A group of mostly elderly and mostly white people vote in secret to bestow a life-changing and career-validating honor on a peer. The media speculates for weeks in advance about who will be selected, with prognosticators writing lengthy columns foretelling the result and bookmakers accepting bets. When the announcement is made, the chosen one will deny their worthiness even while basking in the celebratory adulation of millions – most of whom, of course, are watching on television. And the whole world will be watching to see what happens, even if time differentials force many to simply learn the outcome on the news.
Of course, the elderly people casting their votes are a controversial lot. Not every individual, mind you. But enough of them have been tainted by the rumors of sexual impropriety, financial misdeeds, and outright corruption that it’s become a staple of comedy routines, even if the media cohort assigned to cover this group of people act as each new revelation is shocking. Shaking their heads with dismay, they delve as deeply as possible into any scandal – no matter how salacious – in order to “get the truth.” There are even rumors that such media interest has led to crimes, murders, and other additional corruptions in this elite cadre, but who really knows? These powerful people don’t talk too much about what they do, and learning whether or not the rumors and news reports are actually true is nearly impossible. They keep secrets well, and they wield their power to ensure that remains the case.
I’m talking, of course, about the Academy Awards and the bestowing of Oscars. Unless I’m talking about the Catholic Church’s conclave and selection of a Pope. I haven’t decided yet.
The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI during the Oscar season has opened my eyes to how similar the media coverage is between the two events. We get experts who try to read the tea leaves and tell us who will be chosen, and it’s considered a specialized media beat. Developments leading up to the big event are reported with similar urgency, and – based on what we saw at the airports with the last conclave – we even get interviews with the key players/candidates as they arrive. There are some nuanced differences, but on the whole it’s pretty easy to identify the parallels.
The opening of this essay shows the similarities don’t stop with the media coverage, but we still haven’t covered the most interesting one. There are few people from history that would rate higher with the zeitgeist than John Paul II, but consider the esteem with which the present pope is held. Would you say that people generally have a higher opinion of him than Tom Hanks? I wouldn’t. Nor would I say that people rate Benedict XVI more highly than Denzel Washington or Halle Berry. Higher than Adrien Brody or Roberto Benigni, sure. No doubt about it. But not Denzel or Halle or Tom Hanks. So while John Paul II rises above all contenders (except for Marlon Brando, maybe), Benedict XVI is right there in the middle of the pack. All of which goes to show that we hold roughly the same amount of respect in our culture for the winner of an Academy Award as we do for the “winner” of the papacy.
Winners. They get the respect, and they get the acclaim. The Academy Awards aren’t really a contest, but they’re covered like it, because that yields a narrative about winners and losers rather than a narrative about arbitrary professional accolades. It’s a better story with winners and losers, right?
The same goes for the papal conclave. The idea that the assembled cardinals will actually be guided by the Holy Spirit is a tough sell in a media sound-bite; instead, it’s told as a story with a winner. It’ll have losers too, by the way. The same day they choose the new pontiff, every American media organization will run a story outlining how the choice is a setback (i.e., loss) for American Catholics seeking reforms (unless the story is that it’s a setback for Benedict XVI and the theological conservatives, but that’s nigh unfathomable).
I’m not saying this is good or bad; the media have to approach every story from some angle in order to tell it, and this is at least an interesting perspective. It does, however, account for those similarities between the Oscars and a conclave that don’t have to do with corrupt old people acting in secret. It also accounts for the similarities between these events and others that I haven’t bothered to list, such as the political squabble over the sequester (Instead of trying to forestall it, both parties are currently blaming each other, with the media trying to assess who will win and who will lose when it happens. Once again, it’s a story involving a lot of possibly corrupt white men acting behind closed doors.), or even the future of the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s just how stories are reported these days.
You may not like the fact that a Best Actor can be as well regarded as the Vicar of Christ, but which winner makes for an easier story to tell? The photogenic American, that’s who. And the respect of the masses is apportioned accordingly.
It seems to me – and this is a development that I believe has unfolded in my lifetime – that our entire culture is now thoroughly organized around the concepts of winners and losers. Any event or action can be assessed in terms of winners and losers, and that’s often what we do. Get to that parking space first? Winner! Feel dominated by a colleague’s comments at a meeting? Loser! Get the last blueberry scone at Starbucks? Winner!
It’s as if our culture is being controlled by a gambling addict who may or may not be on his seventh bourbon of the morning. Choosing winners and losers everywhere, he’s having so much fun that the rest of us have gotten sucked into the game. It can certainly make any activity or story more fun – seriously, if it didn’t choose a winnerpope, could you imagine anything more boring than the gathering of aged virgins constituting the conclave? – but does everything have to be a contest? And who decided to put the drunken gambler in charge of how we view our lives? We wouldn’t let such a reprobate drive our car anywhere, so we probably shouldn’t let him drive our culture.
I don’t want to make too much of this; I just want to stimulate your thinking. I personally enjoy the Academy Awards as a contest, and I’ll definitely be (hatefully) watching to see if my least favorite people lose on Sunday night. But it’s the tendency for the winner/loser mentality to corrupt other things, like my Sunday mornings, that has me concerned. I’d rather take the keys to a few more parts of my life away from the sauced bookie in charge of our culture. What about you?