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Entertainment TV & Media Z on TV

Z on TV: Uneven coverage of Baltimore's mayor race thus far

Last Tuesday, Baltimore had its first live on-air mayoral debate among all the candidates, including incumbent Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

WMAR (Channel 2), Baltimore's ABC affiliate, didn't cover the event at all.

WBAL (Channel 11), the city's NBC affiliate and one of the area's most powerful news stations, covered it, but all week had video of a different debate (one that didn't include Rawlings-Blake) mislabeled on its website as being Tuesday's mayoral forum.

Less than one month out from the Sept. 13 primary that will determine Baltimore's mayor for the next four years, such coverage raises questions about how much attention some parts of the mainstream broadcast media are paying to this important moment in Baltimore's future.

Looking across the landscape of Baltimore news media last week as they engaged — or didn't — in coverage of the mayor's race, a number of patterns emerged. And those patterns connected to deeper currents in Baltimore life, ranging from the relationship between money and what gets covered, to the vital and often overlooked role of media outlets aimed at African-American audiences.

First, as crucial as this election is at this troubled time in Baltimore's civic life, this is not a very attractive race for station managers who are under mounting pressure from corporate bottom-liners to attract bigger audiences with fewer resources.

As one area TV executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, put it: "I think some see this election as not very interesting [to viewers]. … They see it as a done deal for Rawlings-Blake, so why waste precious news time spending two or three minutes every day covering something no one really cares about?"

Second, mainstream local TV news is not a monolith — not all stations are covering the mayoral election in the same way.

WBFF (Channel 45), Baltimore's Fox affiliate, was all over the Tuesday debate held at WOLB and moderated by morning talk-show host and former state senator Larry Young. Not only did Fox 45 reporter Joel D. Smith and a videographer tape interviews for reports that would air later in evening newscasts, but they also did live interviews from the debate for the station's morning show.

The WOLB debate ran live on-air from 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., with five-minute breaks at 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. During those brief interludes, Smith raced to the front of the room, grabbed candidates and lined them up one after another for 45-second live hits in which they could speak directly to viewers of Fox 45's morning show, explaining in their own words why they think they should be mayor.

Thanks to her incumbency and fundraising muscle, Rawlings-Blake can afford to buy advertising time on Baltimore's network-owned and -affiliated stations like WBFF, but some of the candidates cannot. Fox 45 provided not just an opportunity to those candidates, but also a service to the public by letting viewers hear the candidates in their own words.

"We definitely understand and think this process is very important," said Scott Livingston, news director at WBFF. "It's really about letting the viewer listen to and understand each candidate. The debate allows that to happen, and our coverage allows that to happen."

This is not to celebrate WBFF and denigrate WMAR, WBAL, WJZ or anyone else. This is a snapshot focused on one major event in the election. I am not accusing any station with ignoring the election.

WMAR, for example, did a solid report on a debate held the week before at New Shiloh Baptist Church, though that forum did not include Rawlings-Blake.

And last month, WBAL used "11 TV Hill," its Sunday morning public affairs program, to focus on the mayor's race. The program was hosted by the station's best reporter, Jayne Miller. WBAL had a reporter and a photographer at Tuesday's event, and they filed for station newscasts.

WJZ did a good job covering Tuesday's debate at WOLB as well, with a report that ran on its newscasts later in the day and was posted online at 5:33 p.m., according to its time stamp. I couldn't find it Wednesday, but I'll accept the time stamp as evidence that it was there.

Based on what I saw, I hope all the mainstream stations will turn it up a notch down the home stretch — though WBFF looks to need less turning up than the others.

In the end, the question is how well Baltimore media served citizens in covering this first live broadcast debate with the mayor.

The Baltimore Sun covered Tuesday's event with four staffers: a videographer, a still photographer, reporter Julie Scharper, who has covered every major gathering of the candidates so far with online and print stories as well as real-time tweets, and me. I will leave it to readers and online viewers to judge our work. The Sun will partner with WYPR-FM and the League of Women Voters to present a debate Aug. 30 that will also include Rawlings-Blake.

That said, no one committed more to bringing citizens information about the candidates Tuesday than WOLB. I think the station made all Baltimore media look better.

"The election was too quiet for me — they kept saying the voters were sleeping, waiting for it to become 'feverish,'" WOLB's Young said in an interview Friday.

"Well, just like the straw poll in Iowa put things at a faster pace, I think the debate we had Tuesday made it click, and now there's a buzz in barbershops, there's a buzz in beauty shops and down in Lexington Market and up in Reisterstown Road Plaza," he said, offering a reminder with that bit of geography that there are different ethnic audiences in this city who see events through different prisms of identity.

Doni Glover's BMORENEWS.com, with its BTV videos, is one online site intensely focused on bringing information to city residents about the election. Representative of coverage at BMORENEWS is a video taped at WOLB right after the debate, with Glover interviewing Lawrence Bell, former City Council president, about Tuesday's forum.

In the middle of the interview, which also aired on WOLB, Young walked into the studio and announced that he was inviting the incumbent and each of the five challengers back to WOLB to spend an hour alone with him for one-on-one on-air conversations next month.

In Friday's interview with The Sun, Young said all had agreed to participate in the conversations, which will air the week before the Sept. 13 primary.

"We feel it is our responsibility to step in and do what we can," Young said, emphasizing that WOLB has been involved in covering Baltimore elections since the 1990s, thanks in large part to Cathy Hughes, founder of Radio One, which owns the station.

"We realize we're only 1,000 watts, so we have to work harder to grab the attention that we grab," he added. "And we've been doggone successful at it, I think. Miss Hughes and Radio One have opened the door for us to press this election further than most would. And we have no regrets for doing so."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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