If the main selling point of televised award shows is the anticipation of finding out who wins, the Peabody Awards exist on a whole other wavelength.
“Everybody at the show knows they’ve won,” Jeffrey P. Jones, the director of the Peabody Awards, told Fusion. “That means it becomes less about if they’re going to win and more about why they won, about why the story they told was so critical to the here and now.”
The award was created back in 1941 as a radio equivalent of the print-driven Pulitzer Prize, expanding over the years to include television, filmmaking and digital projects in the fold. But now, for Peabody’s 76th edition, the award is taking place in the context of a political climate that has taken an overtly anti-media tone, and the mandate of the journalism that it celebrates.
The ceremony took place on May 20th at a gala in New York, hosted by Rashida Jones. The special presentation airs on June 2nd on FUSION and PBS. The show will take on an almost documentary-feel, said Jones, cutting between speeches and behind-the-scenes interviews with winners talking about what drives them to do what they do.
“The media serves democracy, and these are the kind of stories that the media does best,” said Jones. “When we were judging, Trump had only been in office for a month, so I can’t say that he affected the deliberations in any way. But I can say that the stories we are highlighting have become only more politically relevant since he came into office.”
For instance, winning documentary 13th takes a critical look at the mass incarceration of black Americans and the harsh sentences many receive for minor crimes in the criminal justice system. Only a week before the awards gala, the White House announced that it would reverse the course set by the Obama Administration and seek the harshest possible penalties for minor drug crimes. Web winner Hell and High Water, a collaboration between ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, showed how vulnerable the city of Houston is to a hurricane, a threat only increased by climate change. President Trump has called climate change a “hoax.” The PBS Frontline feature Combating ISIS gives us unique insight into the battle still waging in Iraq and Syria.
“We give awards to truth telling and documentaries that might not otherwise be brought to light,” said John Huey, former editor-in-chief of Time Inc., and a member of the board of jurors. Jurors spend a lot of time doing independent research to make sure that the reporting is stellar, he said. Besides, all winners have to reach a unanimous opinion.
“At a time when there are clearly a lot of people who believe the established news media is a vast conspiracy, it’s more important than ever to recognize high integrity when we see it,” Huey added.
In addition to news, fictional and artistic takes like Veep, Atlanta and Beyonce’s Lemonade will also be rewarded. “When you look at something like Lemonade—it didn’t win a Grammy, it didn’t win an Academy Award—but it was just a masterpiece that deserves recognition, and we’re glad to do that,” said Jones.
“We look forward to celebrating all of these stories,” he said.