CNN-Baltimore Sun report does justice to Freddie Gray story

Zurawik: CNN-Sun documentary on Freddie Gray reveals new facets to even the most astute news-watcher.

The first thing you should know about the CNN-Baltimore Sun special report “Who Killed Freddie Gray?” is that it doesn’t deliver on the promise of the title.

Not that anyone should be surprised by that given the fact that there are still six trials ahead aimed at determining culpability or innocence of the officers involved in the arrest and transport of Gray on April 12, 2015. The 25-year-old Baltimore resident died one week later from injuries suffered while in police custody.

But that TV tease of a title is one of the few criticism I have of this hour-long report that looks at Gray’s death, the unrest that followed and some of the efforts to improve police-community relations since. And I will promise something that I rarely do with any TV production: No matter how much you think you know about Freddie Gray and the events following his death, you will learn something from this skillfully crafted production. I did, and I came to it thinking I could not be more steeped in the details of this story from my coverage of its media aspects as it unfolded.

As the media critic for The Sun there is, of course, a conflict involved in me reviewing the production. CNN produced the report “in partnership with the Baltimore Sun,” to use the language of the cable channel’s press release.  What that mainly means is CNN did the scripting, much of the filming, editing and final production. The Sun provided exclusive video that was used throughout the report and helped gain access to and interviewed key Baltimore residents involved in the story.  The Sun’s video reporting drove several portions of the program. Catherine Rentz, a Sun investigative reporter and documentary producer herself, coordinated The Sun’s involvement that included more than a dozen reporters, photographers and editors, and filmed some of the interviews viewers will see tonight.

I can write until my fingers fall off about how I think being the media critic for The Sun has or hasn’t affected this review, but it’s your call as a reader and viewer. You be the judge after you’ve read the review and seen the report premiering at 9 tonight on CNN.

After some atmospheric, scene-setting, rooftop shots of Baltimore rowhouses, “Who Killed Freddie Gray?” opens with CNN correspondent Miguel Marquez interviewing Kevin Moore, one of two friends of Gray who filmed video of the arrest from different angles.

“This is where it happened – where Mr. Gray was arrested?” asks Marquez, standing in front of a wall memorial of Gray in Gilmor Homes.

“Yes, yes, it is,” Moore says, and then we are into video that Moore shot of the arrest while standing on the same ground that he and Marquez now occupy. The editing of this report is outstanding, making repeated jumps back and forth from the time of the report to events in April feel seamless.

Producers Jessica Small and Diane Beasley made a wise choice in starting with the citizen videos. Without those video documents, the arrest and death of Freddie Gray would have been a very different story – if it was known at all outside of his neighborhood.

They also made a good choice in using Moore not only for his video, but also as one of the report’s primary voices as it explores Gray’s life and death and the rioting that followed.

The producers further understood that the audio was as important – maybe even more important – than the visuals of the citizen videos. As I wrote when I first saw the video, while the visuals were inconclusive as to what you were actually seeing, Gray’s anguished screams and the outraged shouts of those watching the arrest generated an instant and powerful emotional response.

Gray’s screams are repeated in such a way during the first eight minutes of the film that they haunt and dominate the soundtrack. This is advanced video storytelling, no doubt about it. And I say this after only seeing a rough-cut with the incisions and sutures of editing still showing.

Much of the rest of the first portion of the report is a tick-tock of Gray’s last ride in the police van from the time he entered the vehicle until he was brought to Shock Trauma unable to speak or breathe on his own. And CNN does some solid work here as well – smoothly crafting a visual narrative of the journey from videos filmed by surveillance cameras and humanizing it with interviews of citizens along the route who saw what happened at various stops. The Sun gained access to some of those surveillance videos and did the interviews with several of those witnesses.

As the report moves into the riots of April 25 and 27, the images are overwhelming. I thought I saw almost every moment of the rioting in real time on one screen or another as part of my job. I wrote about going to bed on the morning of April 28 unable to get the images of Baltimore burning into the night out of my head. This report brought that all back, and then some.

And kudos to CNN for not softening how out of control Baltimore was on the night of April 27. President Obama in his response to the riots chose to talk about cable news showing one fire over and over in a “loop” to give a hyped impression of the destruction, but there were more than 100 fires that day and night, according to the city, and CNN captures the fear and uncertainty of that night in its montage.

Producers Small and Beasley make good use of the authority and expertise of the talking heads they feature: U.S. Rep Elijah E. Cummings (D-Baltimore), Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and Sun reporters Mark Puente and Justin George. But the report would have been improved had they interviewed more grassroots leaders as the production moved into its final segments about police-community relations and the future of Baltimore.

In the end, I can live with the hyped-up TV title. This is an important report. It’s not the first draft of Freddie Gray history. The Sun and others wrote that.

But given attention spans and the visual orientation of our culture, this is the short-form that many who are not aware of all the details will turn to in the future for a fast sense of what happened in Baltimore last April and May. I am glad CNN made a serious effort to try and get it right.

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