The Poynter Report With Tom Jones Looks Back at the Best and Worst of News Media in 2021

The Poynter Report With Tom Jones looks back at the best and worst of news media in 2021:

Welcome to a special edition of the Poynter Report. Today, I look back at the year in media — from the best to the worst and a bunch in between.

It has been another newsworthy year, one full of hope and inspiration, but also worry and frustration. A year ago at this time, this is what I wrote:

Biggest media wish for 2021: that by this time next year, we will have put a major dent into COVID-19 and that we’ll spend more days not reading or watching news about the coronavirus than days that we do.

Sadly, that is not the case. Yes, we have vaccines that are effective. But COVID-19 has not gone away, we haven’t forgotten it and it is still a major story. In recent days, it has again become the dominant news story. We all are bracing for what could be a rough couple of months.

But we plow forward, having survived a year that not only included a pandemic, but continuing divisiveness in our country over politics, race and social issues. As always, journalists were there to shine a light on it all.

So this is my look at the good, bad and the ugly of 2021 in the media.

Please note that this will be the final Poynter Report of 2021. I will return on Jan. 3 to give you, as always, the latest in media news and analysis each and every weekday. Thanks for reading this year, and I look forward to talking to you again in 2022.

Media personality of the year

The media personality of the year is about influence, and it’s hard to ignore the influence that Fox News has over its viewers and on the political landscape. It is the most-watched cable network on TV and there’s absolutely no denying the grip it has on a good chunk of the Republican Party. So when it came time to name the media personality of the year, I considered its biggest star, Tucker Carlson, and even the man who runs the entire thing: Rupert Murdoch.

Naming one of those men as the media personality of the year doesn’t mean I condone what they do. It is, after all, about influence, and you cannot question the influence of Carlson and Murdoch. There seems to be a story written about them every day.

But, in the end, I just couldn’t do it. This is a newsletter that promotes good and responsible journalism. Carlson is not a journalist. And Murdoch is irresponsible. Together they do too much harm. Just the other day, Carlson said it’s time to stop talking about “corona.” He said it on Murdoch’s airwaves. Carlson and Murdoch don’t deserve anything resembling a compliment.

The real media personality of the year

CNN president Jeff Zucker. There was talk earlier this year that Zucker would leave CNN by the end of 2021. Instead, he has been as busy as ever. CNN has added hundreds of employees for its upcoming CNN+, a streaming network that is scheduled to launch early next year. The additions include a couple of high-profile names: Chris Wallace, the most respected journalist at rival Fox News, and Kasie Hunt, who comes over from MSNBC/NBC News. Then, just recently, Zucker was back in the news again, parting ways with someone he had always been close with: prime-time anchor Chris Cuomo. Zucker did the right thing in putting his network and its credibility ahead of whatever personal feelings he might have had for Cuomo. That’s what a strong leader does.

Most critical journalist

Ed Yong from The Atlantic. Last year, I named Yong the media personality of the year for his insightful and critical work about COVID-19. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts. And he continues to publish easily digestible and yet massively essential stories about the pandemic. It’s just that they are scary as hell. His latest is out just last week: “America Is Not Ready for Omicron.” Check out this passage: “Omicron requires individuals to think and act for the collective good — which is to say, it poses a heightened version of the same challenge that the U.S. has failed for two straight years, in bipartisan fashion.” Then he followed it up with this story: “I Canceled My Birthday Party Because of Omicron.” Like I said, scary as hell. But Yong remains one of the most important journalists we have.

Best publications

In writing this daily newsletter, I spend much of my time reading and watching the news. And I can tell you that no one produces the kind of incredible journalism on a consistent basis like The New York Times and The Washington Post. As I try to highlight the best journalism in my newsletter, rarely a day goes by when I’m not blown away by something I saw in the Times or Post. I pay for my subscriptions to the Times and Post the way I pay for my electric bill — I don’t think twice because it’s that essential.

Best January 6 coverage

Speaking of the Times and Post, that leads me to what I thought were the two best video packages of the year regarding the insurrection on Jan. 6. The Post had: “41 minutes of fear: A video timeline from inside the Capitol siege.” And The Times had what I thought was the most compelling video of all about Jan. 6: “Day of Rage. How Trump Supporters Took the U.S. Capitol.” (You can watch it on YouTube, as well.) It’s graphic, disturbing and remains critically important.

Best project

And in what might have been the most impressive project of the year, the Post looked back at Jan. 6 in a three-part series called “The Attack.”

Most important whistleblower

Frances Haugen said out loud — and brought along internal documents — the things many already believe about Facebook: that it places profits ahead of public safety. The former Facebook employee has testified in both the U.S. and Europe about the dangers of Facebook because of misinformation and other factors. Haugen claims that what Facebook does harms children, creates divisiveness and undermines democracy, and they do it because they are far more interested in making money than anything else. Haugen’s testimony certainly gained the attention of Congress, which could eventually lead to the government regulating social media.

Biggest name change

Speaking of Facebook, it’s now Meta. But we still call it Facebook.

Best follow on Twitter

For the second year in a row, this goes to former college and professional basketball star Rex Chapman. I’ll repeat what I wrote a year ago: His viral videos can stir up any emotion: anger, joy, sorrow. But most of the time, they will have you laughing out loud. Runner-up to most enjoyable Twitter follow: I’ve Pet That Dog. Sometimes you want to go to Twitter and not get a migraine from political insults and fighting.

Worst decision

The Wall Street Journal ran a letter to the editor written by Donald Trump, who continued to lie about the 2020 presidential election. The Journal’s editorial board defended the decision — although not very well.

Most inspirational

Legendary ESPN college basketball announcer Dick Vitale is battling cancer, but that hasn’t stopped him from posting daily motivational videos on social media and continuing to inspire people with his dedication and appreciation for his job. (Look at how emotional he got when he was greeted with an ovation by fans at a recent game.) I know Vitale rather well and I’m frequently asked if his enthusiastic announcing is an act, just his schtick. And I can tell that Vitale is the exact same person off TV as he is on. He is excited by life. Most of all, he’s one of those people who lives a great life and knows it, showing his gratitude all the time and doing what he can to help others through his words and actions.

Best podcast

Every year I do this category and every year I tell myself that I’m not going to pick The New York Times’ “The Daily.” Then every year, I end up picking The New York Times’ “The Daily.” I think at last count, there are approximately 178 billion podcasts, give or take. Everyone has their personal favorites. I, myself, enjoy “The Bill Simmons Podcast” and some of the other podcasts on The Ringer. I also love Kara Swisher’s “Sway” podcast, as well as “Jemele Hill is Unbothered.” But it’s hard not to keep coming back to “The Daily.” I don’t listen every day, but if you’re a follower of the news and you enjoy podcasts, don’t you at least have to check in to see what “The Daily” is talking about that day?

Best fictional media personality

Logan Roy. If you read my newsletter regularly, you know I’m a huge fan of HBO’s “Succession.” And Roy, played by the brilliant Brian Cox, is the patriarch of a huge media conglomerate. (Hmm, can you say Rupert Murdoch?) You’ve got to love Logan Roy even if he is despicable. Why? Because he has never been on the short end of the stick even once.

The ‘What happened  to you?’ award

Last year, I called this category the “Biggest destruction of a career” and gave it to Maria Bartiromo of Fox News and Fox Business. She easily could have won the award again this year for continuing to lob up softball interviews with former President Donald Trump so they can push their baseless claims of a rigged 2020 election. Maybe we should just change the name of this to the “Maria Bartiromo Award.” This year’s winner — if you want to use the word “winner” — goes to Lara Logan. Once respected for her work on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Logan’s career has flown over the guardrail. She has been leaning way right during her show on Fox Nation and appearances on Fox News. And that’s fine. But then she compared Dr. Anthony Fauci to Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. How bad has it gotten? Logan has blocked The Auschwitz Museum on Twitter. Think about that for a second. What happened to her?

Best destruction of a career

So there is someone who blew up their own career in 2021 and that was CNN’s Chris Cuomo. He had one of the best gigs on cable news: a prime-time TV show with his name on it and the freedom to talk about whatever he wanted. But the problems started in 2020 when he wanted to talk with his brother, then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, about COVID-19. Their little Cuomo Brothers Comedy Hour raised questions about Chris’ role as an objective journalist. Then when accusations started flying about Andrew and his inappropriate conduct toward women, Chris suddenly went silent. Except behind the scenes, where he was trying to help his brother fight off the disturbing allegations and used his influence as a journalist to do so. Arrogance and the belief that the rules don’t apply to them took down both Cuomo brothers. Chris might show up on TV again somewhere, but not in a job as good as the one he just lost.

Best book related to media

James Andrew Miller is known for writing books about influential media institutions that got their modest starts in the 1970s under predictions that they might not last: “Saturday Night Live,” ESPN and Creative Artists Agency. Now he has added another to this list with his latest book: “​​Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers.” Like the others, HBO has gone on from humble beginnings to become a juggernaut, having created legendary shows such as “The Sopranos,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Wire,” “Sex and the City,” “The Larry Sanders Show” and so many more. If you’re interested in TV, you’ll enjoy this book. Also, a special mention here of Katie Couric’s memoir “Going There.” Couric took some criticism for various things she wrote, but she wrote a book that was honest and unflinching. Isn’t that what good memoirs do?

Best show about the media

First off, there really aren’t that many shows on TV about the media. Nevertheless, CNN’s “Reliable Sources” is must-see TV for news media junkies. Hosted well by the amicable and capable Brian Stelter, “Reliable Sources” usually has a good lineup of guests and it always feels fresh and relevant.

Most controversial coverage

The disappearance of 22-year-old Gabrielle Petito, who was ultimately found dead and believed to have been murdered, was a major news story on a national scale. While the facts of the case are horrendous (it’s believed she was murdered by her boyfriend, who was later found dead by suicide), the coverage raised questions. Specifically, why aren’t missing people of color treated with the same urgency by the media and authorities as white women? It’s something that the late PBS anchor Gwen Ifill called “missing white woman syndrome.” While, again, it’s sad that Petito’s disappearance and murder raised such questions, there is now a conversation (and an HBO documentary series called “Black and Missing”) that is addressing treating missing people of color with respect and seriousness.

Best ‘take that’ moment

After the University of North Carolina dragged its feet in granting tenure to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and “1619 Project” creator Nikole Hannah-Jones, Hannah-Jones gave the ultimate “take that” to UNC and joined Howard University instead. Boss move.

Best guests to have on the news

The doctors: Anthony Fauci, Scott Gottlieb, Sanjay Gupta. All day. Every day. More, more, more. I believe the COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest news story of our lives. It literally impacts every person on the planet. The more I can hear from experts such as Fauci, Gottlieb and Gupta, the better.

Biggest stunner

Chris Wallace leaving Fox News was a shocker. He’s been there since 2003 and we all figured he would retire there. Leaving was only one shoe dropping. The other was Wallace going to CNN+ — CNN’s streaming network that will launch next year. Wallace leaving Fox News was a serious blow. Whenever criticized for their extremely biased conservative views, Fox News would point to the fairness of Wallace, who gave Fox News some credibility. Now that slice of credibility is gone with Wallace walking out the door.

Most superlatives

  • Most underrated evening newscast: “PBS NewsHour.”
  • Best sports debate show: ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption.”
  • Best daily news cable anchor: CNN’s Brianna Keilar.
  • Best news show moderator: PBS and “Washington Week’s” Yamiche Alcindor.
  • Best place to get gossipy media news: The Daily Beast.
  • Best sports website: The Athletic.

Stories that stuck with me the most


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