By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
11:09 PM EDT, June 28, 2013
On Thursday morning, I read a Page 1 article in The Baltimore Sun that featured Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake saying how sad she was about the “state of our community.” She was referring to the shocking run of 29 shootings and 10 deaths in a six-day span in Baltimore. The article also included quotes from Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts saying the department's initial “messaging” about the crimes had been “terrible.”
I don't cover crime, but I do cover messaging. That's what happens in media.
And once I stopped seething about what was happening to the city in which I live, I started to wonder how the TV stations on my beat were covering a City Hall administration that was so concerned about messaging in the aftermath of these shootings. One of its first responses to the mayhem was to reassign police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, who had said last weekend that the city was satisfied with its response to crime. Wrong narrative.
The narrative of Rawlings-Blake this summer might also be not such a good one if you are one of the citizens looking for a little help from City Hall in trying to stay alive on our streets. The mayor has been to Las Vegas twice on the city's tab: once to officiate at a very high-powered lobbyist's wedding while at a real estate convention and once to attend the U.S. Conference of Mayors. She also spent time at the Delaware beach house of the lobbyist whose marriage she officiated, Lisa Harris Jones.
Of course, I had seen some of TV coverage of crime and City Hall this summer. But I wanted to give each station the chance to identify what it thought was its best work and then talk to the reporters and news executives about the challenges of covering that story within the deeper context of local government considered by some to be anything but open.
I asked the four TV news operations in Baltimore last week for links to what they considered their toughest stories on City Hall.
A spokesman for WJZ said he and the station's news director were out of town, so they couldn't supply such links right away. Last-place WMAR didn't respond.
WJZ and WMAR are the stations that have done the least aggressive and thorough reporting on City Hall, at least by my reckoning.
WBAL and WBFF offered several examples of their work.
“We're the ones that raised the issue of the mayor spending Memorial Day weekend at the beach house of Harris Jones,” said Jayne Miller, WBAL's veteran investigative reporter. “And she [Rawlings-Blake] is not an easily accessible public official at all.”
Miller says the beach house story “essentially became everybody's story,” because the only opportunity she had to question the mayor about the use of the vacation home came at a briefing with other reporters present.
“There's a lot of frustration among those of us who cover City Hall regularly,” Miller said, chronicling what she described as a “lack of open meetings and lack of access to information, material and documentation that should be readily available.”
“I'll give you an example that really frustrated me, and it's about the beach house story. Their response was, ‘I paid. I paid $400,' “ Miller says, referring to the mayor's saying, in response to Miller's questions, that she paid her friend Harris Jones $400 for the use of the house.
“So later that day, I asked for and I got [a copy of] the check,” she continued. “The problem was the check was the front of the check. In order to know when it was signed and when and if it was processed, you have to have the back of the check. And I asked the next day, and the next day and the next day … and I never got it. Still don't have it. And that's just a small example of how difficult it is.
Michelle Butt, news director at WBAL-TV, says “holding government accountable” is one of the station's top priorities. The Rawlings-Blake administration can limit access to the mayor or withhold documents all it wants — that won't stop her newsroom from doing its job.
“They underestimate what we are able to do without them,” Butt says. “And they underestimate the fact that so many people are willing to help us do our job in holding them accountable. It takes a village to do our jobs, and Jayne's got plenty of villagers.”
“The mayor’s administration has responded to each and every Public Information Act request it has ever received from WBAL-TV in full accordance with state law,” spokesman Ryan O’Doherty said. “And I’ll just say personally I have a tremendous amount of respect for Jayne Miller and I try to be as responsive as I can in all of her inquiries.”
O'Doherty also pointed to a report in January by the Maryland PIRG Foundation, which self-identifies as a consumer advocate organization, that gave Baltimore a B+ in transparency. The grades were based on the ability of city residents to be able to track budgets, contracting grants and requests for quality-of-life services on a city's website.
As to the narrative of Rawlings-Blake being at the beach or in Las Vegas in this bloody Baltimore summer, O’Doherty pointed out that the mayor “didn’t pick the location” in which the U.S. Conference of Mayors would be held.
Furthermore, he says, while the mayor was at the conference, “She talked about the issue of gun violence with her fellow mayors.”
Mike Tomko, news director at Fox 45, says his station is also committed to what he terms “accountability journalism.”
“You look at how tight the economy is now, and yet everywhere you turn, the government is asking for more and more money from its citizens, whether it's the gas tax or the increased water rates,” Tomko said.
“And when you look at that, you also look at the fact that they're taking trips to Las Vegas or the school district is spending grant money on things that are not directly associated with education. And there's a real frustration out there with the public. And so, we are committed to exposing that and holding government officials accountable whenever we can,” he said.
Examples include a report on a misuse of school funds and a follow-up interview with departing Baltimore City Schools CEO Andrés Alonso. I wrote about that in May.
And while WBFF did not report on the mayor's trip to Las Vegas to officiate at the wedding of her lobbyist friend, it did file a Freedom of Information Act request for documents from her trip.
“Government doesn't make it easy here,” Tomko said. “At the state level and the city level, we have administrations that have pledged that they're going to be open and transparent, but when it finally comes down to it, it's very challenging to get information from them.”
He offered as an example a FOIA request Fox 45 made of the state Department of Corrections seeking a listing of those parole officers who had filed arrest warrants. The state came back saying it would cost WBFF $42,000 in copying fees for those records.
“When we make a request, they can charge ‘reasonable' fees for copies,” Tomko explained. “But there's no definition as to what reasonable is. And I think what they're now doing is hiding behind the law to try and keep information from coming out.” I think you would be hard-pressed to find why you would charge someone what would the equivalent of a year's salary for some workers to run the copies we requested from corrections.
“It is harder to do accountability journalism,” Tonko says. “But we believe it's the kind of TV news that needs to be done.”
And this summer, the need to ask the tough questions of City Hall and the police becomes greater with each new victim of violence.
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