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2020 in review: covering race, equity, and some not-so-brief press briefings

NewsHour Weekend producer Zachary Green speaks with Hari Sreenivasan about his most illuminating work in 2020: covering race, equity, and the Black Lives Matter movement in small-town America, and on figuring out the best way to cover -- and fact-check -- the COVID-19 Task Force press briefings.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We continue the conversation with NewsHour Weekend producer Zachary Green who has a round-up of some of his segments from last year.

    Zach, we did a lot of stories about race and equity this year. One of them was you diving back into a debate from 55 years ago. Tell us about it.

  •  Zachary Green:

    Well, this was a debate that took place in 1965 between William F. Buckley, the founder of the National Review, and James Baldwin, the author and essayist and playwright and civil rights activist, among many other things. It was about the idea of whether or not the American dream comes at the expense of Black people in America. And this was a debate that I was kind of slightly obsessed with for the better part of seven years, I'd say. Last year, somebody published a book about it. His name is Nicholas Bucola. He's a professor of political science. The book is called, "The Fire is Upon Us."

  • Nicholas Buccola:

    It just seemed to me just such a dramatic moment and—such an important one. So these two movements that did so much to define 20th century—political history—to have these two figures clashing—was just—just irresistible.

  • Zachary Green:

    What was really fascinating about it was just seeing the way that the same issues that surround race that we're seeing play out now were the same issues playing out, you know, 55 years ago. And when you watch that debate, you can see that even though times have changed, policies have changed, the ways that we approach race and equity in this country hasn't really changed that much in 55 years.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You also took a trip back to your hometown to see how the Black Lives Matter movement was doing there. Why?

  • Zachary Green:

    Mm-hmm. Yeah, I grew up in western Massachusetts, in Berkshire County. It is a beautiful place to grow up. It's very rural. You know, it's– you know, it's exactly what you think of when you think of quintessential New England. One thing that happened this year that really caught my attention was that my home town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, which is a town of like a few thousand people, had a– had a very well attended Black Lives Matter demonstration of about a thousand people, which is, you know, that's a huge chunk of the population to come out and protest in favor of Black Lives Matter.

    But it also sort of made me think, well, what does that mean in the context of everything else that goes on there? Because Berkshire County is a very white place. But there is– there has always been a Black population living there. I really wanted to reexamine, you know, what it was like for other people who didn't look like me growing up where I grew up.

  • Regi Wingo:

    There's a lot of handed-down generational racism or bigotry, that, like, sort of is, like, the underpinning of the Berkshires. Strangely enough, like, one of—the kids I used to have a huge problem with growing up—one of the kids my daughter had a problem with, I came to find out is the son of this dude. No one is born intrinsically racist, right. You can tell exactly what is going on with parents by how their children act.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One of the other things that, well, you and I did this year was a product called "Briefly" which was a way to try to make sense of those interminably long news briefings about the coronavirus that weren't brief.

  • Zachary Green:

    Basically we were– we were sitting watching these briefings, watching our colleagues report on them and– and just kind of feeling a little aghast at how these things were playing out. You know, the President has a lot of power and the bully pulpit is maybe the most powerful tool that he has. And the messaging that we were getting was, you know, it was confusing and maybe at worst disingenuous.

    We just felt like we had a role to play here to actually watch through these briefings and see what was said in them that could actually be of use to the American people. We kind of subjected ourselves to these hour-plus long briefings and then tried to condense them into a watchable format of like five minutes, I think was the shortest one, 15 minutes on the long end, to just say here's– here's what we watched and here's what we think you really need to know.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We watched so other people wouldn't have to.

  • Zachary Green:

    That's right. We learned how to say hydroxychloroquine.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And we learned to say it well.

  • Zachary Green:

    Very well!

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And repeatedly. Zach Green, thanks so much for all your stories. Happy holidays.

  • Zachary Green:

    You too, Hari. Thanks.

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