Links between TV reporter, prosecutor's office are Ethics 101 example

FOP makes claims about media but won't back them up.

The Fraternal Order of Police leveled serious conflict-of-interest charges Friday against the Baltimore state's attorney's office — and the local media.

Gene Ryan, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, wrote in a letter to State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby that he has "very deep concerns about the many conflicts of interest" involving her office prosecuting six officers for the death of Freddie Gray. He asked her to appoint a special prosecutor.

The FOP's issues with her marriage to a City Council member or the campaign contributions she received from William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., a Gray family attorney, are not my concern.

But, as media critic, the allegation that the "lead prosecutor's connections with members of the local media" constitute a conflict of interest demands comment. He follows that charge by saying, "Based on several nationally televised interviews, these reporters are likely to be witnesses in any potential litigation regarding this incident."

The FOP declined to provide any clarification of these blind charges Friday in response to phone calls from The Baltimore Sun. Who are these reporters? What are their conflicts? How widespread are the conflicts in the press corps? Can readers and viewers trust anything in the press about this case? Ryan's reckless allegations strike at the heart of press credibility on the case and surely must confuse some of the many readers and viewers looking for the truth.

What we do know is that the lead prosecutor in Mosby's office, the official who led the investigation in the Freddie Gray case, is veteran attorney Janice Bledsoe.

Bledsoe is in a relationship with WBAL investigative reporter Jayne Miller, one of Baltimore's most experienced and well sourced TV journalists.

Miller confirmed the relationship to a Sun reporter Friday morning. Later in the day, when I called to ask her about the allegations, she said, "Call my general manager."

Dan Joerres, general manager at WBAL, offered three statements in response to a series of questions about Miller.

"I can assure you our news department operates at the highest level of ethical standards as does every department at WBAL," Joerres said when asked about the FOP allegations. "Jayne Miller's 30-plus years of award-winning reporting on the city of Baltimore speaks for itself."

When asked if he was concerned about a conflict of interest or perception of one in Miller's case, he said, "Anytime we have a potential conflict of interest, it's discussed and vetted in an appropriate manner."

He repeated that answer when asked if the station had ever disclosed on-air the relationship between the two when Miller reported on cases connected to Bledsoe's office.

Calls to the state's attorney's office seeking comment from Bledsoe were not immediately returned Friday.

Those are the facts as best we were able to determine despite all the unreturned calls and stonewalling.

Now, let me tell you what I really think.

The kindest thing I can call what the FOP did Friday is reckless. It reminds me of what U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy did in the 1950s when he said the State Department was filled with Communists but then failed to name names or offer evidence of his allegations.

But that said, WBAL should have either kept Miller from reporting on any cases involving Bledsoe or disclosed their relationship every time she did.

It's not even a close call. This is Ethics 101, and the station has only itself to blame for getting caught up in the FOP's attack on Mosby's office in one of the biggest cases this city has ever seen.

This is now a very dangerous business for a station that has branded itself as being a leader in news credibility, with Miller as the face of that claim. I wonder how WBAL can now keep her on this case — even if she is the best reporter it has.

I am going to stay on the FOP and its president when they start answering their phones again. They besmirch every media outlet in this town with their allegations, and we need to either nail those allegations down or expose the FOP for innuendo and smear.

If it is only Miller, why the use of plural, "reporters" in the letter? Who are these "reporters" who are likely to be witnesses "in any potential litigation" connected to the case?

CNN came to town two weeks ago with attorney Sunny Hostin as one of its legal experts. Hostin, who once lived and worked in Baltimore, is a friend of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

I must have seen Hostin on air 15 times during the past week, and every time a show host went to her for commentary, he or she announced Hostin's conflict of interest so that viewers could judge her remarks within the context of that knowledge.

I don't usually look to cable news TV for ethical guidance. But WBAL's viewers deserve at least as much transparency and truth as CNN's are getting.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
48°