The Best and Worst in the Year of Media

From The Poynter Report with Tom Jones:

Media persons of the year

Back on Feb. 25 of this year, here’s what I wrote for my Poynter Report newsletter: “As loud explosions from Russian artillery shells and missiles rattled the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine, unnerved residents of the country’s second-largest city desperately sought shelter. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, scampered and crammed into the safest place they could find: underground in a railway station. And right there in the middle of it was CNN’s Clarissa Ward, interviewing an anxious mother with her 7-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter clinging to her sides.” The photo at the top of the newsletter shows her reporting that day.

In November, from a dateline called Kherson region, Ukraine, there was this headline: “In newly liberated villages, Ukrainian investigators uncover horrific claims of Russian sexual violence.” Who was there to cover that story? Clarissa Ward.

And in the nine months in between, Ward filed dozens of reports from Ukraine, including one story where she was physically helping elderly Ukrainians to safety while doing her job — and doing it expertly.

There were many huge news stories in 2022, most notably the midterm elections, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the continuation in the seemingly never-ending string of mass shootings.

Those stories — as well as Elon Musk and Twitter, the return of Donald Trump to the political arena, the economy and COVID-19 — have, at times, dominated our news cycles. And coverage of those events have been good and critical and necessary.

But for our selection of this year’s media person of the year, we select Clarissa Ward and all the reporters who showed their bravery and deft reporting skills covering the war in Ukraine. The list of every reporter in Ukraine and Russia is too long to name here. But all should be saluted. That includes those who lost their lives, most notably two (Pierre Zakrzewski and Oleksandra Kuvshynova) working for Fox News. Another Fox News journalist, Benjamin Hall, was badly injured in the same attack.

Yet, journalists continued to courageously go into danger in order to tell the world of what’s happening in this critically important story. They ALL are our media person of the year.

Media persons of the year (runner-ups)

Every year, you could pick the heads of CNN and Fox News and talk about their influence on the media landscape. For example, on Mediaite’s recent list of the most influential people in media, Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott was No. 1 and CNN chief Chris Licht was tied for third. Rupert Murdoch, with a media empire that includes Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, has as much power as anyone in media. And while this isn’t to suggest that they aren’t influential (they obviously are), could you argue that they don’t have as much influence as we think? Fox News talks into an echo chamber or, at the very least, is preaching to the choir. They’re core audience is made up of conservatives who agree with most things said on those airwaves. And as for Licht? Yes, he has come in swinging. He has laid off hundreds and wants the network to shift their coverage and tone. Will it work? Frankly, it’s still too early to see what kind of impact Licht is going to have on CNN. So far, the new CNN doesn’t look that much different from the old CNN. Let’s check back in a year.

Media story of the year

If we’re talking strictly about the biggest story in the media, it’s an easy pick: Elon Musk buying Twitter for $44 billion. We’re still waiting to see how all this shakes out, but the early returns are concerning. He has severely slashed staff and that has led to concerns that the social media giant is now more susceptible to misinformation, disinformation and the kind of vitriol that could lead to real damage — to our democracy, to our country and to real people. His irresponsible treatment of this powerful platform seems to place a priority on trolling and causing chaos. He preaches free speech, but his rules are all over the place when it comes to free speech. Who knows where it is all headed? Maybe Twitter will die. Maybe Musk will sell it eventually. Maybe it will turn into a dangerous meeting ground of conspiracy theorists and troublemakers. The only thing we feel confident in saying is that it has been a much worse place since Musk took over.

Deal of the year, part 1

Merger of the year? More like a merger of the decade. Discovery Inc. and WarnerMedia closed their merger in April, combining TV, movies and news to form one of the biggest media companies in the world: Warner Bros. Discovery. As The New York Times’ John Koblin wrote, “The decision by AT&T, WarnerMedia’s parent company, to spin off its entertainment division and merge it with Discovery — in a deal announced in May — will be felt throughout the media world in the months to come.” We could probably amend that to “years to come.”

Deal of the year, part 2

Just as 2022 was getting started, The New York Times bought The Athletic — the ad-free, subscription-based sports site that employs hundreds of sportswriters across the globe, particularly in North American cities that have teams in one of the four major professional sports or major college sports programs. The Times paid $550 million for the site even though the site has never turned a profit. There are several reasons why the Times wanted The Athletic, including tapping into The Athletic’s then-1.2-million subscribers. But, editorially, it’s still not known where this is all headed. The Times promotes The Athletic on its website, but they are definitely separate entities.

Best news show

The January 6 hearings. They looked like they were put together by a TV person. That’s because they were. The committee collected interviews with upwards of a thousand people and had nearly 150,000 documents. To put it all together in a tightly-wrapped, digestible format for primetime audiences, the committee hired James Goldston, the former president of ABC News, to produce it. As The New York Times’ Jeremy W. Peters pointed out, “More than 20 million Americans watched Mr. Goldston’s hand at work during the committee’s nationally televised hearing on Thursday evening. They saw tightly edited video of rioters smashing through windows, and two composed witnesses who recounted the destruction and mayhem — viewing that felt more made-for-TV than most congressional hearings.”

Biggest fail

Even before CNN launched its streaming service, CNN+, there were questions (including in many columns from yours truly) about whether people would really pay for the news, even if it included original content. Despite all the doubters, CNN plowed ahead, spending some $300 million on this new streaming service. They brought it big-name journalism talent such as Chris Wallace, Kasie Hunt and Audie Cornish. They brought in celebrities such as Eva Longoria. They even signed up some of its own talent — Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper, for example — to host their own shows. And after three weeks and dismal viewership numbers (there were reports of only 150,000 subscribers and just 10,000 watching at any given time), CNN pulled the plug. I guess you give CNN credit for calling it quits and refusing to throw good money after bad. But still, three weeks? That’s a fail of epic proportions and will be a punchline to bad jokes for years to come.

Best recovery

Credit CNN for sticking with Chris Wallace, and credit Wallace for rebounding after CNN+ was shut down. After all, Wallace was to be one of the main stars of the streaming service. His show, “Who’s Talking To Chris Wallace?” is in a tough time slot against “60 Minutes,” but then again, shows these days can easily be watched whenever a viewer wishes. (The show also is on HBO Max.) Wallace’s interviews are timely, informative and fun. And they run the gamut of personalities, from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to film director Quentin Tarantino to singer Shania Twain to actor/filmmaker/writer Tyler Perry.

Breakout star of the year

OK, it seems odd to call MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow a breakout star. She is one of the most recognizable journalists on TV, hosting her own primetime show on MSNBC since 2008. But this year, Maddow announced she is stepping back from her show, and will host just once a week and on special news nights, such as elections. The reason is to work on other, bigger projects — including a special podcast called “Ultra,” which chronicled U.S. right-wing extremism during the 1940s.

Most disappointing cancelation

The best media show on TV — CNN’s “Reliable Sources” — was canceled after 30 years on the air. As I wrote on the day of its final show, “Sunday was a sad day for CNN, and a sad day for those who closely watch the media. ‘Reliable Sources’ was an important and informative show, holding the media to account and highlighting the very best of journalism. It also shined a light on obstacles that journalists face and their importance in our democracy.” Also out at CNN was the show’s host, Brian Stelter, one of the more thoughtful media analysts in the business. CNN and viewers were worse off for the absence of both.

Next worst departure

Speaking of impactful media analysts, media columnist Margaret Sullivan left The Washington Post this year to do other things, including writing books. While her journalism books, including this year’s “Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life”, are must-reads, so was her weekly commentary in the Post. Those columns were appreciated, and now they are missed.

Most depressing journalism news

Layoffs and more layoffs. It seems as if this is an annual category on this annual list. Gannett and CNN had significant layoffs in just the past few weeks, and for Gannett, it was the latest round of layoffs that saw at least 600 lose their jobs this year. BuzzFeed just had a round of layoffs, and The Washington Post announced they will have some soon (although the Post insists they will also hire and the head count will remain about the same). Meanwhile, local news outlets across the country continue to struggle. Ugh.

Best journalism movie

The movie “She Said,” was an excellent adaptation of the book by New York Times’ reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, which exposed sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The movie, as the book did before it, showed the tireless and often not-glamorous work done by reporters in pursuit of an important story.

Best feature of the year

This is from the incredible, gut-wrenching and infuriating August cover story in The Atlantic from Caitlin Dickerson. The headline is a quote that breaks your heart: “We Need To Take Children Away.” It exposes the Trump administration’s family separation policy and it started with what I maintain is one of the most chilling passages I’ve read in my time as a media analyst. Dickerson wrote, “Trump-administration officials insisted for a whole year that family separations weren’t happening. Finally, in the spring of 2018, they announced the implementation of a separation policy with great fanfare — as if one had not already been under way for months. Then they declared that separating families was not the goal of the policy, but an unfortunate result of prosecuting parents who crossed the border illegally with their children. Yet a mountain of evidence shows that this is explicitly false: Separating children was not just a side effect, but the intent. Instead of working to reunify families after parents were prosecuted, officials worked to keep them apart for longer.” It remains elite journalism and must-read piece that could show up again when the Pulitzer Prizes are announced next year.

Biggest sports transaction

You would think the biggest transaction in sports would involve actual players, but you can make a strong case that the biggest move in sports this year involved broadcasters. Announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman had been the lead NFL announcers at Fox Sports for 20 years, including six Super Bowls. But they stunned the sports media world by jumping over to ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” ESPN backed up the armored truck to pay them. Aikman signed a five-year, $90 million contract, while Buck inked a five-year deal for $75 million. That’s $165-million for two announcers. In other words, a very big deal.

Next biggest sports transaction

Buck and Aikman weren’t the only NFL announcers on the move. After paying $1 billion for excluding rights to Thursday Night Football, Amazon went out and got the best NFL broadcaster of all-time, picking up Al Michaels, who had called “Sunday Night Football” on NBC for 16 years. Meanwhile, Fox Sports went out and signed the greatest player in NFL history. Seven-time Super Bowl champ Tom Brady has agreed to a 10-year, $375-million contract to call games when his playing days are over. But some are wondering if he’ll ever retire — and if he will ever call a football game for Fox.

Most dogged reporting

On May May 24, a gunman walked into Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and began firing. For 77 minutes. Before the horror was over, 19 children and two teachers were murdered. In the days, weeks and months that followed, local and national reporters relentlessly pursued what happened that day, how first responders actually responded and what police and school officials were saying. And they did so while local officials threatened the journalists with arrest. My Poynter colleague Amaris Castillo spoke to San Antonio Express-News editor Nora Lopez — who spoke for all the media about this important coverage. Lopez said, “We have to let the public know what’s going on in Uvalde and, more importantly, we have to let the Uvalde city officials know that we’re not going to be scared away. In fact, we’re going to report on this and we will continue to go back.”

Biggest new venture

There’s a new ambitious media outlet. Semafor — the global news site started by Ben Smith, the former New York Times media columnist and editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed before that, and Justin Smith, the former CEO of Bloomberg Media — launched this year. The site is off to a strong start. The best part is seeing Ben Smith write about the media again. His New York Times’ column, which was always full of original reporting, was top-notch. His media work now, along with that of his colleague Max Tani, has become go-to for media observers.

Biggest scoop

This isn’t even close. The biggest scoop of 2022 was from Politico’s Josh Gerstein and Alexander Ward. Their story hit the internet at 8:32 p.m. Eastern time on May 2 and sent shockwaves throughout the entire country. The headline was a bombshell: “Supreme Court has voted to overturn abortion rights, draft opinion shows.” The Politico reporters obtained a leaked copy (we still don’t know who leaked it) of an initial draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito that would strike down Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court confirmed the draft was authentic and it turned out to be true. A little more than a month later, on June 24, the Court in a 5-4 decision overturned the landmark 1973 ruling and took away the federal constitutional right to an abortion.

Speaking of Roe v. Wade …

For this item, I turn to my colleague Josie Hollingsworth, PolitiFact audience director. Here’s what she has to say:

Before Roe fell, news coverage was in a frenzy over the unprecedented draft Supreme Court opinion that was leaked. Never before did audiences have such insight into the inner-workings of a court that would reconsider the reproductive rights of half the country, and, frankly, folks were clamoring for information. I was among them. The story was in many ways about Politico’s ability to leak such essential documents — it was about a moment in time when readers were looking critically at the role of the news media and its power.

Then came the measured, the different, the audience-first (and frankly, more contextualized) coverage from Scalawag. One example of the outlet’s innovative approach was from reporter and editor Ko Bragg, when she hosted a conversation in mid-May with “abortion workers across the South to unpack the performative nature of abortion coverage, share paths toward refocusing the reporting, and explain the intersections between abortion care and abolition work.”

This is an important listen for journalists. Because the reality? Abortion providers and communities throughout Alabama, Mississippi and Texas had been working in a post-Roe reality long before the Dobbs decision. This conversation was a reality check for me when I thought about my work in serving audiences, and being truthful about what the Supreme Court leak (and later, decision) meant.

Scalawag also centered the reality the people experiencing a current lack of abortion services in this first-person piece: “I’m an abortion doula in the Deep South.” This is what I want you to know.

From a technical perspective, I should say, Scalawag used platforms to their advantage. Scalawag hosted the conversation on Twitter Spaces, but saved an Mp3 to live on forever on their site, and among contextualized coverage. Scalawag also partnered with other organizations that also consciously work to center the narratives of underrepresented and misrepresented audiences. Overall, bravo Scalawag and Ko Bragg, and thanks for your wonderful audience journalism.

Most ho-hum return

Chris Cuomo was one of CNN’s biggest personalities, hosting a primetime show that was often the highest-rated show on the network. Cuomo was fired in December 2021 after the network determined that he crossed journalistic boundaries by helping his brother — former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — fight off allegations of sexual misconduct. There was much anticipation about where Cuomo might show up. In October, Cuomo returned to TV, hosting a primetime show on NewsNation, but is anyone noticing? It’s reminiscent of Shep Smith, the excellent journalist who left Fox News because he didn’t like the direction of that network. He ended up hosting a solid news show on CNBC, but that show was canceled last month because of disappointing viewership. Cuomo can be a very interesting TV presence — if he is seen.

Best TV personality

Give him a pair of khakis, a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a bunch of Diet Cokes and put him in front of an election map and you’ve got TV magic. NBC News’ Steve Kornacki is the most accessible and insightful journalist on TV. His work during this year’s midterm elections was spectacular. His knowledge of the intricate voting details and tendencies of cities and counties and states throughout the country is freakish. He lets viewers know what’s going to happen before it even happens. During elections, no one’s voice is trusted more.

Most-watched evening news

ABC’s “World News Tonight with David Muir” was the most watched program on all of U.S. television in 2022. Take note: not just the most-watched newscast. It was the most-watched program period. The evening national newscasts don’t draw the numbers like they did in the days of Walter Cronkite, but the journalism is as good as ever.

Best Sunday morning show

This will feel like a cop-out answer, but all of them. While viewership of the Sunday morning news shows might not be what they were in their heyday, the content is as strong as ever. It’s still the one place where you hear voices from all sides of the latest topics with moderators who aren’t afraid to push back in stern, but respectful ways. The result is often fruitful conversations that produce real insight. I tend to favor two shows in particular — NBC’s “Meet the Press” and CBS’s “Face the Nation” — but CNN’s “State of the Union” consistently produces quotes that lead to headlines. Same with ABC’s “This Week.” And Shannon Bream is off to an excellent start as the new moderator of “Fox News Sunday.”

Best wishes

Here’s a special best-wishes tip of the cap to the classy Judy Woodruff, who is retiring as anchor of “PBS NewsHour.” Her nightly presence will be greatly missed.

Most interesting podcasters

Kara Swisher can talk to a rock and I’ll listen. She is the best podcaster in the business. No one knows more about the ins and outs of tech than Swisher, and watching her commentary on Elon Musk and Twitter (on Twitter, interestingly enough) has been particularly sharp. Another podcaster who is always a must-listen? Jemele Hill and her “Jemele Hill Is Unbothered” pod. Her guest-list is A-plus, including people such as Idris Alba, Laurence Fishburne, Lisa Ling, Joy-Ann Reid, Patti LaBelle, Michael B. Jordan, Mary J. Blige and many more.

As far as best new podcast of 2022? Here’s a good list by Variety’s Todd Spangler, Cynthia Littleton, William Earl and Pat Saperstein.

Biggest pain in the neck

And I mean pain in the neck in a complimentary way. Fox News’ Peter Doocy has become a regular pain for White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre just as he was to her predecessor Jen Psaki. Mediaite writes, “Despite the tense public skirmishes, Doocy has maintained a respectful relationship with Biden’s press shop. But the true measure of Doocy’s influence is in the way he shapes coverage of the Biden White House — including on other networks. As even his critics point out, reporters from the major TV news outlets frequently follow Doocy’s lead, and turn his lines of questioning into full-fledged media narratives.”

Best switch

When CNN first announced that Don Lemon was going from primetime to a new morning show, it appeared to be a demotion. Everyone at CNN – and Lemon in particular – insisted it was not. And it turns out that the new show “CNN This Morning” has been a solid addition to the crowded morning TV landscape. Lemon and co-hosts Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins already have built a nice camaraderie and the show has been a nice mix of serious discussion and easy-going banter.

Best book

You don’t read the best book of 2022. You listen to it. It’s Bob Woodward’s “The Trump Tapes.” It features famed Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s 20 interviews (eight hours of conversations ) with Donald Trump. In an essay, Woodward wrote, “In more than 50 years of reporting, I have never disclosed the raw interviews or full transcripts of my work. But after listening again to the 20 interviews I conducted with President Donald Trump during his last year as chief executive, I have decided to take the unusual step of releasing them. I was struck by how Trump pounded in my ears in a way the printed page cannot capture.”

Most satisfying court ruling

A jury ordered that Infowars host Alex Jones was to pay $965 million in damages for repeatedly pushing the conspiracy theory that the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, was a hoax. The judge later tacked on even more punitive damages. Even the most down-the-middle, cover-all-sides, we-need-to-be-objective reporters can agree on the decision in the Jones case: Good!

Biggest entertainment story

The Slap. Think about it again. Will Smith, who was moments away from the best moment of his career by winning a Best Actor Oscar, calmly walked across the Academy Award stage and slapped comedian Chris Rock after Rock made a mediocre, tasteless and dated joke about Smith’s wife. It set off days of stories and led to Smith being suspended from the Oscars for 10 years. The joke at the time was that if the Oscars really wanted to punish Smith, they would make him host the show for the next 10 years.

Biggest departure

Sheryl Sandberg, the so-called “adult in the room” at Facebook, stepped down from her role as chief operating officer of Facebook parent Meta Platforms. Sandberg had her critics, but she also had one of the more impressive executive careers in technology history.

Biggest return

In a stunning announcement, Disney brought back former CEO Bob Iger to replace Iger’s hand-picked replacement, Bob Chapek. There’s no reason to think Iger would return just to keep the status quo. What’s next for Disney? Stay tuned.

Saddest loss

It’s hard to remember seeing the outpouring of tributes like we’ve seen for sports journalist Grant Wahl, who unexpectedly died at the age of 49 last week while covering the World Cup in Qatar. It just goes to show the impact that Wahl had, not only as a journalist, but as a person.

Honorable mentions

While it’s impossible to name every journalist and outlet that did great work this year, a few names do need to be mentioned. This list is, by no means, comprehensive, but here goes: Maggie Haberman and Wesley Morris (New York Times); NYT sportswriter Jenny Vrentas for her Deshaun Watson coverage; Amber Phillips and Jennifer Rubin (The Washington Post); Margaret Brennan (CBS’s “Face the Nation”); Bret Baier (Fox News); John King and Donie O’Sullivan (CNN); Ben Collins (NBC News); Yamiche Alcindor (PBS, NBC News); Claire McNear (for her coverage at The Ringer of the “Jeopardy” host mess); Katie Strang (The Athletic); sports columnists Jason Gay (Wall Street Journal) and Sally Jenkins (Washington Post); Ed Yong and Derek Thompson (The Atlantic); Charles Barkley (TNT); Gayle King (“CBS Mornings”); “The View” on ABC; The Los Angeles Times (which had a superb year); and the really watchable “Alaska Daily” TV show on ABC. And, finally, for good media coverage: Oliver Darcy (CNN), David Bauder (The Associated Press), Andrew Marchand (New York Post), Dylan Byers (Puck) and Sara Fischer (Axios.)

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