Georgia-Based Peabody Awards Director on Abortion Bill: "We Can’t Control What Crazy-Ass Politicians Do"

Jeffrey P. Jones, Director of the George Foster Peabody Awards 2- Getty-H 2019
Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Peabody

The organization, which is based at the University of Georgia, includes Hollywood figures who’ve spoken out against restrictive pro-life legislation on its board and among its honorees.

In 1992, the filmmakers behind Desperate Choices received a coveted Peabody Award. The jury that year praised the filmmakers’ attempts to explore the “human side of the abortion issue” and for taking the debate out of the realm of “inflammatory rhetoric” to reflect the intensely personal choice.

Seventeen years later the landscape looks very different.

In the Trump era, when everything is political, the Peabodys are no exception. The 78-year-old institution honoring film and TV this year finds itself at the center of a cultural maelstrom. Several states, including Georgia, where the Peabodys are based at the University of Georgia, have passed legislation restricting abortion.

The new laws have sparked heated calls for Hollywood boycotts of Georgia, one of the hottest destinations for dozens of TV and movie projects, ostensibly pitting the award’s board, jury and several of its honorees against their hosts.     

The Peabodys aren’t honoring any projects related to abortion this year – but the issue is bound to be front and center like never before on Saturday when the awards are presented in New York.

“Our program is in many ways a national arts and culture organization, and the awards are determined by that,” says Jeffrey Jones, who directs the Peabody Awards, and teaches entertainment and media at the University of Georgia. “We can’t control what crazy-ass politicians do and you can quote me on that.”

He added that he "doesn't know anybody who supports the law" and that educators had nothing to do with it. 

This year's winners include Netflix's Hannah Gadsby: Nanette; BBC America's Killing Eve; and HBO's Random Acts of Flyness. See the complete list here. 

Peabody’s board of directors includes Warner Bros.' president Peter Roth, Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos and the president of HBO’s programming, Casey Bloys. All are overseeing TV shows and movies currently filming in Georgia. And while only a few of those studios with productions in the state have publicly denounced the new Georgia law, several have donated money to the ACLU, which has promised to fight the bill in court.  

Warner Bros. is currently filming The Conjuring 3 in Georgia and is set to begin work on the Suicide Squad sequel in the fall; Netflix’s Stranger Things, the highest profile show to film in Georgia, may not be returning to the state, but other shows like Insatiable and Slutty Teenage Bounty Hunters will be.

Some of Peabody’s honorees have been actively critical of the new slate of laws in Georgia, Alabama and elsewhere.

The Good Place creator Mike Schur lambasted the laws and their sponsors on Twitter. Others, like Nina Jacobson’s ColorForce, which produces Pose, another Peabody winner, supports the proposed boycott.

Pose explores the lives of gay and trans people during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

"We're going to be a in a room full of entertainers who tell stories, why wouldn't they take the opportunity to speak their mind," asks Jones, "Peabody is always dealing with difficult issues. You can carry hand guns on campus and we weren't in favor of that, either."

He pointed to a winner of last year's award, The Handmaid's Tale. "That's what Peabody thinks about theocratic movements," Jones said. 

The anti-abortion legislation is part of a concerted effort by pro-life groups to mount an attack on Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Last Tuesday, Georgia Republican Governor Brian Kemp signed the state’s controversial “fetal heartbeat” abortion bill. Days later, Alabama passed an even more stringent bill banning abortions except in cases when a woman's health is at risk; rape and incest are not exceptions to the law. Missouri quickly followed suit with a law that bans abortion after eight weeks. 

Georgia’s new law bans abortions once a "fetal heartbeat" is detective, which can happen as early as six weeks into a pregnancy and before many women know they are pregnant. Previously abortions were banned in Georgia after 20 weeks.

Georgia's law is not meant to go into effect until 2020, and opponents will undoubtedly mount legal challenges in court well before then. Previous attempts in other states to introduce restrictive abortion legislation have been struck down in the court system, including efforts in Kentucky, North Dakota and Iowa.

An even more restrictive bill in neighboring Alabama was proposed (and subsequently signed) last week. If implemented, Alabama doctors providing abortions could face felony charges and up to 99 years imprisonment. Women would be exempt from criminal or civil liability. The Georgia law is less clear about what could happen to women. Unlike the Alabama law, the legislation in Georgia does not specifically exempt women.

More than 50 stars including Ben Stiller, Rosie O’Donnell, Amy Schumer and Don Cheadle had previously signed a letter, spearheaded by actress Alyssa Milano, urging Hollywood production companies and studios to boycott Georgia if the law was passed.