The Academy Award nominations were announced this week, which gives me an excuse to finally write about something I’ve been thinking about for a while: the name of the New York Times awards-season column.
The column was launched as a blog in 2005; its original author was David Carr, and its original name was The Carpetbagger. Its purpose was (and remains) “to cover the film world and give viewers a peek into how celebrity news is made, on and off the red carpet,” as a Times press release put it. Carr was replaced in 2009 by Melena Ryzik, in 2014 by Cara Buckley, and in 2018 by Kyle Buchanan, who remains the column’s lead writer. (Carr died in 2015. The column now appears in print as well as online.)
That Carpetbagger title always puzzled and troubled me, because the word has such a fraught history. (More about that in a minute.) So it was a relief to learn, in November 2020, that the column was getting a new name. And it was a surprise to learn, at last, the significance of the original title. (I’d missed the explanation when it was originally published.)
I’m proud to have carried on a tradition built by the original Carpetbagger, David Carr, and his two fabulous follow-ups, @melenar and @caraNYT. But it will be nice to never again hear the question, “Why is it called that?” (Here’s the answer, clipped from an early column.) pic.twitter.com/KORCF5j0Mu— Kyle Buchanan (@kylebuchanan) November 28, 2020
I had surmised, in a semi-tortured way, that the “carpet” in “Carpetbagger” referred to the red carpet that’s rolled out for awards presentations. (Maybe it did, a little.) As a historical reference, it struck me as more than a little uncomfortable. The new title, “The Projectionist,” is a big improvement.
For anyone who’s not familiar with the history of “carpetbagger,” here’s a summary from the Tennessee Virtual Archive:
Carpetbaggers was the term Southerners gave to Northerners who moved to the South during Reconstruction, between 1865 and 1877. They formed a coalition with freedmen (freed slaves), and scalawags (southern whites who supported Reconstruction) in the Republican Party. Together they politically controlled former Confederate states for varying periods, 1867-1877.
Carpetbaggers did not have a great public image.
“The Carpet-Bagger: Comic Song for the Times,” c. 1869. The song, published in St. Louis, is dedicated to Union Army General Benjamin “Ben” Butler. Via Tennessee Virtual Archive.
Here’s the first line of “The Carpet-Bagger”: “I’m a gay old Carpet-Bagger/ O! don’t you understand! / ’Mong the colored folks I swagger / Down in the cotton land.”
And so on.
As the title of a newspaper column about movies, “The Carpetbagger” was doomed to be an in-joke—a fate “The Projectionist” happily escapes.
Buster Keaton as the fantasizing projectionist in Sherlock Jr. (1924). Via “The Death (and Rebirth?) of the Projectionist,” by Victoria Hallerman.
“The Projectionist” has two meanings, and both are positive and appropriate:
- a projectionist runs a movie projector in a cinema
- an awards-season journalist makes projections about the eventual nominees and winners
It’s mystifying that it took fifteen years for the Times to change the column’s name; I have to believe that during that time there had been at least a few objections both inside and outside the newsroom.
But maybe I’m just projecting.
I believe the Reconstruction-era term stemmed from the cheap carpet bag in which the Northern "carpetbagger" carried all his possessions.
Posted by: JJM | February 11, 2022 at 07:09 AM
JJM: Correct, and I probably should have mentioned the connection. In the 1869 illustration, Uncle Sam is carrying a carpetbag.
Posted by: Nancy Friedman | February 11, 2022 at 09:30 AM