Reverence and Laughs Abound at the Peabody Awards


The 68th annual Peabody Awards at the Waldorf Astoria in New York got off to an auspicious start with the help of jocular host, NBC News’ Brian Williams.

The 36 recipients of the George Foster Peabody Awards, which are administered by the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, were instructed during the morning rehearsal to keep their acceptance speeches to 30 seconds. Few paid heed. The afternoon’s first recipient was Albert Maysles for his documentary The Gates, about artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Central Park art project. Maysles thanked the artists for their determination to do the impossible in mounting dozens of esoteric, often controversial public art projects. He was barely 30 seconds in when Jeanne-Claude standing behind him with her husband Christo, began to motion toward her wrist watch.

Williams noted that it’s “never boring when Jeanne-Claude and Christo arrive at your luncheon,” adding that Jeanne-Claude (whose dyed hair is Ronald McDonald orange) was surely the “chromatic influence” for The Gates.

A majority of the Peabody Awards go to documentary and news programming with a smattering of scripted fare thrown in. This year scripted winners included Entourage, Breaking Bad, Saturday Night Live, John Adams and Lost. In an acknowledgment of the increasing influence of digital platforms, Peabody’s went to, YouTube and the Onion News Network.

News winners this year included ABC’s seven-hour documentary series Hopkins, about Johns Hopkins Hospital, 60 Minutes’ report on Remote Area Medical, CNN’s election coverage and a raft of documentaries that aired on PBS including POV (Campaign) and Independent Lens (King Corn). NBC News’ Richard Engel, for whom Williams admitted to being “in the tank,” won a Peabody for his report with Viper Company in Afghanistan. Engel, who would head back to the Middle East after the ceremony, said that he hoped his work and the work of other foreign correspondents would “shed some light on the importance of Afghanistan” in particular and foreign news in general, adding, “it is going to be a long, hot summer [in Afghanistan].”

Williams thanked his NBC News colleague for his service and noted that when in Iraq or Afghanistan “I often stay behind in the Bradley … while Richard goes forth to investigate reports of an IED.”

Onion executive producer Will Graham acknowledged his “fellow journalists” at the ceremony, adding “we are hiring.” He also thanked CNN, MSNBC and Fox News for “car chases,” incessant stories about “missing sorority girls” and “swooshy graphics.” “As long as you keep getting more and more ridiculous,” he said, “we’ll keep following you.”

Wolf Blitzer, accepting the Peabody for CNN’s election coverage, delivered a speech rich with Onion-esque self-parody, noting that he could not have done it without “the best political team on television.” Then he stood in profile against the giant George Foster Peabody medallion.

Williams feigned confusion: “I think he said something about the best team on political television. It went by so quickly. And I had not heard that before.”