Citizen Jayne

It is a sticky, humid morning in a West Baltimore neighborhood. Better days are yielding to decline here: people are struggling to maintain neat homes and yards even as several properties on the block are boarded up. A pit bull in a nearby cage growls as a man pulls strips of metal from an old air-conditioning unit lying in the street. The abandoned hulk of a Lincoln Continental sits curbside, its tires slit, its black exterior marred with a spray-painted epithet.

Jayne Miller has come to this forgotten part of town to learn more about a convicted drug dealer. She's tracked down a house registered under the man's name. With cameraman Bob Moore in tow, she saunters up to the house and is soon talking with Queenie, a woman in a housedress who turns out to be the man's grandmother. Soon, the two women are chatting over the fence like next-door neighbors.


When she returns to the car, Miller is smiling to herself. "She said he was a good boy," the wiry and wired WBAL-TV reporter says. "She said she never knew that he had a dime -- except for the silver Mercedes he had been driving."

The moment is vintage Miller: barging into places many of her TV colleagues rarely tread, armed with information gleaned from court documents, relying on her savvy and reputation to coax information from reluctant people, coming out with fresh knowledge that might never even air.


"I love the chase," says Miller, unabashed about her hunger to get the big story of the day, every day.

For two decades as an investigative reporter for WBAL, Miller has spun a continuing narrative about the region, a tale punctuated by violence, crime and tragedy. Her no-nonsense approach and diligence have earned her a reputation as Baltimore's best TV journalist. But Miller also sees beyond the day's headlines, to problems not easily condensed into a nightly news report. "The real question," she observes while leaving Queenie's block, "is what happens when these older folks are no longer here. ... The younger people are not looking to move in."

That perspective, distilled at an early age, is shaped by more than just what she's seen through the camera's eye, and fuels a passion to make a difference that transcends journalism.

"I've got a very strong ethic: You don't sit on the sidelines. You get involved," Miller says in her familiar flat rasp, which often emerges in sharp bursts between a drag on a cigarette or a sip of coffee. "I was interested in my profession before Watergate. I believed it was a way to make a difference."

So in addition to her duties as a reporter, Miller busies herself in civic activism. She is a leading board member of not-for-profit groups that provide job training and promote homeownership in the city. For more than a year, she also has written some of her station's editorials on social issues affecting the region.

Her off-camera work to shape a better Baltimore is largely unknown to viewers, and even to colleagues within the city's tight-knit world of TV news. Some say these affiliations, which place her on boards with some of the city's key political figures, undermine her standing as a journalist. One of the groups receives money from the city and lobbies state and public officials with a liberal social agenda. Several fellow board members -- people with whom Miller periodically meets to help formulate the groups' policies -- answer to the same public officials she has to cover on the air.

For Miller, the dual roles of reporter and reformer make sense. In both, she says, she is working to improve Baltimore. In fact, she says, when the day comes to leave television news, she hopes to plunge into urban planning because she can do a lot of good for the city.

For now, though, she is comfortable in her blended identity as investigative reporter, editorialist and civic activist. She dares anyone to challenge her reporting (so far, no one has), and she says she retains objectivity in her pursuit of stories.


Those who know Miller suggest that, after so long in the city, she considers herself both Baltimore's hardest-hitting reporter and a player in the community. She is confident that she can handle both roles. But the question lingers: Should she?

For Miller, a passion for investigation and activism came early. Growing up in a small town of 700 people about a 25-minute drive east of State College, Pa., she was raised with firm convictions -- not least that girls could be every bit as tough as boys.

She refused to play girls' basketball in high school because the rules at that time restricted young women from playing the game the same way boys did. A dedicated athlete who had played baseball with the guys, she ignored the basketball coach's entreaties.

Miller, 46, came of age during the Vietnam War and remains very much, by her own account, a child of the 1970s. She learned the rudiments of her trade researching land records and court documents for her father, a lawyer. After high school, she says, she was drawn to journalism at Penn State University because she saw the profession as a way to improve society.

After graduating in 1976 and working for a local newspaper, she headed to Harrisburg for her first television job. A story from her first days as a reporter there, perhaps apocryphal, has it that Miller strode across the newsroom to a colleague and demanded he turn over his files on three different subjects. Those are my stories now, she announced.

Reminded of the anecdote, she laughs, but doesn't refute it.


At once talkative and guarded, Miller seems much more comfortable offering grand declarations about her commitment to deeply held principles than in revealing even the smallest detail about her personal life. As she talks, her eyes are always working, her eyelids narrowing, as she generates questions of her own.

Miller arrived at WBAL in Baltimore in 1979, after covering the Three Mile Island debacle for WQED, the respected Pittsburgh public television station. Her introduction to town was a whirlwind, including a tropical storm and a breakout of prisoners from Jessup. She loved it.

After just three years, she was offered a spot at the CBS News bureau in Washington. It was a plum job, too good to turn down -- but ultimately too frustrating to keep. Too much pack reporting, not enough top-tier assignments. Just as important, she didn't sense the same connection with viewers she'd felt in Baltimore.

"What I really missed was the action," Miller says. "If there's breaking news at the end of the day, you go. [In Baltimore] I've been given a tremendous opportunity to create my own niche, and you don't give that up readily."

She returned to WBAL at the end of 1983 and has been there ever since, a dominant figure on the TV scene. On the air, she has become a familiar sight, her hands chopping in the air as she makes a point. While crisply attired, she's far from the typical blow-dried TV reporter in appearance. In its own way, that distinction has served her well in her image-centric field.

No one in local television commands more respect, or fear, than Miller. "If she was calling you at City Hall, you knew nine times out of 10 you were going to have to answer some hard questions," says Anthony McCarthy, former chief of staff to City Council President Sheila Dixon.


In the fall of 1999, for example, when Laurel resident Richard Spicknall II was accused of shooting and killing his two young children, Howard County officials acknowledged failing to list Spicknall on a statewide database of people facing restraining orders. The database, supposed to ensure that such people could not purchase guns, had failed -- and that failure piqued Miller's interest.

She asked state police to test the database, but got nowhere. Casting about for another way to peer inside the system, she recalled that a federal grant had been used to create the system. Wherever there's a federal grant, she knew from experience, there's a progress report explaining the project. And in this case, the report contained some astonishing facts.

Miller showed not only that the database appeared to miss hundreds, possibly thousands of the 8,000 people who had protective orders filed against them, but that police acknowledged an 85.7 percent error rate in entries that had been made. Embarrassed law enforcement officials scrambled to mend the program.

Susan Adams, a producer for the network newsmagazine "Dateline NBC," came across Miller's work in preparing her own piece on the protective order system and was impressed. "It was not only that the [NBC] affiliate had done it -- she had broken the story," Adams recalls.

This caliber of work, repeated over the years, has earned Miller the unyielding respect of her bosses. In many ways, colleagues say, she is the defining presence of the station's news operations, more than any studio anchor. The investigative unit built around Miller -- which includes cameraman Moore, executive producer Augusta Brennan and producer Joyce Karp -- helps to establish WBAL as a source of hard news.

"I consider her the conscience of our newsroom," says WBAL news director Princell Hair. "She is oftentimes the voice of reason, the voice of experience, the voice of knowledge."


That experience can translate into a major edge in covering breaking news. During the final night of the Joseph Palczynski hostage standoff last March in Dundalk, Miller was reporting live from the scene while juggling three sources of information at once: a police scanner; a neighbor of the hostages speaking on a cell phone; and the voices of producers and anchors from the studio in her earpiece. She was able to blend the information skillfully, offering her viewers an account of the sudden end of the hostage situation in richer detail than her peers.

Name a big story with a strong local hook -- the trial of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, the Palczynski situation, even a parade of tall ships at the Inner Harbor -- and you'll likely see Miller on air.

"She is almost always on the lead story, whatever it is," Hair says. "Ultimately, she wants to be on the big story, whether it's Ray Lewis on trial or Ray Lewis in the Super Bowl," agrees Jennifer Gilbert, a reporter for rival WBFF-TV.

Miller's competitiveness can surface more viscerally, too.

Late on the first night of the Palczynski standoff, Palczynski's former lawyer, David Henninger, was to appear before the media with Baltimore County police spokesman Bill Toohey to appeal to the captor to release his hostages. Police knew from surveillance that at that moment Palczynski was tuned to WBAL. Toohey turned to Miller and said, "You must go live."

Reporters and cameras jockeyed to get to where Henninger would speak. And then, in a moment recalled with astonishment by some of her competitors, Miller gave then WJZ reporter Kathy Fowler a sharp shove, sending her sprawling. A few moments later, Miller called out to Henninger, "David, Channel 11's camera is right here. Look right here." And he did.


Miller doesn't deny the incident but says it was a chaotic time and that she doesn't recall it. But WJZ staffers, including news director Gail Bending, say the push was visible on their station's broadcast. And though she calls it "ancient history," Bending says Miller later acknowledged the incident, and sheepishly said she owed Fowler an apology.

Miller says she doesn't remember the quasi-apology any more than the push.

"Are they saying I was like Jesse Ventura?" Miller asks with an indignant laugh. "Am I aggressive? Yeah, I'm very aggressive. Am I violent? No."

The same passion that sets her apart from TV news colleagues on the air has led Miller to an uncommon situation off camera: as an enthusiastic leader in organizations that promote affordable housing, job training and substance-abuse treatment. It's not the normal role for a journalist, but Miller says it enhances her life.

She reaches back to her youth again to explain. She was raised, she says, with a strong ethic of repaying the community to which she belongs.

For instance, along with some relatives, she has sponsored scholarships for students at Penn State. She says she feels the same sort of attachment to her adopted hometown and is compelled to act on it, no matter what critics might say.


"I have lived in Baltimore for 20 years," Miller says. "I can't imagine living in this city and not getting involved as a citizen, because those are my true colors.

"Life is way too short to spend it working and going home here at night and closing the door and saying, 'I'm done.' I would be a poorer reporter if I weren't active as a citizen, because it brings perspective."

Since 1993, Miller has been a member of the board of Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore, a group that trains lower-income women in business skills. In late 1999, Miller joined the board of directors of the Baltimore branch of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, a major, six-decade-old liberal advocacy group. The nonprofit association lobbies state and city officials to spend more public money on affordable housing, mass transit and substance-abuse programs.

Last fall, Miller also became the unpaid chairwoman of the board of Live Baltimore Marketing Center, an offshoot of the community association that promotes home ownership in city neighborhoods. She is also vice chairwoman of Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, and is on track to become the group's first female board leader.

And since the fall of 1999, Miller also has served on her station's editorial board, helping to write commentaries for station general manager Bill Fine. She is the only reporter on the board. As an example of her work there, Miller cites an editorial she wrote on the protective-order database after her stories on the Spicknall case.

"She doesn't just cover stories," Adams, the NBC producer, says admiringly. "She gets involved. She's not cynical at all."


Terri L. Turner, the Citizens Planning and Housing Association's executive director, credits Miller with helping to plan a rally last October prodding elected officials to take a more regional approach to dealing with transportation and drug problems.

"She has a really good nose for the temperature out there, for what is a real issue that would be consensus-building," Turner says. In addition, Turner says, Miller provided important advice on how to present a human face on issues to secure media coverage and political support. The governor and the mayor attended, and the event attracted coverage from The Sun and WBFF-TV.

"Because she is an investigative reporter, all of her instincts lead her to ask the probing questions," Turner says.

Ask Miller about her dual roles and she's unequivocal. "I am very comfortable and very clear with where the lines are and what my role is as a journalist and as a citizen," Miller says. "Do people say to reporters: 'You shouldn't vote'? Isn't that civic involvement? Sure it is."

But others point to potential conflicts that arise from her involvement in the causes she has embraced. The boards she sits on include many influential politicians and vie for thousands of dollars in public funds:

n In April 1998, the state Labor Department awarded a competitive grant funded with federal dollars to Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore to provide skills to people likely lose their unemployment benefits. The grant ultimately was worth $800,000 over three years.


One of the three votes on the state Board of Public Works that approved two extensions of the grant belongs to state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. Schaefer serves with Miller on the Goodwill board. In addition, the state's current capital projects budget included $450,000 in state-backed bonds to help finance renovations of Goodwill's facilities on Redwood Avenue.

Members of Miller's Live Baltimore board include developers, a representative of the region's Board of Realtors, political figures and city officials, including a special assistant to Deputy Mayor Laurie Schwartz, a former fellow board member whose portfolio includes housing issues; Tom Jaudon of the city housing department; Joyce Leviton, the department's division manager of community planning; and Andrew B. Frank, an executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., a quasi-city agency.

Live Baltimore's parent organization, CPHA, on whose board Miller also serves, spends more than a quarter of a million dollars annually lobbying state and local officials, according to recent tax documents.

For its work touting neighborhoods, Live Baltimore receives $160,000 in discretionary city funds for the current fiscal year. Live Baltimore was also awarded a $64,000 contract to market the state's "Live Near Your Work" program in the city by the state housing department, although that is funded by the private Abell Foundation.

Station officials say Miller has alerted them to her activities outside work, and they say they have encouraged her to pursue her interests.

"She is absolutely capable of separating roles," says Fine, the station's general manager. "For a lot of people in local TV, charitable work and board work would be something that would help them learn more about the community they live in."


Yet, at a minimum, these involvements represent a minefield of possible conflicts for a journalist who frequently reports on issues involving state and city officials.

For instance, Miller covered the return of Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano to his job earlier this month after he'd received treatment for alcohol abuse after an anti-gay tirade at a Fells Point bar. Graziano is supervised by Schwartz, and he is the boss of Jaudon and Leviton at the city housing department.

Miller has also reported on figures who could influence whether the groups she is involved with continue to receive public funds. She covered the spat between State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Mayor Martin O'Malley, and Miller's stories on the Spicknall case involved Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as well as state police officials.

More than two dozen news professionals, civic activists and public officials were interviewed for this article. Not one suggested that Miller has ever killed, promoted or altered a story to favor groups in which she plays a significant role. Nor did they know of instances where she used undue influence to advance those groups' causes with politicians.

But privately, peers aware of her civic involvement express concern about how deeply she has plunged into the city's power structure. Others, willing to go on the record, were more openly critical.

Reese Cleghorn, the retired dean of journalism at the University of Maryland, says he's surprised to learn of Miller's off-camera affiliations because of her strong journalistic reputation. "There's no question that these involvements are conflicts of interest," says Cleghorn, who teaches media ethics at College Park. "Most high-quality news organizations would absolutely forbid the reporter to have those involvements in the community."


On their face, he says, her ties to public officials -- and public dollars -- are problematic. "She's trying to do good things, but she shouldn't be on the air at the same time. She needs to make a choice."

Carl Gottlieb, director of the broadcast division of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, calls Miller the best television reporter at any local TV station in either Baltimore or Washington. But he also says her outside activities raise the specter of conflicts of interest, compromising her work even if her reporting is unaffected. Far better, Gottlieb says, to volunteer on a smaller scale, where one doesn't sit on boards with the city's major players.

"By becoming a journalist, I think that's part of your responsibility," says Gottlieb. "There has to be a certain amount of distance maintained."

Several TV news professionals also question Miller's participation on her station's editorial board.

Drew Berry, general manager of rival Baltimore station WMAR, says he would hire Miller without blinking. But he also says her involvement in WBAL's editorials "taints the whole process of being a reporter there."

"You have a division between the editorial side and the reporting side because you want to be confident that the reporters are objective, not taking sides about the stories they report," Berry says.


Miller is unapologetic. Because of her years of experience, she knows how to draw distinctions between her roles, she says. She declined, for example, to write an editorial scorecard assessing O'Malley's first year as mayor because she had covered him so much during the year, she says.

Most mainstream journalistic outlets cling tenaciously to the ideal of impartiality, causing many journalists to observe strict limitations on what they do outside of work. Reporters at many daily newspapers and news stations, for example, are far less likely than their neighbors to slap bumper stickers on their cars proclaiming political beliefs. While participation in a school's PTA might be allowed, a run for the school board would be out.

Television has a slightly different culture from newspapers. Anchors are often encouraged to perform some visible public service. For example, WJZ anchor Sally Thorner is on the board of the House of Ruth, a shelter that tends to battered women and has received financial support from the state. (WJZ general manager Jay Newman says any controversy involving House of Ruth would be handled by others at the station.) But some deference is still shown to the principle of impartiality.

Over the past decade, a new movement dubbed "civic journalism" links a drop in public trust in media outlets to their stance of detachment. Some reporters and editors have sought more tangible engagement in the community, even teaming up with political figures they cover to address civic concerns.

Miller rejects any connection to this movement. She simply says WBAL's viewers should trust her, after all that time on the air, to avoid true conflicts of interest.

"These are leadership opportunities that you want to take on. This is about me personally," she adds. "Regardless of my personal opinions, my political beliefs, I have no doubt at all in my ability to be objective. I don't do stories for any reason except for a greater public good. End of story."

For the record

A photo caption on Page 9F of today's Arts & Society section incorrectly identifies a man being interviewed outside federal court as John Harold Wilson, a city police officer who is accused of being a supplier of Ecstasy. The individual pictured is not Officer Wilson.The Sun regrets the error.