As the pandemic ripped through almost every aspect of American life in 2020, driving people to isolate in myriad ways, media became more important than ever. Television, which analysts had long compared to an electronic campfire for its ability to bring people together for shared experiences, took on added importance as a central source of information and, in some cases, inspiration, even as production of most entertainment programs was shut down in Hollywood and elsewhere.
As always happens in a crisis, some people rose to the occasion, and others folded or tried to exploit it for their own ends. Those people in the TV industry who successfully faced the challenges helped some of us get through the loneliness and the confusion and loss of direction caused, in large part, by the fog of disinformation generated by the White House and its allies in this election year.
As a citizen and viewer, I thank those who used the medium to try to better serve us in this horrible year. As a critic, I use this year-end column to applaud and thank them.
LeBron James and the TV special he hosted and helped fund, “Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020.”
Rituals are a key source of cultural continuity, and one of the most important rituals in American life is that of high school graduation. That event, which helps instill a feeling of accomplishment and confidence in the future, was denied most graduating seniors last spring by necessary restrictions on large gatherings.
Enter basketball superstar LeBron James in the month of May with an uplifting TV special that used the latest digital technology to create a sense of community among graduates while congratulating and inspiring them with his words and those of former President Barack Obama.
Music and technology came together beautifully in the special. It opened with a diverse choir of graduates from across the country brought together virtually on-screen to sing “The Star Spangled Banner.” It included outstanding and moving performances from artists including H.E.R. and Alicia Keys. But nothing matched the power of Obama’s words: “With everything suddenly up for grabs, this is your generation’s world to shape.”
2020 Democratic National Convention
I admitted in a column I wrote in August that I did not expect much of the virtual Democratic National Convention. In fact, I feared it was going to be an embarrassment. I wasn’t alone. But it wound up winning widespread acclaim.
The producers learned from the graduation special hosted by James. They borrowed from its opening with their own virtual choir singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” But they went a giant step further in re-imaging the roll call of states with a resident of each shown on-site announcing how the votes were cast. It transformed what was an often tedious convention exercise into something engaging and inspirational through the diversity of American geography and life that it captured.
Yet, for all the digital excellence, the on-screen convention’s greatest power was found in one of the oldest forms of television: one person talking from the heart directly to the camera. Former first lady Michelle Obama did it best, and people were talking about her words for days. Jill Biden, who holds a doctorate in education, wasn’t too bad either sitting in an empty classroom talking about education and why she thinks her husband would make a good president.
CNN’s coverage of COVID-19, Trump’s presidency and a summer of social protest.
As if COVID-19 was not a big enough story for any year, we also had an election and the unraveling of the Trump presidency along with a summer and fall of social protest. No one on TV covered all three more diligently than CNN.
On COVID-19, CNN coverage was graced by the tireless work of Dr. Sanjay Gupta in countering the dangerous medical misinformation from the Trump White House. And don’t forget the “Sesame Street” specials for kids and families, like the one a week ago Saturday with Dr. Gupta on COVID-19. National correspondent Miguel Marquez and his team have done exemplary reporting inside stressed hospitals trying to treat victims of the virus.
On wall-to-wall coverage of social protest, think back to correspondent Omar Jimenez being arrested on camera in Minneapolis during a live report in May for simply doing his job without violating any restrictions.
But it is CNN’s unwillingness to back down in the face of insults and threats from Trump that I believe future historians will rightfully celebrate as an earlier generation did the work of CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow in standing up to Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Yes, there was great reporting from the White House team led by Jim Acosta. But CNN President Jeff Zucker is the real hero of the CNN story for not giving an inch as Trump tried to intimidate him and then when that didn’t work get him fired.
MSNBC’s coverage of politics.
MSNBC was just as relentless as CNN in trying to counter the lies and disinformation of the Trump White House.
“The 11th Hour with Brian Williams” remained the most valuable hour on cable TV, the “Nightline” of today. If you spend an hour with the show, you can go to bed knowing everything you need to know about what happened in the world of politics that day.
Election nights were informative and highly engaging on MSNBC with Joy Reid, Rachel Maddow and Nicole Wallace at the anchor desk ― along with Steve Kornacki on the electronic map tirelessly breaking down votes.
“After Life” with Ricky Gervais
This darkly comedic series about a reporter on a small-town newspaper trying to carry on with life after the death of his wife, speaks like no other entertainment program in popular culture to the COVID-19 moment in which we now live.
I was not a big fan of Season 1. But then came COVID-19 with its mounting death count in March and the debut of Season 2 in April, and I cannot wait for Season 3. The Netflix series, which is created by and stars Gervais, was made before the pandemic, so it was not created in reaction to COVID-19. But it is pitch perfect in capturing the existential mindset within which so many of us now live.
PBS taking its game to a higher level when the nation needs it most
As digital media and economics increasingly divide consumers into haves and have-nots based on sky-high subscriptions fees, PBS has stepped up its commitment to free programming in a major way this year. Whether it is the exceptional documentary series of “Frontline,” which focused on some of those hardest hit by the pandemic like agricultural workers in California, or an on-demand archive that offers such productions as “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” a look at the late congressman’s life of social activism, PBS is offering programming every bit as good as anything on Netflix or HBO. And every American with a TV can see most of it without paying a monthly fee.
TV moment of the year: “The Final Crossing” of John Lewis
While most of the productions described above offered moments that moved me, nothing did so as deeply as TV news coverage in July of what some referred to as “The Final Crossing” of the Edmund Pettus Bridge by Congressman Lewis.
First, rose petals were strewed across the bridge as symbols of the blood shed by Lewis and other civil rights marchers in 1965. Then came the journey of one of our greatest leaders being carried in death over the ground his sacrifice and suffering helped make holy in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. I can close my eyes as I write this sentence today and still see those images of the horses, the caisson and the top-hatted driver crossing the bridge, revisiting one of the most powerful and resonant moments of this hero’s journey.
I am thankful to TV for helping me participate in that ritualistic re-enactment and for burning those images so powerfully into my heart. With so much of one’s life now lived through screens rather than in-person, I am more grateful than ever for those who presented such images with care and a keen sense of history and social conscience in 2020.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidzurawik.