it wanted to hear. I can’t count how many people, often strangers, upon detecting my American-ness, would give me a nudge and say knowingly and happily, “We won’t have Mr. Bush around much longer, will we?” By election day, people here were convinced that Kerry would win in a landslide. In fairness to the Irish media, the American media weren’t much better. No wonder so many people immediately suspected a fix when Bush won. Personally, I wasn’t too surprised, since I was feeding my own personal horse race fix by checking unvarnished data from multiple pollsters directly on the internet (rather than relying on media reporting on polls) and futures web sites that measured real people’s real wagering on the outcome. Sometimes Bush had a real lead in these measurements and sometimes he didn’t. But at no time did Kerry ever rise above the margin of error.

The Irish coverage and the American coverage of the election illustrate the two major pitfalls of horse race coverage. The Irish media fell into the trap of telling its viewers/readers what they wanted to hear. The American media failed to give its viewers/readers as clear a picture of the reality as it might have for a somewhat different reason. Their interest lay in hyping interest in the campaign and, by extension, in the media coverage, and the best way to do that was to emphasize the closeness of the race and the uncertainty of the outcome. Of course, the race was close and the outcome was uncertain. But not entirely to the extent that the media had people believing. And so the first (erroneous, as it turned out) exit polls on election night had TV’s talking heads prematurely inaugurating President Kerry.

Thankfully, the race for the Oscars does not inspire anywhere near the frenzy among the public or the media as does a close presidential race. But we can still expect to see many of the same bad media habits in the Oscar race coverage. These will range from giving lesser awards like the Golden Globes more weight and coverage than they deserve to the lame Oscar winner predictions on certain disreputable web sites. Speaking of which, watch for mine, coming soon!

-S.L., 26 January 2006

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