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Hard lessons learned in the year after Gray's death

Zurawik: Watching media cover Freddie Gray taught surprising lessons.

I lost a lot of respect for the national media, while I gained some for local TV. I came to realize there are news outlets so ideologically oriented they might be beyond redemption. I still value — more than anything else — presenting audiences with factual information, but I am no longer sure that doing so is doing enough.

One year after the death of Freddie Gray, these are some of the things I learned from the countless hours of coverage I watched as well as the more than 50 print articles and online posts I reported and wrote since the two citizen videos of Freddie Gray being arrested first tore through the media ecosystem.

My disappointment with network and cable TV coverage started early in the week of peaceful protests following Gray's death. Only CNN was in Baltimore with any serious coverage, and that ended when the workday concluded Friday, April 24, and the correspondents and camera crews went home.

Unfortunately, civil unrest and news don't work 9-to-5 weekday shifts. When violence broke out in downtown Baltimore late Saturday, April 25, virtually no one from national TV was there to bear witness and share the pictures with the rest of the world. CNN was absorbed in empty-headed coverage of the White House Correspondents' Dinner.

Once rioting started on the afternoon of Gray's funeral two days later, all the major media outlets came to town, of course, but it didn't make for better coverage. In fact, much of it was worse, especially on Fox News, with correspondents like Geraldo Rivera sizing up residents he saw on the streets and saying: "It seems they want trouble."

Even after the mass of cameras left town, the flawed national coverage continued throughout the rest of the year.

During early-evening cable news programs on Dec. 16, the day that a hung jury was declared in the case of William Porter, the first police officer tried in Gray's death, correspondents and anchors described a city about to explode in violence again.

But local TV showed restraint and got it right — particularly WJZ and WBAL.

In the wake of the verdict, reporters and anchors repeatedly used the word "peaceful" to accompany overhead helicopter shots of protesters downtown and in the Penn North neighborhood. There was tension in the local reports, no doubt about it, but not the sense of a city about to spin out of control again. And there was not a steadier anchor anywhere on TV that afternoon and evening than WJZ's Denise Koch.

Dan Joerres, president of WBAL, said his station's approach was "to cover the news, not predict it."

Processing all of that, I couldn't help but admit that I had long been predisposed to think of network and cable journalists as being far superior to the men and women on Baltimore TV.

Part of that bias is reasonable. In general, the national folks are better.

Baltimore is a small TV market — only the 26th-largest, according to Nielsen. Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and Portland, Ore., are larger, and they aren't exactly big.

And while there have always been a few reporters and anchors in smaller markets who stayed in those cities for their entire careers, local TV news is a highly stratified business. You start small and work your way up through progressively larger markets until you get to the network level.

To use a baseball analogy, at the level of the 26th market, you are talking minor-league AA-level baseball talent, like that of the Bowie Baysox, while network and cable talent is at the level of the Orioles.

But knowing the community and being invested in it are hugely important to the kind of coverage that residents get. And that made a night-and-day difference after Gray's death.

The level of that investment could be seen in a report that ran on WBAL the day after the riots as the National Guard moved into Baltimore. It featured Barry Simms standing on Hilton Street in Northwest Baltimore in the neighborhood in which he was raised.

From where he was standing — expertly framed alongside a burned-out building — the veteran reporter said he could see his childhood home. Simms had to stop and compose himself on air as he recounted coming down the steps of his house as an 8-year-old and seeing National Guard troops across the street following the riots in the wake of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King in 1968.

Simms knew the neighborhood and the people on Hilton Street like no one from CNN or CBS did. He referred to those on Hilton Street as his "neighbors."

After the riots, a lot of national news organizations came to Baltimore to try to talk to residents in neighborhoods like the one in which Simms was raised, and I was encouraged by that.

But once I started seeing their reports and short documentaries, I realized most of them were treating the residents as stick figures to be inserted in the preconceived narratives that producers carried in their heads.

The first Al Jazeera America pieces portrayed Baltimore as Gaza, with city police compared to an Israeli occupying force. Fox News saw Baltimore and its residents as the products of decades of what it labeled failed Democratic leadership, while the left-leaning "Laura Flanders Show," which airs on Link TV, characterized inner-city residents as victims of inequality and "economic violence," to use the language of one talking head. Too many out-of-town reporters saw only HBO's "The Wire."

Unlike Simms, I did not grow up here. But I have lived in the city for a quarter of a century and have come to care about it in ways I never imagined I would. And every politician who tried to spin Baltimore burning — from City Council President Bernard "Jack" Young to President Barack Obama — made me seethe.

"I'm heartbroken and disturbed by the way the media is focusing on the negativity of this city and not the great things that are going on in the city," Young said during a news conference with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake the night of the riots.

That was my tipping point. Not for one second, I wrote that night, should we let Young get away with trying to blame the media for the utter failure of city government to handle what was happening in the streets.

And then came Obama on the day after the riots suggesting the rioting in Baltimore had been exaggerated by TV news tricks.

"And one burning building will be looped on television over and over and over again," Obama told reporters in Washington.

But there were fires in 15 buildings and 144 vehicles the night before, according to the Baltimore City Fire Department. No one needed to "loop" anything. The problem for public safety workers was keeping up with all the mayhem.

I blasted Obama's bogus media criticism — and wondered in print why he didn't travel the 45 miles to Baltimore to see and smell some of the fire damage before making such a statement.

Challenging political leaders is part of another important function of the press that is often overlooked: Helping to shape the civic conversation in ways that benefit the community rather than the ends of any politician or party.

The death of Freddie Gray gave us a moment in which to take stock and try to figure out where we wanted to go as a community. Once the city started to burn, imagining a better future was no longer an option; it was an imperative.

Much good work was done locally in responsibly covering the uprising.

Since then, the conversation has moved to the mayoral election — an opportunity to explore big ideas of reform the city needs. Yet this is where "just the facts" falls short. Media can help generate, shape and elevate the kind of public discussion that is needed to ensure that the loss and unrest we witnessed and experienced does not repeat itself.

As we move toward the final days before the April 26 primary election, I wonder how many of us in the media can honestly say we have pushed that conversation toward those bold ideas.

dzurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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