Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Mayor should focus more on solving Baltimore's problems. She bashes media instead

With all the monumental problems facing Baltimore today, like members of the police department being on trial in what may be the worst corruption case in the force’s history, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh’s remarks at a Baltimore magazine event Thursday night raised some eyebrows.

Speaking at a gathering to celebrate 30 area residents featured as “visionaries” in the magazine’s February issue, Pugh wasted no time in going after the media again for Baltimore’s image problems. Even though she didn’t name them in the speech, she targeted The Baltimore Sun and one of its reporters. A spokesman for the mayor confirmed Friday that she was talking about The Sun in her remarks.

Thirty-six seconds into a speech that lasted 7 minutes and 22 seconds, Pugh said, “And one of the things I know about Baltimore is that we have a perception problem, but there is also a media problem.” And she was off and running.

She said one of the reasons she became mayor was to change that perception “and work on the media not depicting Baltimore always as this negative place to be.”

That “depicting Baltimore always as this negative place to be” line is quite a generalization — one she couldn’t possibly support with facts. And, yet, like President Donald J. Trump, even as her administration fumbles major messaging moments (this week, it was in announcing and then putting on hold the appointment of a new deputy police commissioner), the mayor is focused on bashing the media. As with Trump, there also seems to be some denial of reality here.

“Mayor Pugh’s remarks was not an attack on the press,” Pugh’s spokeswoman Amanda Rodrigues-Smith wrote late Friday in an email response to The Sun.

It was an attack on the press. But don’t take my word for it.

You can view the speech here.

City council member Ryan Dorsey, one of the visionaries honored by the magazine, tweeted: “@MayorPugh50 taking an opportunity to celebrate @Baltimoremag Visionaries to instead bash media. It’s really disappointing to have Trump for a Mayor.”

“It was not like maybe three sentences in that she began bashing media,” Dorsey said in a phone interview Friday. “And went at it for like two minutes out of her total seven minutes. It was pretty wild.”

Actually, it went on for just under 2 minutes and 30 seconds.

Max Weiss, managing editor of the magazine, offered a more diplomatic response when asked if she thought her publication’s event was the proper venue for such an attack on the media.

"We invited the mayor to speak at our event celebrating Baltimore's visionaries,” Weiss wrote. “We put no parameters on what she could say, other than suggesting she might share her ‘vision’ for Baltimore, and the media was one of the things she chose to address."

Dorsey said one of the other visionaries was wearing a T-shirt that said, “Read a newspaper.” It was intended, he said, as a message to Pugh in response to her statement last week reported in The Sun that she didn’t have time to closely follow the trial of members of the Gun Trace Task Force who are involved in a massive web of corruption.

Maybe that set Pugh off.

Rodrigues-Smith, the mayor’s spokeswoman, confirmed Friday that Pugh was speaking about The Sun.

The mayor referred to two stories: One that ran online Jan. 30 said Pugh was building a TV studio in City Hall. The other, posted Wednesday, quoted her as saying she has not had time to follow the Gun Trace Task Force trial closely.

She also castigated Baltimore media for not reporting recent drops in crime. She used that claim to support her characterization of negative reporting here as, “It’s always this ‘I gotcha’ moment.”

But media outlets — including The Sun in this Feb. 1 story — did report recent drops in crime.

Look, I am not going to go down the rabbit hole of trying to adjudicate each of the mayor’s claims. I am not an ombudsman, and I am sure she would prefer having someone who doesn’t work for The Sun rendering such judgment.

But after 30 years of writing about media and government in Detroit, Dallas and Baltimore and 20 years of teaching media ethics at Goucher College, I can tell you that Mayor Pugh is going down a dangerous path of reckless media criticism, a path trod by the likes of former Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew in the past and Trump today. The career of one ended in ignominy; the other is on a fast train headed there.

Just as the press has an ethical obligation to give citizens true information in democracy, so do elected leaders. You might divert some of your supporters from the real problems you are not addressing effectively because you are so focused on scapegoating media. But when the real problems reach the point they have in Baltimore, people here won’t be diverted long.

Citizens know the media aren’t responsible for the eye-popping corruption of the Gun Trace Task Force and those in the BPD who allowed it to fester as long as it did. Nor would any reasonable citizen blame the media for schools without heat or an infrastructure on the verge of collapse. You can blame TV stations for doing reports about out-of-towners becoming crime victims at the Inner Harbor, but the folks with the cameras and the microphones aren’t the ones committing those crimes.

Blame-gaming media to hide big problems is a losing game.

I have one last bit of advice for the mayor.

If you want to better serve the citizens of Baltimore, start talking straight to the public and media. Stop all the spin and rancor and trying to control narratives.

You have a massive police department problem. It can’t even get news conferences right any more, let alone root out jaw-dropping corruption.

I didn’t think city messaging could get worse than it was under Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. I don’t think that anymore.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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