What Al Jazeera thinks of Baltimore
A new documentary from the global channel probes race, class, crime, drugs and incarceration
Baltimore-area viewers won't see it in their TV listings, but this week a program will premiere on the Al Jazeera English channel that could do more to shape the world's image of their city than any other media coverage or civic promotion done all year.
"Baltimore: Anatomy of an American City" will debut Tuesday night to a potential worldwide audience of 260 million homes. And what those viewers will mainly see is a landscape of young men on bleak street corners, block after block of boarded-up rowhouses, drugs, death, crime scenes and prisons.
The port stands idle, factories are silent and warehouses look empty. Images and repeated references to the war on drugs evoke HBO's"The Wire." Except, of course, this is real.
"When you walk through neighborhoods like this," Al Jazeera correspondent Sebastian Walker says, picking his way down a narrow street of weeds, garbage and rowhouses at the end of the documentary, "it's hard not to feel that the legacy of the war these communities have been living through is so bad that rhetoric or anything short of radical change simply won't solve the problem."
Such words and images are part of a larger conversation — often heated — that ranges from City Hall to Hollywood about how Baltimore is depicted to millions of viewers. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has shown a keen interest in media images of the city, complaining about the ones she sees as negative and working to generate ones she likes.
She is interviewed in the film. So is Ed Burns, the former Baltimore City police detective and schoolteacher who created "The Wire" with David Simon.
"We each want our own reality," Burns said in a telephone interview last week when asked about the kind of images Rawlings-Blake wants to see. "And the mayor wants the reality to be that of a city on the make with a strong middle class and things like that. And if you look down by the harbor, there's a reality there."
But that reality is not shown in "An Anatomy of an American City."
The film opens with a somber, mood-setting overture that includes a funeral cortege and the graveside service of a young man shot and killed in Northeast Baltimore. From there, it moves to City Hall with officials applauding the mayor's optimistic "State of the City" speech.
But those words are quickly undercut as the cameras follow Walker through a series of crime scenes. A police helicopter hovers overhead at the start and the end of his journey through some of the most desperate parts of Baltimore, making it feel like a war zone or occupied territory.
"The pace of violence in Baltimore can feel relentless," he tells viewers.
The producers, crew and correspondent from Al Jazeera who spent two weeks here last February to film the 30-minute production say they didn't come to Baltimore looking to find "The Wire." Walker resists the suggestion that they might have been chasing TV-generated stereotypes rather than social reality with their cameras.
Instead, he says, the global powerhouse headquartered in Doha, Qatar, picked Baltimore for reasons including its proximity to Al Jazeera's Washington broadcast center. The channel has a history of doing stories out of Baltimore, he adds, in part because it see the city as crucible of larger issues throughout urban America.
"Baltimore's a place where we've actually filmed quite a lot," Walker said in a telephone interview last week. "I've been based in D.C. since 2008, and I was there in Baltimore when the Russians were taking over the steelwork plant [Sparrows Point] back in 2009. It's a city that we like because it's close to D.C. and it's a great place to go and get a sense of what's really going on in the country. It's one of the places where the economic crisis has been keenly felt."
In other words, it's the Real America — or, at least, a city within an hour's train ride that feels distinct from Washington. Baltimore's neighborhoods have long been a favorite of international journalists in Washington looking for an America with less marble, more grit and plainspoken citizens who can give voice to some of the nation's more pressing concerns.
"We came to Baltimore in the run-up to 2008 to sort of take the pulse of the city and see how people were feeling about the possibility of the first African-American president to enter the White House and how that might change things for them," Walker said. "We wanted to get a sense of how it might change the war on drugs and the incarceration system that afflicts Baltimore."
The idea for the visit in February was to "basically come back four years later, in the run-up to this election, and see how things had changed and whether there had been a real difference in how the criminal justice system is working now and how people feel about what's been achieved the last four years."
Walker says the producers "broadened it out to look at the larger structural problems, using Baltimore as a way of looking at the system as a whole."
Al Jazeera English is a major journalistic operation that has won Peabody, Robert F. Kennedy and George Polk Awards — among many others. The consensus among media critics is that it covered the Arab Awakening better than any other TV news operation in the world.