New Peabody Director Jones: Popular programming can foster political discussion

New Peabody Director Dr. Jeffrey Jones.

Originally published on on July 16, 2013.

ATHENS — While traditional forms of journalism continue to be shuttered by economic pressures and partisan slants, Dr. Jeffrey Jones sees a way of bringing political discussion to the kitchen table – entertainment media.

“Citizens are less interested in traditional storytelling about politics such as news,” he said. “They now often engage in popular forms that are more pleasurable, interesting and exciting.”

Jones cited satirical programming such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and popular dramas such as Homeland andThe Wire that have fostered discussions of politics and society, in more depth than traditional news ever could. In addition to promoting political discussion, those shows have another element in common – they all have won Peabody Awards.

On July 1, Jones became the Lambdin Kay Chair and the fifth director of the Peabody Awards, internationally recognized as one of the most prestigious awards in electronic media. An oft-published media scholar for the past two decades, Jones said the American trend of fusing entertainment and politics took off in the 1990s.

“Traditionally as a society we’ve looked at news and documentary to be our central source for political information,” he said. “But what happened in the 1990s was a new array of actors came onto the scene – Michael Moore, Dennis Miller, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Ali G., Chris Rock – who were all doing political material. It became a moment where I thought we should look at the ways in which entertainment programming became a more popular venue for engaging and understanding politics.”

The new cultural phenomena became the heart of Jones’ scholarly work, which includes five published books and dozens of published academic studies. After a decade of teaching media courses and, most recently, serving as director of the Institute of Humanities at Old Dominion University, what drew Jones to the Peabody Awards is the positive recognition the award gives to these new forms of political communication.

“As media scholars, our job is to offer a critical view of how media affects society,” he said. “Often that is seen and done negatively, with the conclusion that media fails to support democracy. The Peabodys offer the same kind of critical assessment, but in a positive way. These are the best media practices in journalism, documentary and entertainment, and we are better citizens by attending to these stories.”

As director, Jones said one of his goals is to utilize and publicize the Peabody Collection, an archive of more than 50,000 titles consisting of all the entries to the Peabody Awards since its inception in 1941. Housed in the University of Georgia’s Special Collections Library, it is the third largest repository of radio and television programming in the United States, outranked only by the Library of Congress and the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

“We need to find ways to exploit this collection,” Jones said, citing the importance of preserving the older materials, making popular entries digitally available and using the works in scholarly symposia and workshops. “We sit on a treasure trove and it’s my job to raise the money to preserve it and to share it more widely.”

Another top goal of Jones is to further promote the Peabody Awards and what it represents. “The Peabody Awards have always highlighted quality storytelling in entertainment, news and documentary – the best in media practices and the best in American narratives,” he said. “My job as Peabody director is to help the Peabody become more nationally recognized as doing that.”

In addition to those two goals, Jones said he would like to maintain, and perhaps expand the role of students in the Peabody Awards, from assisting in the office, serving on pre-screening judging committees and helping at the annual New York ceremony.

“Students are vital to how this program is run,” he said. “This is a unique experience that students cannot get anywhere else in the country, and thus, a wonderful contribution to the education Georgia students get at Grady.”

Author: Joe Dennis

Journalist. Teacher. Announcer. Coach.

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