OK, so there are way more important things going on in the world at this moment. And I’ll get to some of that later in today’s newsletter.
But we just have to talk about the slap, right?
Did you ever think we would have a more bizarre Academy Awards moment than 2017 when the wrong name was announced for Best Picture? But on Sunday night, the “Moonlight/La La Land” blunder became the second-strangest moment in Oscar history as soon as one of the most famous actors of his generation slapped one of the most famous comedians of all time.
To see Will Smith smack Chris Rock in the middle of an Oscar ceremony was so bizarre, so surreal, so off-the-charts that you had to do a mental double-take and ask, “Wait, was that real?” Seriously, right after it happened, many were convinced that it had to have been staged. Some still think so.
But while both Smith and Rock are highly-skilled performers, it seemed pretty obvious that this was not a bit. That became even more clear when Smith twice told Rock to keep his wife’s name “out of your (expletive) mouth.” Smith wasn’t playing. He was clearly agitated by a joke Rock made about Smith’s wife, actor Jada Pinkett Smith.
“Jada, I love you,” Rock said. “G.I. Jane 2; can’t wait to see it.”
Rock was referring to the movie “G.I. Jane,” for which actress Demi Moore shaved her head. Jada Pinkett Smith has closely-cropped hair because she has alopecia, a condition that leads to hair loss. Now, what isn’t known is whether or not Rock was aware of her condition. And Rock does have a history of taking verbal jabs at Pinkett Smith.
But even if Rock was aware of her condition, and Smith was standing up for his wife, walking up on stage and slapping an Oscar presenter managed to ruin the night.
The Weekly Sensemaker newsletter from The Tortoise summed it up well: “Last night’s Academy Awards were the first at which a queer woman of color won an Oscar (Ariana DeBose for West Side Story); the first at which a deaf male actor won an Oscar (Troy Kotsur for Coda), and only the third in which a woman won for Best Director (Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog). But Will Smith smacked them all off the front page by striding onstage and hitting Chris Rock.”
Los Angeles Times culture columnist and critic Mary McNamara wrote, “Women made Oscar history Sunday night, but it was a man who managed to hijack the headlines.”
Smith easily could’ve stood up for his wife and called out Rock at any other time in any other place — and that (minus the slap) would’ve been understandable. But to do it at that particular time in that particular place overshadowed the best professional night in the entire lives of the other Oscar winners and nominees. Everything that happened Sunday night, especially after the slap, was muted.
McNamara wrote, “As the show marched on, it was hard to focus on the clips and speeches as uncensored video of the moment circulated, social media lit up with questions about whether the slap was scripted (it wasn’t), and whether Smith would be escorted from the premise (he wasn’t). Many of the big awards were given out in that last half hour, and despite heroic professionalism on the part of the subsequent presenters, the audience and the winners, Smith’s actions hung over every win like a pall.”
Sunday night won’t be remembered as the night actress Jessica Chastain won her much-anticipated and well-deserved first Oscar. Or the night DeBose and Kotsur and Campion won their Oscars. Or that Questlove, who won in the Best Documentary category that Rock was there to present, gave a touching speech. It won’t be remembered as the night Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas won an Oscar for Best Original Song. It won’t be remembered for the night that Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes did a commendable job as co-hosts.
It also won’t be remembered for a special moment recognizing the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest movies ever made (“The Godfather”) or an uplifting “In Memoriam” section that honored the likes of Hollywood legends such as Sidney Poitier and Betty White.
Nope, it will be remembered as that time one guy slapped another guy because he didn’t like a joke at an awards show, where such teasing is fairly commonplace.
It will be remembered as the night one man let his pride and emotions get the better of him and decided that was more important than respecting those in attendance who were there to celebrate and honor the very best that movies have to offer. Smith resorted to physical violence and gutter language in front of eerily silent royalty such as Denzel Washington, Judi Dench, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Samuel L. Jackson and dozens of others.
And, in an odd twist of irony, Smith also ruined his own moment, or at least put a giant asterisk on it. Smith won the Best Actor award and despite a tearful (and, honestly, a little hollow) acceptance speech when he apologized to his fellow nominees (but not Rock) for the incident, his victory goes down as the second most memorable moment of his night.
On Bill Simmons’ podcast for The Ringer, former Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel said, “In a way, I feel bad for Will Smith too, because I think he let his emotions get the better of him, and this should have been one of the great nights of his life. And now it’s not. Was there anyone who didn’t like Will Smith an hour ago in the world? Like no one, right? Now he doesn’t have a single comedian friend — that’s for sure.”
Smith does have his supporters. In an interview with People magazine, Tiffany Haddish said a husband is supposed to stand up for his wife, adding, “And that meant the world to me. And maybe the world might not like how it went down, but for me, it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen because it made me believe that there are still men out there that love and care about their women, their wives.”
But it seems as if Smith’s actions had more detractors than supporters. “Star Wars” star Mark Hamill tweeted that it was the ugliest Oscar moment ever.
SiriusXM host Howard Stern said, “You don’t hit people over speech, certainly not at the Academy Awards, and Will Smith’s got to contain himself. … Here’s Hollywood that’s so outraged by every little thing. Not one person got up and said, ‘Hold on, we got an out-of-control situation here.’ How this guy was allowed to sit there for the rest of the awards, and he’s laughing it up and having a good time with his wife? What he did was he just assaulted Chris Rock.”
In a thoughtful column that deserves to be read in its entirety, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans criticized the show’s producers, writing, “When the moment came for the Oscar show’s producers to step up and say that someone who commits violence on live television doesn’t get their moment in the winners’ circle, the producers blinked. Hollywood royalty won. Violence was indeed condoned. And they let one of the world’s biggest movie stars pretend that his angry outburst of machismo was somehow an effort to ‘protect’ his family from a joke that had already been told.”
In an appearance on CNN, correspondent Sara Sidner’s message to Smith was he should have used words to settle whatever beef he had with Rock.
“You are an actor,” Sidner said. “You are a rapper. You have people who write things for you. You are a smart guy. Use your words, not your fists or your hands. It’s that simple.”
Sidner added that she was even a little embarrassed to be talking about the whole thing.
“We’ve got inflation that is crushing families,” Sidner said. “We have millions of refugees who are running for their lives trying to find refuge, mothers and children, and we’ve got Ukraine, which is literally on fire and being bombed. This was a moment that did not need to happen.”
Early Monday evening, not quite 24 hours after the incident, Smith put out a lengthy apology on social media, calling his behavior “unacceptable and inexcusable” and that “violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive.”
Smith also apologized to Rock, writing, “I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong. I am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be. There is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness.”
He again apologized to the Academy, the producers of the show, the attendees, everyone watching at home and the Williams family. (Smith’s winning performance came playing Richard Williams, the father of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams.) He wrote, “I deeply regret that my behavior has stained what has been an otherwise gorgeous journey for all of us. I am a work in progress.”
While Smith’s apology does seem sincere, Sunday’s Oscars have still been ruined. It won’t be remembered for all the great things that happened for so many. It still will be remembered as the night Will Smith slapped Chris Rock. Regrettably, no apology can erase that.
MORE FROM POYNTER: Is it ever legal to smack somebody who insults your wife?
As soon as Smith slapped Rock, social media suggested this would boost Oscar’s sagging TV ratings. The thing is, it’s not like anyone knew ahead of time this was going to happen.
Here are the early results, which are mixed. Yes, Oscar ratings went up. Sunday’s show on ABC drew an average of 15.3 million viewers. That’s a 56% increase from last year’s show. That’s good. Then again, last year’s show had just under 10 million viewers, making it the lowest-rated Oscars ever.
So, on one hand, ABC is surely pleased about the jump, but on the other hand, the 15.3 million viewers are the second-lowest in Oscar history since the show’s numbers started being tracked in the 1970s. As CNN’s Frank Pallotta notes, “Just eight years ago, the Oscars brought in more than 40 million viewers.”
One of my favorite newspaper columnists, Stephanie Hayes of the Tampa Bay Times, had several good lines in her tongue-in-cheek, but also kinda, sorta serious (but not really) newsletter about SlapGate.
My two favorites:
First: “(Smith) also could have left it to Jada to speak for herself, because she’s an autonomous human and this is not 1526 and we don’t duel to exact revenge on he who insults a maiden.”
And, second: “How far we’ve fallen when we can’t unite as a television audience and simply agree that all these celebrities seem terrible. I yearn for a return to this simple time.”
The Times wins an Oscar
The New York Times won its first-ever Oscar on Sunday night. The Op-Ed doc “The Queen of Basketball,” which tells the story of Lusia “Lucy” Harris-Stewart, won for Documentary Short Subject. Stewart is one of women’s basketball’s most accomplished players. She scored the first basket in women’s Olympic history and was the first and only woman officially drafted by the NBA. Yet, she is rarely talked about. She passed away in January at the age of 66.
The documentary was directed by Ben Proudfoot and executive produced by former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal and current NBA all-star Steph Curry. “The Queen of Basketball” is part of the Op-Docs series “Almost Famous,” which the Times describes as a “collection of short films featuring people who nearly made history — and were happy anyway.”
The Op-Docs, which are part of The Times’s Opinion Video department, was previously nominated for four Academy Awards. Here’s the Times announcement of the win.
And now onto the rest of today’s newsletter, starting with some of the notable journalism regarding Russia-Ukraine …
- Video from The Washington Post’s Alexa Juliana Ard: “What is a war crime?”
- The Wall Street Journal’s Alexandra Bruell and Benjamin Mullin with “Rival Networks Aided Fox News After Ukraine Tragedy, Highlighting War-Zone Collaboration.”
- The Economist interviewed Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky for “Volodymyr Zelensky on why Ukraine must defeat Putin.”
- The Guardian’s Shaun Walker with “Escape from Irpin: frail residents helped to safety after month of hell.”
- The Kyiv Independent news outlet tweeted out Monday that it now has 2 million Twitter followers.
- For The New York Times, Anton Troianovski and Ivan Nechepurenko with “Novaya Gazeta, the hard-hitting Russian newspaper, suspends publication.”
Hearst Connecticut expands
For this item, I turn it over to Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds.
Hearst’s Connecticut operation is adding 13 new positions — 11 of them journalists — and ramping up coverage of Hartford County, the home base of The Hartford Courant.
The Courant is one of the Tribune Publishing papers bought last summer by hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Hearst’s move is not framed as a news-war attack on the Courant, but the company did offer a hint of that.
“Our goal is to double down on the quality journalism we produce daily and increase our coverage, including in areas where we see a void of local news reporting in communities across the state,” said Mike DeLuca, publisher and president of Hearst Connecticut Media Group.
As I wrote in August, Hearst expanded from a base of eight dailies to 160 news positions and a statewide site, CT Insider. (Several other papers and their digital sites have been branching out statewide, including The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina; The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and The Star Tribune in Minneapolis.
If Hearst is targeting the Courant, that’s another trend — invading what had been the turf of Alden papers as loss of staff and an enfeebled news report is expected. The nonprofit Baltimore Banner’s launch is imminent, and the merger of the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ/Chicago Public Media is at hand.
Next up Allentown, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and the Tidewater Virginia papers?
As expected, Kevin Burkhardt will replace Joe Buck as the lead NFL announcer for Fox Sports. That’s according to New York Post sports media columnist Andrew Marchand. Burkhardt has been with Fox Sports since 2013.
Buck recently left Fox Sports to become the next play-by-play voice for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” Buck followed his Fox Sports partner Troy Aikman, who also is moving over to “Monday Night Football.”
Who replaces Aikman at Fox isn’t known just yet, but most seem to believe it will be former NFL tight end Greg Olsen, who was Burkhardt’s partner on Fox’s No. 2 NFL team last season.
- Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple with “Chris Wallace denounces Fox News. At last.”
- CNN+, CNN’s new streaming news service, has launched. David Bauder wrote about it for The Associated Press. Deadline’s Ted Johnson and Dade Hayes wrote, “CNN+ Readies For Debut: Is It The Next News Innovation Or Too Late To The Streaming Wars.”
- The Associated Press’ Andrew Meldrum with “Ethiopia urged to uphold press freedom and release reporter.”
- The New Yorker is expanding its Puzzles & Games with the addition of two more crosswords. That means fans can now solve a new crossword every weekday on The New Yorker website and the New Yorker app.
- Speaking of The New Yorker, it has introduced a new look and feel for The Daily, its flagship newsletter. Co-authors Jessie Li and Ian Crouch write, “As your guides to The New Yorker, we’ll begin each newsletter with the must-read story of the day — the one you’ll want to share with friends; the one that helps the world make a little more sense. The sections that follow will provide everything else you look for in The New Yorker — news and analysis, culture and essays, humor and cartoons, puzzles and games. And we’ll end each newsletter with a postscript — a little diversion that links the news of the day or a moment in history with The New Yorker’s nearly century-old archive.”
- Writing for Poynter, Paul Cheung with “Journalism should take a cue from entertainment — diversity grows audiences.”
- The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch interviews Washington Post reporter Isabelle Khurshudyan for “A former sports writer on what it’s like to cover the war in Ukraine.”
- The New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv with “How an Ivy League School Turned Against a Student.”
- The Washington Post’s Michael Kranish with “Inside Ted Cruz’s last-ditch battle to keep Trump in power.”
- For Texas Monthly, Jeffrey McWhorter with “The Boy from Booker T.”
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More resources for journalists
- Covering COVID-19 with Al Tompkins (Daily briefing) — Poynter
- Immigration’s Impact on the U.S. Economic Recovery (Webinar) — April 7 at 2 p.m. Eastern.
- Covering Political Extremism in the Public Square (Seminar) April 4-13.
- Transforming Crime Reporting Into Public Safety Journalism — May 10-Aug. 2, Apply by April 15.
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