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PR can't overcome truth of 'Serial,' 'Wire'

Can PR overcome the truths of 'Serial' and 'The Wire'?

Listening last week to "Serial," the hit podcast about a 1999 teen murder in Baltimore, I couldn't help thinking about all the folks from the mayor on down who believe they can change the city's media image with some positive public relations.

And I couldn't help thinking how daunting — maybe impossible — a task they face.

It seems like I have been writing about the media image of Baltimore all year in these pages. If it isn't Baltimore and murder, it's Baltimore and drugs. And if it isn't drugs, it's reports like the one in April about the Black Guerrilla Family gang taking control of the state prison here. Cable TV news loved that one.

In May, I wrote about Stephen Colbert calling Baltimore an "uninhabitable wasteland" on Comedy Central.

In June, it was Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake relaunching her $1.56 million-a-year public-access cable channel with less coverage of public meetings and more HGTV-style programs aimed at "telling a positive story about many of the great things that make Baltimore a premier city."

"We know Baltimore is a quirky, edgy and fun place, but the true heart and soul of our city is not always told," Rawlings-Blake said to The Baltimore Sun. "No other public-access channel is being utilized to positively brand a city the same way we are preparing to do here in Baltimore. This is an opportunity to tell our story in new and exciting ways."

In interviews and meetings with the people running the channel, "new and exciting" was defined as being in contrast to the way media depictions like HBO's "The Wire" or NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street" had portrayed the city. "The Wire" and "Homicide" come up in almost every discussion about the city's image.

In August, the National Geographic channel aired "Drugs, Inc.: The High Wire," a hyped-up reality-TV production that described Baltimore as "the heroin capital of America" and featured drug dealers in balaclavas pointing guns at the cameras, telling viewers that they were "coming to you live from Baltimore."

The debate in the pages of The Sun and elsewhere as to whether Baltimore really was the heroin capital of America was ferocious.

The latest development in this never-ending discussion finds Mike Rowe, Baltimore native and host of CNN's "Somebody's Gotta Do It" show, saying he wants to bring his show to town for one episode to help change the city's image for the better.

He first told me about it last month in what was at the time an off-the-record conversation we had after finishing an interview that you can read in today's Sun Magazine.

"OK, so 'Homicide' comes along and puts Baltimore on the map, maybe one of the greatest shows ever," he said. "But in the history of bad press, I mean, good God, this is a nightmare for the tourism bureau.

"So we're talking about ways to kind of — without turning it into a sappy love letter — make Baltimore as cool as it can be, as accessible as it can be through the 'Somebody's Gotta Do It' kind of lens."

Writing about it on his blog under the heading, "Rewiring The Wire," Rowe said of "Homicide" and "The Wire," that they "convinced millions of Americans that Baltimore is a fantastic place to buy drugs, find a whore, or get murdered. Better yet … all three at once!"

David Simon, who created "The Wire" and wrote the nonfiction book on which "Homicide" was based, responded on his blog, The Audacity of Despair, with, "The pimps and dealers and drug addicts that this gentleman so easily and hastily conjured to lament our narratives are, of course, a minority of the characters actually depicted in those stories.

"But in focusing on those few stereotypes," Simon continued, "Mr. Rowe was clearly raising an argument that I find familiar and disturbing: That an undeserving portion of Baltimore has been chronicled at the expense of a Baltimore more deserving of attention, and that the America left behind by deindustrialization, poverty and the depredations of the drug war should just quiet the [expletive] down while we sell more of the America that has not been so marginalized."

Those are a fraction of the words Simon wrote.

Actually, I feel as though I've been writing about this debate since "Homicide" debuted in 1993. What I'd really like to say to folks who agonize over Baltimore's media image: "Calm down."

The influence of "The Wire" is indisputable and, I am starting to believe, eternal.

As I wrote during the debate over the National Geographic production, it's clear that filmmakers and producers from Washington bureaus of major news outlets worldwide come to Baltimore looking for the powerful images and compelling characters they saw in that series. They want to reproduce them through their own photography and "reporting."

But "The Wire" is a work of art, a fiction fired by the anthropologist's eye and keen social conscience of Simon. Neither Simon nor the series bears any responsibility for the attempts to imitate it.

And despite what some readers might think when I call it a work of fiction, "The Wire" captures a core truth of Baltimore. It's the same one producer Sarah Koenig nails in "Serial": that there is a lot of crime in this city, and to live here is to develop a kind of combat-tested, rueful acceptance of its prevalence.

In the series' third episode, titled "Leakin Park," Koenig, who like Simon was once a reporter at The Sun, describes the public space to a worldwide audience as "1,000 acres on the western edge of Baltimore City known for dead bodies."

She tells listeners that when she mentioned to the rental car agent in Baltimore that she was here to report a story about the death of a Woodlawn High School student whose body was found in Leakin Park, the man matter-of-factly said, "Oh, yeah. My uncle was found dead in Leakin Park."

"If you go to probably any jury trial in Baltimore that involves violence, either an assault or murder, and watch the voir dire, to me that's when you get a sense of what it's like to live in Baltimore," Koenig said in an interview last week.

"When they say, 'Has anybody here been a victim of crime or know somebody who's been a victim of a crime?' and you see how many hundreds of people stand up and get in line to talk to the judge. And then, there's what they say to the judge … so many people talking about it in just that matter-of-fact, almost technical way: 'Yeah, my brother was shot. Yeah, my aunt was raped.' And you're just like, 'Holy [expletive].'"

More than 5 million people have already downloaded or streamed "Serial" on iTunes, and that's just one of the ways you can access it. The podcast is at the top of the iTunes charts in countries ranging from Germany to India.

You think one episode of Rowe's "Somebody's Gotta Do It" is going to make a dent in that? Rowe's new CNN show has averaged 567,000 viewers a week since its debut Oct. 8.

By comparison, Megyn Kelly has been averaging 2.62 million opposite Rowe on Fox.

And how do you even start to measure the global reach and impact of "The Wire"? Compared to the worldwide afterlife of the series, one episode of "Somebody's Gotta Do It" is a grain of sand on the beach at Ocean City.

There's room for Rowe, the mayor's channel and a dozen up-with-Baltimore PR campaigns. And there are plenty of positive stories about Baltimore for them to tell, even if they are playing the role of Sisyphus in this identity struggle.

But let's not be so collectively insecure about our media image — and ignorant as to how it can or cannot be changed.

The part of Baltimore that Koenig and Simon highlighted in their work is a fundamental part of this city's media image not only because they so wisely and compellingly explored it, but also because it's a fundamental part of our social reality.

It's way past time to stop denying that reality. Let's either change it — or own it.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/@davidzurawik

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