Kara Swisher, Ben Smith and Cheo Hodari Coker on How the Coronavirus ‘Accelerated’ Changes in Media (Video)

TheGrill 2020: Smith and Swisher agreed that 2020 has expedited change and dissent in media

Coronavirus has changed everything, but as New York Media’s Kara Swisher said in TheGrill 2020 Tuesday, the real question is, “Will it continue afterward?” Swisher and her co-panelists, the New York Times’ Ben Smith and “Luke Cage” executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker, think it will. As they told TheWrap founder and editor in chief Sharon Waxman, they believe the change will be enduring because much of it began prior to the upheaval of 2020. As newsrooms and entertainment staffs face calls for more diversity, for instance, Coker said inclusion isn’t a new demand. He had a bleak message on how distant it remains as a goal, too: “Society has to fall apart for a brother or sister to get a break.” Coker reflected on his past career as a journalist and noted the challenges facing the Los Angeles Times, which has seen calls to diversify its editorial staff and leadership in the wake of nationwide unrest since the killing of George Floyd. The paper hired its first full-time Black reporter during the Watts riots of 1965, he said, “because of the fact that they couldn’t send anybody else in to report in real-time” due to safety concerns. (A 2015 Los Angeles Times piece reviewing the paper’s reporting from those riots conceded that Black advertising salesman’s Robert Richardson deployment to the scene was “an admission that the paper had no Black reporters.”) Black voices have “been around for a while trying to push through,” he said. The question is not, Coker added, about whether an unprecedented year caused the unrest, but, “What’s going to happen now?” Smith pointed out that discussions of objectivity — “whatever that word even means” — and inclusion are not new in newsrooms. What is new, he said, is those discussions playing out publicly on Twitter. “What’s happening at the moment, though, is that there was essentially this bargain that newsrooms offered Black journalists for years, which was, you know, ‘Come work here. We want to be diverse.’ But also kind of the bargain is that you bite your tongue on issues of race and racism. And I think what you have seen is that, specifically, breaking down.” Diversity in the newsroom was one of several topics discussed on the panel, which was moderated by Waxman. Everyone largely agreed that 2020 has seen major shifts in entertainment and media. Waxman noted that the medium of the panel itself — a virtual live stream — was one that wouldn’t have been conceivable just eight months ago, but now seemed totally normal. Swisher mentioned that the “clash of titans” that’s happened during the confluence of major global events this year was already happening “for a long time.” But the shifts have sped up, she said: “What was already happening is now accelerated and becoming solidified. These trends are already there.” For Coker, the coronavirus pandemic has proven “that as big as the world is, it is also very small.” He agreed that consumers still want to consume their preferred media and entertainment, even if the delivery methods change. But Smith, the former top editor of BuzzFeed, noted that media products live or die by consumer interest, citing Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman’s mobile streaming startup Quibi as a cautionary example of how even a powerhouse team and big investment can fall short in the current marketplace. While consumer behavior may have been altered by the pandemic, Swisher said, ultimately people gravitate to good products. Recent closures of movie theaters, she suggested, may have less to do with the coronavirus than the fact that those institutions offer an outdated product that is increasingly expensive and gets “grosser and grosser.” Check out the full conversation above. For over a decade, TheWrap’s Grill event series has led conversations on the convergence between entertainment, media and technology, bringing together newsmakers to debate the challenges and opportunities facing content in the digital age. This’s year’s event is a digital-first experience that focuses on the future of theatrical, streaming revolution, building inclusion from within and the growth in podcasting and gaming. Attendees will have access to keynotes, panel conversations, roundtable discussions and virtual networking.


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