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Peabody Award Winners Celebrate Individuality, Investigative Reporting and ‘Enemies of the People’

The 76th annual Peabody Awards was a celebration of investigative journalism, independent filmmaking and singular visions that illuminate universal truths.

The gathering at Cipriani Wall Street, hosted by actress Rashida Jones, honored 30 programs running the gamut from radio to local TV to network and international news coverage to documentaries to narrative comedies on FX and HBO. This year’s ceremony included special achievement kudos for prolific producer Norman Lear and the Independent Television Service.

The shadow of the upheaval in Washington and media circles wrought by the Trump administration was ever-present throughout the presentation. More than one honoree made reference to President Trump’s assertion that journalists are “enemies of the people.”

As CBS News’ Jim Axelrod observed: “It’s really wonderful to be able to share the evening with so many other distinguished enemies of the people.”

“Frontline” executive producer Raney Aronson assured the crowd that the PBS institution is committed to “practising serious journalism and filmmaking for these very serious times.”

Atlanta” co-star Brian Tyree Henry read a letter from creator-star Donald Glover in accepting the award for the FX comedy that has been widely praised for its unfiltered look at life for young African-American men. Glover is in London at present working on the next installments of the “Star Wars” feature franchise.

“If you talk about things that matter to you, you’re talking about things that matter to everyone,” Henry read.

Ezra Edelman, director-producer of ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America” documentary, hailed ESPN for giving him the freedom to produce the unsparing look at the cultural legacy of O.J. Simpson.

Edelman pointed to his mother, Children’s Defense Fund founder Marion Wright Edelman, in the crowd at Cipriani Wall Street and noted that one of her 25 lessons for life was “assign yourself.” But Erza Edelman said his path to “O.J.: Made in America” started with an assignment from ESPN.

“They gave me the freedom and the independence to create this work — for that we’re eternally grateful,” Edelman said.

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay was recognized for her Netflix documentary “13th,” about the growth of the prison population and the disproportionate effect it has had on people of color. She dedicated the award, presented by actress Lupita Nyong’o, to “the people behind bars and the people who are waiting for them.” She also gave a shout-out to Netflix for supporting her vision.

“Netflix is really a disruptor and this is a time when people are criticizing what is new,” she said, perhaps referring to the debate over Netflix’s role in the film industry that erupted this week at the Cannes film festival. “This is one filmmaker who welcomes any platform to tell our stories.”

Beyonce’s film “Lemonade” was also among the 30 honorees. The star could not accept in person — she’s on travel restriction because she’s pregnant with twins — but exec producer Steve Pamon was effusive in extending her thanks. “We appreciate you showing us the love because ‘Lemonade’ was about love,” Pamon said. The response to the 40-minute film designed to accompany her album of the same name was a lesson that “the more specific you become the more universal you are,” he said.

Famed producer Norman Lear received an individual Peabody Award for his long and illustrious career, which includes this year’s warmly received remake of “One Day at a Time” for Netflix. “I’ll be 95 in July, and already I’m receiving an award for lifetime achievement,” Lear joked.

CBS News was recognized for the “Heart of an Epidemic, West Virginia’s Opioid Addiction” investigative report featured on the “CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley,” which exposed who corrupt doctors and greed among pharmacies and drug wholesalers flooded the state with additive prescription drugs. Reporter Axelrod hailed CBS News management and Pelley for demonstrating a commitment to investigative reporting. “It’s not some branding exercise. In our case it’s in our DNA,” he said.

Jessica Edwards, director of the HBO documentary “Mavis!,” about legendary soul singer Mavis Staples, said the process of making the film was a profound learning experience.

“She taught me about love and peace and that music can lift us,” she said. “As long as she’s marching down her freedom highway, I’ll be marching right alongside.”

Showtime documentary “Zero Days” was recognized for its look at the growing covert world of cyberattacks and the spread of computer malware designed to advance political initiatives. “It was a tremendous achievement because our main character was computer code and that wasn’t easy,” said writer-director Alex Gibney.

Louis C.K. arrived on stage a little breathless to accept his trophy for his independently produced drama “Horace and Pete.” He explained that he’d just come from his daughter’s dance recital. “It was good,” he said.

C.K. unleashed “Horace and Pete” last year on his own website with no advance promotion, just an email to those on his mailing list. The family-centric drama had a stellar cast alongside C.K. including Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco and Jessica Lange.

“I did it all wrong,” he said. “It was sort of an experiment to see if you don’t promote anything and just see if anybody comes to watch, what will happen. I expected nothing to happen. (But) it went well.” He gave a shout out to his longtime producing partner M. Blair Breard for “making it happen,” he said.

Investigation Discovery was among honorees for “Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four,” a true-crime tale that led to the exoneration of four lesbian women in the Texas city who were accused of gang-raping two young girls. Executive producer Deborah S. Esquenazi brought the four women on stage in accepting the award.

Independent Television Service commanded the institutional honor for its decades-long support of independent filmmakers including those featured on PBS’ “POV” documentary showcase. ITVS president-CEO Sally Jo Fifer said the work of independent filmmakers is vital to understanding contemporary culture.

“We’re so proud to be their ally, their partner, their incubator,” Fifer said.

Pamela Adlon, star and creator of the FX comedy “Better Things,” was emotional and she told the crowd about her long career as an actress that began when she was a kid. “I got fired when I was 12. Do you know what it feels like to get fired when you’re 12?” she said. “It feels fired.”

After so many years of working to make a living and build a career, “Better Things” finally gave Adlon the chance  to express herself on screen.

“I never dreamed this could be my job,” she said. “I’m so grateful.”

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., was on hand to present the final kudo of the night, to HBO’s Washington, D.C. farce “Veep.” Referencing his previous life as a “Saturday Night Live” writer, Franken observed: “To my former colleagues still making millions of Americans laugh — do not think for a moment than what you do is any less important than what I do. Even though it is,” he said.

“Veep” star Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Timothy Simons proclaimed their duty to “give the American public truth through satire.” They read a few extremely crude lines of dialogue from the show and then gave the Peabody administrators the chance to take the award back. Louis-Dreyfus wound up handing it back to Franken. “Congratulations,” she said.

(Pictured: “Atlanta’s” Zazie Beetz and Brian Tyree Henry)

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