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From the April 1999 MediaWatch

Two Thumbs Down for Oscar's Honors

Networks Agree Kazan's Personal Life Outweighs Job Approval

The decision to award director Elia Kazan an honorary Oscar caused an uproar on the Hollywood Left, and the media were their willing publicists. In 1952, before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Kazan named colleagues he knew to be communists. The same crowd that said "move on" during the Lewinsky scandal because it was Clinton’s personal life suggested that Kazan’s work couldn’t be honored because of his personal actions.

In coverage leading up to Oscar night, Kazan’s supporters found little opportunity to voice support, while communist sympathizers were made out to be the heroes. Katie Couric started off on the March 19 Today, talking to actor Rod Steiger, a leading Kazan critic, and columnist Richard Cohen, who wrote a column defending Kazan. What began as a point-counterpoint segment soon turned into two to nothing, with Cohen agreeing the award now was inappropriate.

On ABC’s World News Tonight March 19, Peter Jennings raised the Kazan case during a piece on "The Century," concluding that "The HUAC campaign was, most historians now agree, out of proportion to the actual threat. Communist influence, while present, had little impact on Hollywood." Later on Nightline, Michel McQueen reported on the controversy, with the talking heads against Kazan getting most of the air time. They ended by allowing actor F. Murray Abraham to give a three-and-a-half-minute dramatic reading of a letter written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

The day of the Academy Awards, Bruce Morton commented on Kazan for his "Last Word" on the March 21 Late Edition. "At the height of U.S. Red-baiting hysteria in the 1950s," Morton informed viewers, "Kazan was a witness...and he named names." Morton took sides: "Kazan made a choice. At the awards, the audience will make its choice: Silence or applause. You can argue either way. Me? I’d sit on my hands."

Only the March 19 NBC Nightly News and March 21 CBS Sunday Morning provided the exceptions, allowing both sides adequate time to express their views, without dismissals about communism.

On Good Morning America the morning after, though, reporter Cynthia McFadden recalled that her favorite moment, besides seeing Monica Lewinsky and Madonna together at a party, "was in the car driving up to the red carpet, a lone protester holding a sign that said, ‘Kazan: the Linda Tripp of the ‘50s.’"




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