Honoring achievement in the fields of broadcast journalism, documentary filmmaking, and educational and children’s programming, the George Foster Peabody Awards, popularly known as the “Peabody Awards,” are widely held to be a benchmark for excellence in these fields. Founded in 1940 by a grant from George Foster Peabody, a Georgia banker and prominent philanthropist, the awards are meted out by the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. The award confers a statuette and a $10,000 cash prize to its recipients. Though accorded for a wide array of categories—including, since the 1990s, material appearing on the Internet—it is in the areas of broadcast journalism and documentary films that the Peabody Awards are regarded as conferring a singular prestige. In recent years, however, its administrators have chosen to principally honor works that showcase leftwing politics, rather than works that necessarily possess notable journalistic or documentary merit.
In 1991, two Peabody Awards were presented to National Public Radio (NPR). One was for its pointedly critical coverage of the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, which amplified charges of sexual harassment by law professor Anita Hill; another acclaimed an NPR documentary called The Case Against Women: Sexism in the Courts, which sought to lend authority to anecdotal charges that women were consistently the targets of discrimination in legal cases concerning allegations of child abuse.
To mark the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in America, the 1992 Peabody was awarded to the Institute of American Indian Arts for a documentary titled Surviving Columbus. Directed by Dale Kruzic, this production made the case that the arrival in of Europeans in the New World amounted to a death sentence for Pueblo culture. The Peabody’s judging panel credited Surviving Columbus with providing a “corrective” to the historical texts that “traditionally presented the European version.”
The following year (1993), Peabodys went to two liberal media personalities, CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour and National Public Radio‘s Terry Gross. The same was true in 1994, when a Peabody honored a six-part miniseries called American Playhouse: Tales of the City. An adaptation of the eponymous book by the leftist writer and gay activist Armistead Maupin, the series was a paean to the excesses of gay life in pre-AIDS-era San Francisco.
In 1995 Ted Turner received the Peabody Award for personal achievement. Minimizing Turner’s well-reported sympathies for the Cuba’s Castro dictatorship, the Peabody committee hailed the media mogul as a righteous businessman with “a passionate commitment to make the world a better place than he found it.”
In 1998 a Peabody Award went to an NPR program celebrating communist activist Paul Robeson. In describing the winning program, titled I Must Keep Fightin’: The Art of Paul Robeson, the Peabody Board characterized Robeson, a Stalinist who once remarked that opponents of the Soviet government ought to be shot, as an “international civil rights activist.”
In 1999 the Peabody Award went to a Showtime movie called Strange Justice. Adapted from the book of the same name by reporters Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, the Peabody judges praised Strange Justice as an objective portrayal of the background to Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, explaining that the film “wisely doesn’t take sides.” In fact, however, the film mounted the argument that of the two protagonists, Hill was the more truthful.
In 2000, the Peabody Awards recognized the work of John Merrow, a reporter on education for The News Hour with Jim Lehrer and a former scholar-in-residence at the liberal think-tank The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The Peabody recognized a PBS segment called School Sleuth: The Case of an Excellent School, which Merrow narrated, and which concluded that rigorous testing was not necessarily a valid way of determining the quality of a given school.
In 2001, the Peabody Award went to Spike Lee‘s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, for A Huey P. Newton Story, Lee’s reverent film adaptation of a play about the notorious Black Panther militant, convicted felon, and cop-killer. So great was the Peabody Board’s approval of this tribute to Newton, that in 2003 Peabody Director Horace Newcomb invited the actor who portrayed Newton, Roger Guenveur Smith, to the University of Georgia to discuss his role.
In 2003, CBS News won a Peabody for its documentary investigation titled All in the Family, which alleged that the Halliburton Corporation was awarded a no-bid contract for reconstruction projects in Iraq not because of its vast experience in international reconstruction projects—which CBS did not challenge—but rather because it was, as a synopsis that appeared on the Peabody Awards website put it, “politically-connected.” All in the Family suggested that former Halliburton CEO, American Vice President Dick Cheney, was guilty of rewarding his friends unjustly, at taxpayers’ expense. This attack against Cheney earned a special commendation from the Peabody presenters, who lauded the documentary for bringing “to light a broader problem—that government officials and advisors who make important military decisions often have existing financial ties to the companies that benefit from them, leading to military contracting procedures replete with conflicts of interest.”
Another documentary honored with a Peabody Award in 2003 was an anti-Israel production called Israel’s Secret Weapon. Produced by the BBC, it cast harsh scrutiny on Israel’s nuclear weapons program. Narrated by BBC reporter Olenka Frenkiel (who previously had asserted that in 1947, Jews had poisoned the water in Egypt’s wells), Israel’s Secret Weapon, making no attempt to provide a counter-view, quoted Palestinian Arab activists who charged, without evidence, that Israel had secretly used biological weapons against them. So propagandistic was the documentary’s tenor, that Danny Seaman, the Director of the government press office in Jerusalem, issued a boycott against the BBC following the program’s airing.
That same year, the Peabody Board honored another documentary, Hugo Chavez: Inside the Coup. Produced by two Irish documentarians, this film whitewashed the repressive character of Hugo Chavez‘s rule while offering a glowing presentation of the Venezuelan strongman.
In 2004 the Peabody Board presented a Personal Peabody, its version of a lifetime achievement award, to Bill Moyers — “for a career distinguished by the highest standards of excellence in the use of television to educate, inform, and challenge received ideas.” Throughout his 30-year career in journalism, Moyers, a former aide to president Lyndon Johnson, regularly used his commentaries to inveigh against what he called the pernicious influence of the “right-wing media.” In previous years, Moyers’ television career had been honored with Peabody Awards on eight occasions.
In May 2005, the recently retired CBS news anchor Dan Rather was presented with a Peabody Award. This was shortly after Rather had been involved in a much-publicized September 2004 scandal where he cited “exclusive information, including documents” alleging that George W. Bush had shirked his duties as a member of the Texas Air National Guard in the 1960s and 1970s. It was eventually determined that the documents — which were provided by a Democratic Party activist named Bill Burkett — were forgeries.
Leftist celebrity icons are regularly honored with the Peabody prize. Among its recent recipients are Norman Lear, the founder of People for the American Way, Barbra Streisand, Studs Terkel, and Oprah Winfrey.
Members of the current Board of Peabody judges include Susan Douglas, a professor of communications studies at the University of Michigan; Peter Fiddick, a columnist for one of Britain’s leading leftist newspapers, The Guardian; Bel Herandez, a Latin-American activist who claims that American culture has rejected Latinos; and Meryl Marshall-Daniels, the President of the television production company Two Oceans Entertainment Group.