Scooping the Oscars

Does the Wall Street Journal know who will win? Not if the academy can help it.

Published March 14, 2000 11:30AM (EST)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, its hallowed tradition of secrecy under siege from the Wall Street Journal, has raised the drawbridge, filled the moat, manned the battlements and trumpeted an alarm to all its members.

In a strongly worded letter sent to Oscar voters March 7, Academy President Robert Rehme condemned the Wall Street Journal's efforts to poll a representative sampling of Academy members and predict award winners in major categories. Rehme called the scheme "the most concerted attempt in history to predetermine the outcome of our awards" and acknowledged that the paper might be on to something: "If just a few hundred of us were inveigled into participating, the Journal stands a good chance of scooping us before Oscar night."

The Journal refused to comment on the matter. Joanne Lippman, editor of the paper's Weekend Journal section referred questions to Dow Jones spokesman Richard Tofel, who said the paper did not comment on stories that weren't yet published.

Regarding rumors of dissension within the Journal's ranks over the project, Tofel said, "The course of conduct we've embarked on is one on which there is no internal disagreement from the managing editor on down."

But it does seem like Wall Street's paper of record is up to some mischief. Citing reports from voters, Rehme alleged that the Journal had a least a dozen reporters on the project. He surmised that they had obtained a copy of a list of Academy members from one of the studios.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post is reporting that the Academy may be up to some mischief of its own, by encouraging members to give false information to the Journal: "They're trying to do a prank on us; we'd be happy to prank back in any way we can," Academy executive director Bruce Davis is quoted as saying.

Another minor issue is the Academy's charge that Journal reporters weren't identifying themselves as such, a serious breach of journalistic ethics. A March 6 New York Post article leveled the accusation, quoting Davis, but didn't supply any proof. The Journal's Tofel flatly denied this.

Oscar security has been breached by other organizations in the past. Before 1939, the Academy handed out results to the media before they were announced at the ceremony with the understanding that papers were not to publish the winners until after the event. In 1939, the L.A. Times broke protocol and announced the winners early. The Academy ended the practice. And for 11 years, ending in 1958, Daily Variety conducted the same sort of poll as the Journal appears to be attempting, with a fairly good track record. In his Variety column, Army Archerd bragged, "This paper holds a batting average of .868 in announcing the upcoming correct winners in eight categories."

This latest Oscar drama occurs after an earlier imbroglio in which the U.S. Post Office misplaced eight bags of Oscar ballots destined for 4,200 California voters. Two bags have since been found, but the Academy was forced to resend the missing ballots, and extend the return deadline.

By Joe Mader

Joe Mader covers theater for the S.F. Weekly.


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