After Officer Porter mistrial, national and local TV outlets depict two very different Baltimores

Local and national TV outlets depicted two very different Baltimores after mistrial ruling.

It was a tale of two Baltimores on Wednesday afternoon and evening, depending on whether you were watching local or national coverage of the city in the wake of a hung jury in the first trial in the Freddie Gray case.

Some network and cable journalists described a city on the edge, about to break out in violence — while local TV reporters and anchors repeatedly used the word "peaceful" to accompany overhead helicopter shots of protesters downtown and in the Penn North neighborhood.

The tone of much network and cable coverage could be seen at the top of the "NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt." The broadcast, which aired at 6:30 p.m. in Baltimore, opened on images of Gray and Baltimore police Officer William Porter with Holt saying, "... Calls for calm in a city ravaged by violence as the first officer charged in the death of Freddie Gray walks free in a mistrial."*

Catchy tease. But there was no violence in Baltimore at that time.

And Porter didn't "walk free." There could be another trial. Walking "free" would have been an acquittal.

Meanwhile, at WJZ-TV, the CBS-owned Baltimore station, I counted co-anchors Denise Koch and Mary Bubala using the word "peaceful" at least four times to describe the people walking through the streets downtown and in the Penn North neighborhood, where reporter Marcus Washington was stationed. Washington used the word almost as often to describe what he was seeing.

In the first four hours of coverage, starting about 3:45 p.m., local TV looked like the more responsible and balanced source of television news coverage. And I can't remember the last time I felt that way.

To its credit, CNN was all over the mistrial and its aftermath with three correspondents and crews in Baltimore, and show hosts and legal analysts hitting the story hard the first 15 minutes of every hour starting at 4 p.m.

But the tone of that coverage had an overheated, even tabloid edge to it.

Just after 4 p.m., host Jake Tapper went to correspondent Jean Casarez in Baltimore.

"Jean, what can you tell us right now?" Tapper asked. "Police obviously are bracing for, preparing for the worst, hoping for the best."

"I would say the pulse of the community is anxious," Casarez said. "When I look into the eyes of this community, Baltimore City, right here, I see sadness. They wanted a verdict. … I also see some anger. And I also see some fear."

That's a lot to see on the corner outside the courthouse. I've stood where Casarez was many times, and I have never once been able to "look into the eyes of this community" and see all that — as great a vantage point as it might be.

The local channels also seemed to use more overhead helicopter shots as opposed to ground-level shots favored by cable channels. From above, protest groups looked smaller, more contained and greatly outnumbered by police. The handheld street-level images, meanwhile, generated a sense of confusion, confrontation and even chaos.

One striking aspect of studio coverage from CNN involved the near unanimous criticism of State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby. Sunny Hostin and Jeffrey Toobin showed none of the "on-the-one-hand, on-the-other" approach typical of TV analysis.

"I think in many respects this is a game-changer for this prosecution," Hostin said. "I have been very critical of the decision to try these cases and charge these cases so very quickly. … And I think this is the result when you try a case this quickly."

Toobin was even more direct in his assessment: "The technical, legal term for where the prosecution is now is up a creek."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

* This post has been updated to include a fuller text of Holt's introduction to Wednesday's newscast.

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