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

Zurawik: Congratulations, City Hall, on making us look clueless — again

Let’s give it up for all the Baltimore leaders who were involved in the hiring, vetting and rubber-stamp approval of Darryl De Sousa as police commissioner five months ago.

With his resignation Tuesday, Baltimore is once again a national media punchline. And all the police-community-misery from the Gun Trace Task Force scandal to the uprising of 2015 is back on full display. The mayor and many others in this town complain about a “narrative” outside of Baltimore that the city is a dysfunctional mess. But The Times, CNN, AP, the Wall Street Journal and all the other news outlets that covered this didn’t make it up.

The Associated Press story that ran on websites ranging from the New York Times and Chicago Tribune to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, carried the headline, “It’s checkmate for Baltimore’s latest police commissioner.”

The lead on the story as it appeared in the Chicago and Richmond websites: “When Baltimore's mayor hand-picked Darryl De Sousa as her choice for police commissioner, heralding his experience and the respect he commanded in the city's force, he proudly described himself as a chess player who uses strategic thinking to avoid pitfalls.

“Now just a few months later, De Sousa is out of the game, resigning in embarrassment for failing to file his taxes, a key test of Adulthood 101.”

Just in case any reader didn’t get the sense that Baltimore had major leadership issues, here’s the third paragraph in the story.

“De Sousa's path from the corner office to the revolving door was speedy, even for a city accustomed to leadership instability in a scandal-plagued police force,” the AP piece continued. “De Sousa resigned on Tuesday, less than four months into the job, after being charged with failing to file three years of taxes.”

The Times website carried a slightly pared down version of that lead, while the Fox News website carried the AP story with a different headline: “Baltimore police commissioner resigns after federal tax charges.”

CNN played it straighter on its website with a staff written story.

“Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa resigned Tuesday, less than a week after he was charged with failing to file income tax returns for three years,” the lead of its story said.

But the website with one of the largest reaches globally also highlighted the mayor’s tone deaf response in the wake of federal charges being announced Thursday.

“He was suspended with pay on Friday,” CNN’s story said. “Still, Mayor Pugh expressed her confidence in him last week and said this was a ‘personal matter.’”

The CNN piece then went on to contextualize the latest development by recapping the Gun Trace Task Force disgrace and the uprising that followed the death of Freddie Gray after he was taken into police custody in 2015.

And all the homicide statistics were included from last year, comparing them unfavorably to those of New York and Chicago.

Here’s the lead on Reuter’s report: ”Baltimore’s police commissioner resigned on Tuesday after being charged with failing to file income taxes, in another setback for the eighth-biggest U.S. police department as it grapples with high levels of violent crime.”

You can hire an army of P.R. operatives, but you can’t clean up that kind of mess with spin.

There have been bad optics with this story as well. None was more problematic in my opinion than the appearance Friday morning in front of the cameras by Mayor Pugh when she announced that she was suspending De Sousa with pay only hours after saying he had her “full confidence.”

I cannot remember seeing a public official look and sound as drained and dispirited as she did.

I took a pass on writing about that appearance Friday, thinking many in local government and media were rocked by the death of Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and the federal charges against De Sousa hitting like a one-two punch the day before.

But maybe I pulled a punch in not writing what I saw and felt.

Leaders lead. That’s what they are elected and paid to do. They are the ones who are supposed to go before the cameras and project a sense of direction, authority and vision when others are reeling.

Mayor Pugh did not do that Friday at City Hall, and her assertion at another news conference Wednesday that she “owned” the De Sousa selection and her admission that her administration vetted him “maybe not as thoroughly as some think we should” were too little, too late.

Greg Tucker, an adviser to the mayor, shrugged off the bad coverage. "Baltimore is news for better and worse,” he wrote in a text message. “The New York Times recently cited it as #15 among the top 52 cities in the world to visit. Forbes Magazine cited Baltimore as among hippest cities. Naturally, this incident has attracted attention given that it concerns the top law enforcement official and the mayor's top focus of creating a safer city."

But the tone of the coverage is a reminder that Baltimore’s not in a win some, lose some situation with the media. We’re at the point now where good news Baltimore stories, like one in the New York Times earlier this month about OrchKids or another this week about the revitalization of Mt. Vernon, don’t connect in people’s minds. But the bad ones — no heat in city schools, a cop caught on his own body camera faking the discovery of drugs in an alley, now a police commissioner who can’t file his taxes — do.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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