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 to the inspiring to the heartbreaking and everything in between. What a year it has been with a world turned upside down by a pandemic and our country turned upside down by a heated presidential election and a reckoning over race.
But we survived, partly because of the remarkable work done by journalists during this tumultuous year. So this is my look at the good, the bad and the ugly of 2020.
This will be the last Poynter Report of 2020. But I will return on Jan. 4 and a new year 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 2021.
Now to the media stories and personalities of 2020.
Media personality of the year
There was no bigger story in 2020 than the coronavirus and no one covered it better than The Atlantic’s Ed Yong. His work was masterful. There is no other word to describe it. He wrote his first coronavirus story for The Atlantic — The Deceptively Simple Number Sparking Coronavirus Fears — on Jan. 28. Since then, he has written at least two dozen more, all of them critically important and digestible for an audience struggling to comprehend what it all means. His incredible work included “How the Pandemic Will End,” “How the Pandemic Defeated America” and “How Science Beat the Virus.” But all of it, every single one of his stories, helped us to better understand and make sense of, arguably, the most complicated and frightening story of our lifetime. For that, Yong has been the most important and impactful journalist of 2020.
Best Sunday morning segment
Anytime former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb was on CBS’s “Face the Nation” with moderator Margaret Brennan, it was must-see TV. Brennan’s focused questions about the coronavirus and Gottlieb’s no-nonsense and crystal clear answers gave viewers clarity into a topic that was anything but clear for most of this year. It felt as if there were times when Gottlieb’s answers were more informative than what we were getting from our elected leaders.
Best national news
With so much news, it was actually good to see the network evening news have somewhat of a renaissance in 2020. No, it’s not back to the old days when Walter Cronkite would attract 20 million viewers. The TV landscape is so much different now and the Cronkite days are gone forever. Still, the national news is showing some of its best ratings in years and ABC’s “World News Tonight” has been leading the way, often attracting in the 10 million viewer range. Earlier this year, there were many weeks when it was the most-watched program on all of television. All the network newscasts are doing some of their best work in quite some time. NBC’s Lester Holt remains one of America’s most trusted voices and Norah O’Donnell is helping to rebuild the “CBS Evening News.” But ABC’s David Muir, with his steady presence behind the desk, is leading what has become the best network evening newscast. All, however, are good, and that includes the “PBS NewsHour” with outstanding anchor Judy Woodruff.
Most frightening coronavirus stories
The New York Times had two incredibly somber stories about the coronavirus. One, a first-hand account from nurses inside a New York hospital in “Patients Have Panic in Their Eyes’: Voices From a Covid-19 Unit.” The second was “‘Feeling Like Death’: Inside a Houston Hospital Bracing for a Virus Peak.” Both were just chilling.
Best Twitter follow
Former University of Kentucky basketball player Rex Chapman is the most fun follow on Twitter. 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 for best Twitter follow this year: veteran journalist Dan Rather. He’s 89 years old, but knows how to do social media as well as anyone.
Best Sunday morning political program
It’s the longest-running show on TV, and still the gold standard of Sunday mornings: NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Moderator Chuck Todd remains one of TV news’ most influential personalities. He isn’t beloved by all viewers, and often is beat up in the Twitter world, but I will never understand that. His interview skills — especially in dealing with politicians who want to spend their 10 minutes ducking, dodging, spinning and playing politics — are as good as anyone in the business. And he leads roundtable discussions that fairly and fully capture the mood of the moment in Washington. If it’s Sunday, you should be watching “Meet the Press.”
Best podcast coverage
Nothing in media has exploded more over the past several years than podcasting, but oddly, I’ve found very few places that provide really reliable podcast coverage. For my money, no one does it better than Vulture’s Nicholas Quah. And just to show you, and because he’s way more equipped than I am, here’s his piece that fits in perfectly with the theme of this newsletter: “The Best Podcasts of 2020.”
Let’s not overthink this. The New York Times’ “The Daily” remains the best podcast there is. If you need to know the biggest story in the country (and, often, the world), and want to go beyond the headlines, this 20-minute daily podcast is your go-to source.
Most controversial op-ed
You might think it was The Wall Street Journal’s recent idiotic and pointless op-ed about whether or not Dr. Jill Biden should be called a doctor because her degree is in education and not medicine. That op-ed was stupid and senseless, and we shouldn’t give it any more thought. But Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark) op-ed in The New York Times in June had the most aftershocks. Cotton advocated sending in the military to break up those protesting police brutality and racism following the deaths of several people of color, including George Floyd. The Times faced immediate backlash, including from Times staffers. Just days after the controversy, James Bennet resigned as the editorial page editor of the Times.
Speaking of The New York Times editorial board, it endorsed not one, but two candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Seriously? The whole point of an endorsement is to help voters by endorsing one. Making it more comical is the Times endorsed Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren in what appeared to be an attempt to endorse anyone other than the person who ultimately became the nominee AND the president-elect: Joe Biden
Biggest breakout star
It seems odd to call CNN’s Abby Phillip a “breakout” star. She’s been with CNN since 2017 and worked at ABC News and The Washington Post before that. But she has been a go-to and measured, yet provocative voice whenever CNN turns to her for commentary, particularly when it comes to what’s going on with the White House and national politics. Put it this way: If I’m flipping by CNN and she’s talking, I stop and listen.
Worst excuse for news organizations
It’s one thing to lean a certain way politically. It’s another to produce the kind of irresponsible, reckless and damaging programming that you see on One America News Network and Newsmax. These networks serve one purpose: to prop up President Donald Trump by pushing his false claims about everything. To OAN and Newsmax, Trump’s word is solid as stone and anyone who points out the lies is the enemy of our country. In fact, it’s OAN and Newsmax that tear the fabric of our democracy by pushing an agenda in hopes that it can attract the very worst of conservatives. Their goal, obviously, is to steal as many viewers as they can from Fox News. And, based on their programming, they don’t care if they destroy America to do it.
Biggest destruction of a career
Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo has gone from a once-respected journalist reporting from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to an embarrassment. All it took was a few months and an almost cult-like following of President Trump as he spewed baseless conspiracies about election fraud. Bartiromo interviewed the president on more than one occasion and teed him up to spit out one lie after another. Not only did Bartiromo enable Trump, but she was right alongside him, pushing the conspiracies as well. She was once a good enough journalist that you can’t help but wonder if she will look back 10 years from now and regret how she completely destroyed her reputation as a serious reporter by chasing a story that simply isn’t true and never was.
Best show about the media
CNN’s “Reliable Sources” is must-view TV for anyone interested in the media. Host Brian Stelter and the show book excellent guests and Stelter’s everyman approach to the media really does accomplish what the show sets out to do: take viewers inside the story to see how the media is doing its job and how news is being told. Stelter is one of CNN’s most valuable assets and deservedly so.
Best book about the media
Speaking of Stelter, in his book about Fox News, “Hoax,” Stelter pulls back the curtain on a network that should have its curtain pulled back. Which leads me to …
Most dangerous network
Fox News people won’t like to hear this and they refuse to believe it, but no news organization does more harm than America’s most-watched cable news network. That’s what makes them so dangerous — millions watch and believe everything said on Fox News. That’s because there are just enough legitimate news people there — Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum — to give Fox News credibility in the minds of many. But when you hear the garbage being put out by its primetime lineup of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, as well as most days on “The Five” and “Fox & Friends,” you start to understand the divisiveness in this country. No network does more to split the country than Fox News. At times, when clearly in cahoots with the president, it’s tantamount to state-run TV. You could make a case that this is the most divided this country has been since the 1860s. And you could also make the case that Fox News has done more than any news outlet to contribute to that divide.
“The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part series on former Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan, came along at a perfect time. Sports in the United States were pretty much shut down because of the coronavirus. Sports fans needed a fix beyond Korean baseball games being aired at 5 in the morning. So in April and May, ESPN delivered a fascinating inside look at one of the greatest and most popular athletes to ever live. It included never-before-seen video, incredibly revealing interviews and detailed storytelling that captivated even non-basketball fans. While “The Last Dance” doesn’t quite measure up to some of the all-time great sports documentaries — “O.J.: Made in America,” “When We Were Kings,” and “Hoop Dreams” — it was the perfect documentary for the time it was shown. We needed it this year, and “The Last Dance” was a lovely dance.
Best Trump interview
Donald Trump might have thought he was walking into friendly confines when he agreed to sit down with Fox News’ Chris Wallace in July. But he forgot one thing: Wallace is a bulldog of a reporter and a top-rate interviewer. When Trump tried to peddle misinformation, about Joe Biden wanting to “defund the police” or COVID-19 testing numbers, Wallace wouldn’t let him get away with it. Wallace was masterful. At the time, Axios’ Jonathan Swan tweeted, “I think I’ve watched every television interview Donald Trump has done since announcing his candidacy in 2015. Chris Wallace just did the best one, and by some distance.” What’s interesting about that is just a couple of months later, in September, Swan conducted his own superb interview with Trump. What made Swan’s interview so good was simple: He listened to Trump and then asked perfect follow-up questions that had Trump spinning.
Most emotional TV moment
CNN’s Van Jones’ tearful reaction to Joe Biden being the projected winner of the 2020 presidential election was nothing but raw emotion, the kind rarely seen on TV. If you missed it, click here.
Best debate moderator
Only one of the presidential/vice presidential debates was not a total disaster. That was the last one between Trump and Biden. Not only was it not bad, it was excellent, and that’s because NBC News’ Kristen Welker was in full command. She was so good that even Trump, who sabotaged the first debate with constant interruptions, told Welker during the debate, “I respect very much the way you’re handling this.” Washington Post White House bureau chief Philip Rucker said Welker gave a “masterclass” in how to moderate a debate.
Biggest disappointment on cable news
It was admirable when Shep Smith walked away from Fox News because he disagreed with how Fox News handled itself and the news. He took his earpiece and microphone to CNBC to host a show with the most straightforward name you can get: “The News with Shepard Smith.” But, so far, the show is making little impact, averaging less than 300,000 viewers. Too bad because Smith is a good journalist.
Best job change for media observers
At the start of 2020, Ben Smith left BuzzFeed as its editor-in-chief to become the media columnist at The New York Times. It seemed like a bit of an odd move, to go from running the show at BuzzFeed to being a writer at the Times, but thank goodness he did. His “Media Equation” column is fine dining. Because of his hustle, dogged reporting and choice of topics, Smith has quickly established himself as the best media columnist in the country. And what’s heartening is no topic is off-limits, including his own newspaper.
The Washington Post’s Harry Stevens with “Why outbreaks like coronavirus
Best changing of the guard
In March, just moments before he was supposed to go on the air and host his “Hardball” show, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews abruptly announced he was stepping away. But we shouldn’t have been surprised. There had been reports about Matthews’ inappropriate behavior for a while. MSNBC made the best out of a bad situation and found the right choice to replace Matthews: Joy Reid. After her outstanding work hosting a weekend show on the network, she earned a spot on weeknights and that show, “The ReidOut,” is off to a good start.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has had serious issues in the past couple of years with staff clashing with leadership. But it turned embarrassing when it tried to discipline a Black reporter who made a crack on social media about the coverage of race. Reporter Alexis Johnson tweeted out photos of damage and debris as if it was from a protest about race and then revealed that it was actually from the tailgating of a Kenny Chesney country concert. The P-G leadership didn’t appreciate the humor or the sarcasm and said Johnson had compromised her ability to cover protests. The P-G dropped the ball all around and looked silly throughout the controversy. Johnson eventually left for Vice News.
Best big board guru
The Khaki Man! Is there anyone who can break down the big map better than MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki? Running on nothing but fumes and Diet Coke during Election Day-turned-Election Week, Kornacki was the best thing on TV as we waited to see who the next president was going to be. To be fair, CNN’s John King was elite as well, and his work on the big map was equally impressive and important. But the nod here goes to Kornacki because of the khakis. In fact, Kornacki was so good on election coverage that NBC Sports has recruited him to work on “Sunday Night Football” and break down the NFL playoff picture. And suddenly, that has become one of the best things to watch.
Most stunning TV moment
During the protests in Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd, CNN reporter Omar Jimenez and a producer and a photojournalist were arrested live on television. Many journalists across the country were arrested or attacked by police during the protests. To see it happen on live TV, however, was both important and disturbing.
Most haunting feature
The Washington Post’s John Woodrow Cox had a heartbreaking story about three children who were orphaned when the coronavirus took their parents in “They depended on their parents for everything. Then the virus took both.”
Doc Emrick, perhaps the best play-by-play announcer in sports, retired after calling this year’s Stanley Cup final. He had been calling hockey for 47 years and never lost a step. He will be sorely missed.
Biggest story inside the world of journalism
Through this horrible 2020, Poynter’s Kristen Hare has been covering news employees who have been laid off and news outlets that have shut down, mostly because of the economic downturn caused by COVID-19. The numbers are simply staggering, and Kristen’s work on this project, sadly, continues and shows no signs of slowing down.
Biggest hurdle to a free press in the U.S.
The easy answer would be President Trump, who continues to attack the media as “enemy of the people” and “fake news.” But right there with the president as a roadblock for the press is White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. With her lies and childish attacks, she is in the running for worst White House press secretary ever. It will be a good day for the media and, frankly, our democracy, when she is no longer speaking for the most important office in America, and maybe even the world.
Did anyone work harder in journalism this year than Poynter’s PolitiFact and International Fact-Checking Network, CNN’s Daniel Dale, The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, The Associated Press’ Karen Mahabir and anyone else who fact-checks for a living? Just covering everything said in the White House is a full-time job and then some.
What a year it was for the “Today” show’s Savannah Guthrie. She continued to do solid work on the “Today” show, but also showed her reporting chops are still strong with a take-no-guff town hall with President Trump. Her work grilling the president and keeping him on point was excellent.
Best TV doctor
CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta. His coronavirus commentary and explanations have helped us get through this pandemic. Not only has his work been good, it has been invaluable.
Other special shoutouts for 2020
Here are some of the journalists and outlets that did special work in 2020:
The New York Times’ White House reporters Maggie Haberman and Peter Baker; MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle and her COVID-19 coverage; White House correspondents Yamiche Alcindor of PBS and Kaitlan Collins of CNN; The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker; PBS’s “Washington Week” TV show; Bill Simmons’ podcasts, especially the “BS Podcast”; New York Post sports media reporter Andrew Marchand, who seems to break more sports media stories than anyone; “60 Minutes,” which remains as relevant as ever; TV shows “Axios on HBO” and “The New York Times Presents”; all of The Atlantic’s coronavirus coverage, not just the work of Ed Yong; morning show anchors Robin Roberts of ABC’s “Good Morning America” and Gayle King of “CBS This Morning”; Terry Gross and the always great “Fresh Air” on NPR; Christiane Amanpour and her PBS show; Rolling Stone’s Brian Hiatt, one of the best music reads around; and “Saturday Night Live” and the return of sharp political commentary on that show.
Three things I really liked in the media this year
- Newsletters! Every news outlet has a million of them. Heck, it feels like every journalist has one. I sign up for way too many of them and I don’t get a chance to read a lot of them on a regular basis. But, when they’re good (like The Washington Post’s 5-Minute Fix or the New York Times Opinion or Mike Allen’s daily newsletter for Axios or Politico’s Playbook or Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call) man are they fun.
- “CBS Sunday Morning.” I say this every year: It might be the best pound-for-pound show on all of TV.
- Late-night hosts Stephen Colbert of CBS and Seth Meyers of NBC. Roasting politicians and commenting on politics have been late-night staples forever, but the commentary of Colbert and Meyers this year was hilarious and biting.
Three things I really hated in the media this year
- Rick Santorum on CNN. And I’m not even blaming Santorum. He’s giving CNN exactly what they want: a voice to represent Republicans. But if CNN thinks Santorum and Gloria Borger yelling and interrupting one another makes for good TV, they’re wildly mistaken.
- Pretty much everything said on Fox News’ “The Five,” especially if it was coming out of Greg Gutfeld’s mouth. I don’t know what would be more disturbing: that Gutfeld believes all the junk that he says or he does it just to troll people.
- Skip Bayless on FS1’s “Undisputed.” Put it this way: Bayless is the sports version of Greg Gutfeld.
Three random thoughts about the media
- For my money, The New York Times and The Washington Post remain THE most trusted news sources in this country, particularly on a national level. Their work is exemplary, their commitment is heartening and the news they produce and cover — from breaking news to commentary to analysis — is unmatched in this country.
- Columnists that you should read every chance you get: the Los Angeles Times’ Steve Lopez, the Miami Herald and nationally-syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts, Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins, The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill and a new favorite of mine, the Tampa Bay Times’ Stephanie Hayes, who has managed to start up an often delightfully humorous column in a year that has been anything but funny.
- 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.
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More resources for journalists
- Coronavirus Facts Alliance — Poynter and the International Fact-Checking Network
- Power Up Leadership in Tough Times (Winter 2021) (Seminar) — Apply by: Jan. 18
- Power of Diverse Voices: Writing Workshop for Journalists of Color (Seminar) — Apply by: Feb. 7
- Starting Poynt (Seminar) — Apply by: Feb. 23
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