The Peabody Awards and Dialogic Declarations of Value

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Post by Jonathan Gray, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

This year’s Peabody Awards are “new and improved” in many ways. The awards ceremony will be televised, for one (hosted by Fred Armisen, on Pivot); the screening committees were overhauled to draw on the expertise of media and journalism studies scholars nationally; judging made use of an online streaming platform, thereby giving Board members easier access to everything; and announcements have been spread out over two weeks (to give various winners their due, rather than have them hidden behind the more prominent Entertainment awardees). Less monumentally, it’s my first year on the Board. In this post, I thought I’d reflect a little on the process, especially on what it’s like to be on a Board charged with determining value, for a media and cultural studies scholar when we’re often uncomfortable with declaring value, saying this is “better” than that, or establishing hierarchies of worth.

First, though, it’s worth noting two of the ways in which the Peabodys are different from many other media awards. There are no categories with single winners for each. Ostensibly, everything competes against everything. We seek “excellence on its own terms,” and thus being on the Board means constantly shifting one’s frame of value. Paired with this, to receive an award, an item must ultimately receive a unanimous vote from the Board of seventeen members. This means that all decisions are made following a highly deliberative process, and if even just one member doesn’t vote for something, it won’t win. Rather than simply vote on what one thinks is excellent, therefore, one must communicate that excellence, and convince one’s colleagues on the Board that it is worthy of an award.

It’s this deliberative process with which I fell in love. It’s an impressive Board, marked currently by fellow academics Henry Jenkins, Barbie Zelizer, and the Director Jeffrey Jones, but also by television critics, the curator for the British Film Institute, and past or present journalists, producers, creators, and media execs. Everyone’s used to being listened to in their job, yet we’re all thrown into a room and made to talk it out. Simply dictating that this or that has value is meaningless, as one must instead think carefully about what sort of value something has, and to whom, and then communicate that thoughtfully. Each of us came into the process with our own passions, but one can never assume that those passions are shared by others. This could be a recipe for bland, middle-of-the-road fare, if everyone simply yielded on the most unobjectionable texts. Instead, though, the deliberative process was exhilarating, as everyone seemed to accept that the awards are more meaningful if we try to understand others’ passions and criteria for excellence, and if we found ways to precariously balance them out with each other.

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Exciting for me, therefore, were the moments when I found new appreciation for something that on first viewing or listening meant little to me. At times, I’d enter a discussion skeptically, yet either be schooled on why something mattered to people other than me, or – even cooler when it happened – be led into liking it myself. Similarly, it was energizing to sit down and think through some of my passions, and work out how best to communicate their value to others: when we can’t simply pound a fist on the table and insist that something is good dammit, it challenges us to really explore what it is that we love so much about it, why it has value, and why we want others to experience it as do we. The process “stretched” me, both in terms of getting what other people like and why, and getting better what I like and why.

It’s this process that also makes the Peabody Awards quite unique, and that lead to their value to those who win. Walter Cronkite famously quipped that one counts one’s Emmys, but cherishes one’s Peabodys. Indeed, this would be a retort to those who question the point of the whole endeavor. Awards like this can matter, we’re aware: many veteran Board members told me of one-on-one conversations with documentarians, writers, or newscasters at previous awards dinners who’d spoken of how much an award like this means to them. The new mantra is that we award “Stories that Matter” (while being openly reflexive in asking who they matter to, how, and why), and I like the idea of celebrating those who have contributed meaningfully to the public sphere. Just as it’s always a pleasure for me to sit down and write a reference letter for a truly spectacular student or colleague applying for a job, award, or grant, since I want to stop and pay respect to their awesomeness, so too is it refreshing that we find ways to say not just, “your show was engaging, interesting, and/or amusing,” but “your show matters and makes a difference.”

I’m very proud of this year’s slate of winners. It includes things I adored and/or admired before the judging process, such as Inside Amy Schumer, Fargo, Serial, Doc McStuffins, Cosmos, Jane the Virgin, and Last Week Tonight. I gained new obsessions and passions along the way, to State of the Re:Union, The Honorable Woman, Adventure Time, The Americans, Black Mirror, Richard Engel’s reporting, Vice Media’s access and new approach to news, all things Grace Lee Boggs, and many other documentaries, news reports, radio shows, podcasts, websites, and entertainment shows that didn’t get awards but that won me over all the same. And I had confirmed for me why it can be valuable, and transformative, to have discussions and debates about what is worthy of commendation, what is special, what is unique. Media and cultural studies is right to be concerned about singular, monologic declarations of value, but there’s something to be learned from the Peabodys’ mode of deciding upon value dialogically.

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