By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
8:04 PM EDT, May 31, 2013
I don’t tune into Baltimore’s morning news shows expecting hard-hitting, revealing interviews. Traffic, weather, softer features and a few nuts-and-bolts news stories are the usual order of the day.
But WBFF’s Patrice Sanders stopped me cold on May 24 with an interview she did with Baltimore City Schools CEO Andres Alonso in response to an audit that found tens of thousands of federal stimulus dollars had been misspent on his watch.
Alonso, who is stepping down at the end of June, was defensive, combative and, in the eyes of some Facebook responders, insulting in calling Sanders a liar, denouncing her questions and denigrating the station. He insisted several times that she and Fox 45 were using “dog-whistle” language in reporting that the schools had paid $99 each for dinners of fried chicken and potato salad that it served at a poorly attended PTA function.
For those not familiar with the term, “dog whistle” comes from the world of politics and refers to a message that contains coded language that the general audience might not understand, but a target audience would — the way dogs hear whistles that humans sometimes don’t. The term often refers to racist messages.
In two decades of reporting on Baltimore media, I have seen few on-camera interviews by local TV reporters that were as riveting and revealing as the one Sanders did with Alonso.
I was impressed by her professionalism and persistence. And I was surprised to see and hear a public official behave the way Alonso did.
There’s a larger media message here as well about Baltimore and local TV news in general. While some glibly and ignorantly dismiss local newscasts as nothing but crime, crime and more crime, this was an example of a reporter grilling a public official about how taxpayer money was spent.
Representative of Sanders’ civil but firm approach was her response after Alonso threw down the “dog-whistle” gauntlet.
“A lot of what’s being used here are dog-whistle terms,” he said. “I keep reading about fried chicken in the same week that Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia are having their thing about fried chicken.”
He was referring to a spat between the golfers that included Garcia saying he was going to invite Woods over for dinner and “serve fried chicken.”
“There’s something insulting to me that out of $50 million, we end up questioning purchases of $26,000,” Alonso said after trying to link the Woods-Garcia dispute to the audit via fried chicken.
“I understand your point,” replied Sanders, who is African-American. “But I think some people will think it’s a distraction or you’re trying to deflect attention when you compare it to the Sergio Garcia incident, and … “
“Fried chicken is fried chicken,” he said, interrupting Sanders and wagging a finger at her. “It’s a dog-whistle term.”
He later accused Sanders of lying.
“Where is your accountability, your accountability to tell the truth?” he demanded, reaching across the space between them with his hand to stop Sanders from finishing another question.
“You just lied,” he continued. “I’m sorry, you just lied. You just told the public we wasted billions of dollars. I just heard you say we wasted billions of dollars — that’s what I heard you say.”
Except Sanders never said Baltimore schools wasted billions of dollars.
What she said as part of her introduction was: “Billions of dollars in federal stimulus money went to the Maryland State Department of Education over the years. It was supposed to be monitored, but it doesn’t seem like it was.”
She tried to deny that she said billions had been wasted by city schools, but Alonso continued with his attack on her and Fox 45.
“I just heard you say that billions of dollars were being wasted and mismanaged,” he said. “That’s absolute crap.”
Again, Sanders politely stated that she didn’t say that.
And so it went.
In the last 45 seconds of the 11-minute-plus segment, Alonso tried to make nice, saying, “I feel free to say this to you, because you know how much I love, appreciate and like you.”
That came seconds after him again using the term “dog-whistle reporting” to describe her station’s coverage and the focus of the interview.
“I knew he was agitated and upset when we talked before the interview,” Sanders said last week when asked about the conversation. “So I expected it to be heated.”
Sanders said some viewers who commented on Facebook thought Alonso went too far, but that she chalked it up to the CEO being “very passionate” in defense of Baltimore schools.
“I completely disagree with the analogy that he made,” she said when asked about his use of the “dog-whistle” term for the interview and his attempts to denigrate the station.
But, at the time, “I didn’t think it was personal or that he crossed the line while we were doing the interview.”
However, when she went back and replayed the tape, she said, she thought, “Oh, boy. It was pretty passionate at times.”
For the record, The Baltimore Sun and several other news organizations also highlighted the fried chicken dinners at $99. It was a fact in the audit that clearly supported the claim of misspending.
The Sun article said: “According to the auditors, the money spent on fried chicken, potato salad, coleslaw, biscuits, cookies and soda for 28 attendees to discuss a school's budget averaged to $99 per parent, which far exceeded the federal government's $36 per-diem for meals at the time of the purchases.”
Bill Fanshawe, general manager of Fox 45, noted that the interview was a follow-up to a report by Joy Lepola two days earlier on the audit. Both pieces were part of the station’s “Waste Watch” effort to show viewers how taxpayer money is spent.
“I think she handled herself very well,” Fanshawe said of Sanders. “I think he was being defensive and drawing for straws.”
Alonso was out sick this week, according to a city schools spokeswoman. But he responded to Sun questions in an email Friday, saying he had “enormous respect” for Sanders.
“I think part of my honesty and freedom in the exchange this week came ... because I was being very honest with someone I think of as a friend,” he wrote.
He faulted WBFF, The Sun and other outlets for coverage that was “wrong,” “unfair” and ““full of distortion and omission.”
“The reality is that the audit was a tempered audit, which actually praised the state for keeping good records, monitoring spending and seeing that the dollars went to the right uses,” he wrote.
“I did tell Patrice that she was lying to her audience,” he acknowledged. “Perhaps I should have simply said, you have the wrong facts.”
“But that should raise a debate about the responsibility of the media to have the right facts, and to allow for conversation, as opposed to fostering scandal,” he wrote.
“So, my response was about the distortions, the use of code words to feed a perception of the city and its institutions and its parents, and the unwillingness of the media to tell a story without falling on damaging tropes that speak to ‘corruption’ in the city. I have gotten a bazillion comments in response to the interview. With one exception, all positive.”
In questioning Alonso as she did, Sanders performed one of the core missions of journalism: holding public officials accountable. And she did it without being abusive.
For all the times I criticize local TV news for its failings, it’s also one of my duties to offer praise where praise is due. All the stations reported the audit story, but Sanders’ interview took it to another level for Fox 45.
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun