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ABC debuts new prime-time newsmagazine on Black life, ‘Soul of a Nation’ | COMMENTARY

Pierre Thomas, chief justice correspondent for ABC News, interviews Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn (right). Photo courtesy of ABC News.
Pierre Thomas, chief justice correspondent for ABC News, interviews Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn (right). Photo courtesy of ABC News. (Courtesy of ABC News / HANDOUT)

One of the most important pieces of reporting on the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol was the interview Pierre Thomas, chief justice correspondent for ABC News, did with Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, the first member of the force to speak publicly about what it was like in the trenches in hand-to-hand combat with an angry mob of Trump supporters.

An expanded version of that interview, which has aired on various ABC News platforms, will be featured on “Soul of a Nation,” a weekly prime-time newsmagazine focused on the Black experience that debuts at 10 p.m. Tuesday on ABC. If the rest of the hour-long program, which was not available for preview, has anywhere near the testimonial power, cultural punch and historical value of this interview, ABC News is going to have a program the network can be very proud of in this time of racial reckoning.

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“We fought with these people who were prepared for a fight,” Dunn, a 13-year veteran of the force, tells Thomas. ”They had on gas masks. They had on body armor. They had two-way radios. They had on tactical gear, bulletproof vests. They were ready to go.”

“Did that surprise you? Did it scare you?” Thomas asks.

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“I was scared. I was absolutely scared,” Dunn says. “I’m on this platform. I’m a big guy. I’m 6 foot 7. I’m this giant person. And we had our guns out, and I’m thinking, ‘All these people out there, they’re armed, too. People are going to get shot. They could take me out.’”

Dunn says he engaged the mob and members of it responded by calling him the N-word, a call that grew among the ranks of rioters as he tried to halt their progress.

“You’re in the Capitol, defending the Capitol, and somehow race seeped into that, too,” Thomas says.

“Everybody wants to say it was about politics, but there were a large number of people in that crowd who were racists,” Dunn replies.

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If all the debut episode of “Soul of the Nation” did was provide a prime-time showcase for that interview, it would still be one of the most important new network series of 2021. I love the way Thomas slipped in his observation of the way “race seeped in” to the struggle in the Capitol. Race is always there in one way or another if you are Black especially when you are confronted by the kind of white supremacists who answered Trump’s dog whistles and calls the last five years. The insight on race that Thomas offered lives up to ABC’s press release promise that the show will offer viewers “a unique window into authentic realities on Black life and dive deeper into this critical moment of racial reckoning.”

The interview also offers a credible eye witness account that makes a mockery of the audacious and shameless attempts at revision like the one Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson tried to peddle during a Senate and House joint hearing Tuesday on the insurrection. In the version he read into the record of the hearing, the crowd was in a “festive” mood as it made its way to the Capitol. It included many families and small children. There was nothing, according to Johnson, that would lead anyone to call it an armed insurrection. The trouble started with radical leftists posing as Trump followers.

Johnson’s attempt to sell this counter narrative is laughable, but you can bet others on the far right of the GOP will offer similarly false accounts, because the truth is too damning to their party and the man who remains its leader. Sadly, having been read into the Congressional Record of the hearing, Johnson’s lies will be preserved for future historians.

But the Thomas-Dunn interview is also a document of history, one that compellingly tells what really happened that day as a result of Trump’s instigation. I cannot imagine any history being written without this interview being part of the research.

Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, who chaired the Tuesday hearing on the insurrection, also made sure Dunn was part of the public record when she said in her opening remarks, “We will never forget Officer Harry Dunn, who fought against the violent mob for hours, and after it was over, broke down in tears telling fellow officers he’d been called the N-word 15 times that day. He asked: ‘Is this America?’”

As impressed as I am with the interview, it is only part of the fuller conversation between Thomas and Dunn that will air Tuesday, according to Eric Johnson, co-executive producer of the series.

“I know there is a lot of interest in what happened that day at the Capitol, of course,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “But what he (Dunn) and Pierre talk about in this frank conversation is beyond just what happened that day. It’s a broader conversation about race, about patriotism, about what this country looks like to Black people in a way that’s different from other people … This is a conversation between these two Black men about what’s going on in this country right now.”

In addition to Thomas, the series will include interviews and reports by such ABC anchors and correspondents as Byron Pitts, Deborah Roberts, David Scott, Sunny Hostin, Adrienne Bankert, Janai Norman, Steve Osunsami, Linsey Davis and T.J. Holmes.

Pitts, a Baltimore native, returns for a segment tentatively scheduled to air March 16, according to Johnson.

“Byron Pitts goes back to his hometown church, New Shiloh Baptist, where we talk about basically this idea of what is the Black church in this moment of activism. What is the Black church in this moment after Freddie Gray, this moment of Black Lives Matter, of social justice? And how can the church transition? And should they transition to shine a brighter light on those issues?”

Each hour will be organized around an idea or theme, Johnson said. They include racial reckoning, sports activism, faith, Black joy and the power of the next generation of Black Americans. Guest hosts for the series include Sterling K. Brown, Jemele Hill and Marsai Martin.

Brown, of the NBC series “This Is Us,” will host Tuesday’s premiere, which will look at racial reckoning. It will include interviews with actor Danny Glover and musician John Legend, who will close the show with a piano and vocal performance of “Never Break.”

One other aspect of “Soul of a Nation” that seems noteworthy is that it is not airing during Black History month.

“It was important to me and for the team that this was not just seen as a Black History month special,” Johnson said. “We love Black History month, we support it, we want to do content to support Black people during that time frame. But in this moment that we’re in, we’re realizing that it’s not just a moment. Black storytelling is part of the fabric of what we do as journalists. We’re excited to move beyond just February and to let people know that these stories are relevant every month, every day of the year.”

“Soul of a Nation” debuts at 10 p.m. Tuesday on ABC.

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik

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