Good morning and 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. Happy holidays.
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. So …
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.
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 Jan. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stories that stuck with me the most
- The Washington Post’s John Woodrow Cox with “He said he was going to watch cartoons. Instead, he opened his dad’s gun safe.”
- For The Atlantic, Jacob Stern with “Can a Boxer Return to the Ring After Killing?”
- For The New York Times, Adam Grant with “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.”
- Also for The New York Times, Robert Kolker with “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?”
- The Atlantic’s Jennifer Senior with “What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind.”
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.
Runner-up to best destruction of a career
Lou Dobbs. Remember him? Even Fox News couldn’t stand his baloney anymore. Like Bartiromo, didn’t he used to be somewhat respected? Good riddance.
And runner-, runner-up to best destruction of a career
Sharon Osbourne had a pretty comfy job on CBS’s “The Talk” and then decided to blow it up in an on-air conversation with co-host Sheryl Underwood. CBS said Osbourne’s behavior “did not align with our values for a respectful workplace.” Apparently there was other stuff, too. There’s a fine line between being provocative and offensive. Osbourne crossed it.
The answer: a mess.
The question? How “Jeopardy!” went about replacing Alex Trebek? The whole Mike Richards idea turned into a debacle, as The Ringer’s Claire McNear reported in “‘A Smile With Sharp Teeth’: Mike Richards’s Rise to ‘Jeopardy!’ Host Sparks Questions About His Past.” Things are stable again with Ken Jennings and Mayim Bialik rotating as hosts, but the reputation of one of the game shows was nearly ruined in a matter of weeks.
Best book relating 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.
Oprah has still got it. Her sitdown with Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, was one of the most anticipated interviews in quite some time, and Oprah didn’t disappoint. There were jaw-dropping revelations and stunning accusations, including suggestions of racism inside the royal family. Oprah has a masterful interviewing style (which I wrote about right after the interview) and it was on full display with Harry and Meghan.
Most important trials
Three high-profile trials were televised in 2021. Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin was on trial for the murder of George Floyd. Kyle Rittenhouse was tried for shooting and killing two men during protests in Wisconsin. And three white men were tried in Georgia for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man. They were among the high-profile televised trials since O.J. Simpson back in the 1990s. The trials produced different results (Chauvin and the Georgia men were found guilty; Rittenhouse was acquitted) and all three sparked a wide range of emotions. But the transparency of the trials being on TV and its coverage by major outlets were important for Americans.
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.
Most important sports topic
One of the big stories in sports during 2021 was mental health, thanks to Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka talking about their struggles. Other than a few knuckle-dragging cavemen who grunted the typical, “Toughen up and fight through it” garbage, most media and fans started to listen to and understand that athletes are more than the sports they play.
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.
Most depressing acquisition
Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund known for taking over newspapers and slashing jobs and resources, acquired Tribune Publishing — including papers such as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the New York Daily News — in yet another depressing chapter for local news. And now Alden is attempting a hostile takeover of Lee Enterprises, which owns 77 dailies. If Alden is successful and cuts more jobs, what does it all mean? The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan writes, “Democracy itself is suffering as local news fades.”
Worst ‘it’s too late’ moment
When she was the White House press secretary under Donald Trump, Stephanie Grisham did not give one official press conference. Then she was selling a book, annoyingly titled “Now I’ll Take Your Questions,” and she dished all kinds of dirt on Trump, talking about how awful he was and that she is “terrified” he’ll run again in 2024. She also, unsurprisingly, said that whenever they wanted to get a positive spin or push the Trump agenda, they would turn to Fox News. It’s not stunning to hear Grisham now say all this, but she waited long after Trump was out of the White House to say things she should’ve said much earlier.
President Joe Biden coverage
Certainly, this president is a lot less inflammatory than the last one. And his press secretary — Jen Psaki — seems much more competent than any of the press secretaries in the Trump administration. In fact, Chris Wallace, who was at Fox News at the time, called Psaki “one of the best press secretaries ever.” Overall, how has coverage of Biden been? The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank had a column this month with the headline: “The media treats Biden as badly as — or worse than — Trump. Here’s proof.” Milbank wrote, “We need a skeptical, independent press. But how about being partisans for democracy? The country is in an existential struggle between self-governance and an authoritarian alternative. And we in the news media, collectively, have given equal, if not slightly more favorable, treatment to the authoritarians.”
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.
Best news show
CBS’s “60 Minutes” continues to be the gold standard of TV news. I was going to list some of the important work they’ve done this year, and mention some of the key stories. But every show is good. Every story is key. Everything they do is elite journalism.
Best Sunday morning news program
You can say I’m copping out. Guilty as charged. But give me any of the three: NBC’s “Meet the Press,” ABC’s “This Week” or CBS’s “Face the Nation.” All are expertly moderated, by Chuck Todd, George Stephanopoulos and Margaret Brennan respectively. And all have timely guests, although I have one nit …
Worst Sunday morning question
“Do you believe the 2020 presidential election was fair and do you accept that Joe Biden was fairly elected president?” Enough of that question. I get why it’s asked. The moderators want to get on the record who is trying to undermine our democracy, and who could cause trouble in 2024. But it’s time to stop handing a megaphone to politicians wanting to spew their baseless conspiracy theories.
- 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.
I’ve always been a fan of “Saturday Night Live” — even when others criticized it and claimed they stopped watching it “years ago.” But this season has been really strong thanks to really good guest hosts (including Jason Sudeikis, Kieran Culkin and Billie Eilish) and superb musical guests (including Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves and Saweetie). They’ve had biting political commentary like they used to be known for and the “Weekend Update” segments have been good. Best moments so far this season: Brandi Carlile’s performance of “Broken Horses” and Cecily Strong’s Goober the Clown bit on abortion.
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.
Biggest stunner, part 2
Brian Williams leaving MSNBC. No, working the 11 p.m. Eastern shift was no picnic, but Williams was lucky to even have a job after exaggerating his role in a helicopter crash in Iraq in 2015. That lie cost him the sweet job of anchoring the “NBC Nightly News.” The late-night MSNBC job helped him revitalize his career and earn back much of the respect that he had lost. So when he announced last month that he was leaving NBC News after 28 years, it came as a surprise. Williams will end up again somewhere. He’s too good not to.
Best new show
The “ManningCast” on ESPN2. For years, fans and media critics have talked about having a sports broadcast that sounded laid back like people just sitting around a bar or living room. Well, ESPN2 has pulled it off by putting brothers Peyton and Eli Manning on an alternate “Monday Night Football” telecast. Mix in some interesting guests and you have TV sports gold. Now other networks are starting to think about how to pull this off in other sports. Could Phil Mickelson do that with golf? Charles Barkley on the NBA? But ESPN might have caught lightning in a bottle because the Mannings are so perfect in their camaraderie. Duplicating it with others might be impossible. In the meantime, the “ManningCast” (attracting more than a million viewers a game) has turned out even better than expected, and is the most interesting innovation of sports TV since networks started putting scoreboards on the screen.
Three things I really liked in media this year
- Each week, NBC News took on a news topic and highlighted it all week across its platforms. They focused on important issues such as climate, cancer detection and treatment, supply chain issues and many, many more. The issues were timely and the coverage was smart and widespread.
- “CBS Sunday Morning.” Still among my favorite shows on TV. Always interesting. Coffee, eggs, bacon, toast with a little jam and “CBS Sunday Morning.” A perfect way to spend a Sunday morning.
- Rolling Stone, under new editor-in-chief Noah Shachtman, has rededicated itself to hard news and has taken on big music names such as Eric Clapton and Marilyn Manson.
Three things I really hated in media this year
- I hate that Fox News’ late-night show hosted by Greg Gutfeld is actually a success. (His ratings are pretty good.) I find Gutfeld to be mean, spiteful and, honestly, not all that funny. But I guess it doesn’t take much to impress viewers who think it’s funny to crudely make fun of people as long as they have different political opinions than you.
- OAN and Newsmax. These propaganda infomercials deserve no more mention than they are getting here.
- That local news is suffering. Do your part: subscribe to your local newspapers.
One final wish for 2022
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.
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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