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Marilyn Mosby is a lightning rod, and lightning rods are good for ratings | COMMENTARY

Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby spoke at a press conference outside the courthouse in downtown Baltimore in March.
Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby spoke at a press conference outside the courthouse in downtown Baltimore in March. (Ulysses Muñoz)

What is “extremely dangerous” about a Fox-affiliated local TV news operation frequently and critically examining the way a public official does her job? It might be biased and weirdly obsessive, but is WBFF’s coverage of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby “extremely dangerous”?

I get “blatantly slanted.” I get “misleading.” Politicians commonly use such adjectives when they gripe about the press they get. But when Mosby’s communications director complained last week to the Federal Communications Commission that WBFF’s consistently negative coverage of her is “extremely dangerous,” it sounded overwrought.

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“Most disturbingly,” Zy Richardson wrote, “there appears to be an intentional crusade against State’s Attorney Mosby, which given today’s politically charged and divisive environment, is extremely dangerous.”

A little further into the letter, Richardson’s meaning becomes clear. It stems from WBFF’s reporting of Mosby’s home address and asking about where her children attend school.

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Over the years, news operations, including ours at The Baltimore Sun, have published locations and shown images of the homes of Maryland elected officials. The issue of where a politician’s kids go to school has been raised as well.

But in Mosby’s case, she says she’s received death threats, and that makes her complaint significantly different from the everyday political whine. In today’s climate, any ugly scenario is possible and needs to be taken seriously. (The U.S. Capitol Police learned that the hard way in January.)

Still, I found Mosby’s address without trying very hard, so I’m not sure WBFF’s reporting of it heightened danger — unless Mosby can prove malicious intent.

And that’s key, because however legitimate her complaints about WBFF might sound to her supporters, unless Mosby can show malice aforethought, she is probably not going to get much satisfaction from the FCC.

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As stated on the commission’s website: “The FCC may act only when it has received documented evidence, such as testimony from persons who have direct personal knowledge of an intentional falsification of the news.”

So Mosby needs to do to WBFF what she accuses WBFF of doing to her: Get disgruntled former employees to talk about what goes on inside the station’s news operation. (I spoke at length with one last year who was deeply distressed at the station’s coverage of the city.) Otherwise, Mosby doesn’t have much of a case. The FCC ‘s authority is narrow.

“The agency is prohibited by law from engaging in censorship or infringing on First Amendment rights of the press,” the commission states. “Moreover, the FCC cannot interfere with a broadcaster’s selection and presentation of news or commentary.”

Here’s my take on this latest drama: Lightning rods are good for ratings.

Mosby, a controversial public figure, has been a lightning rod for right-wing, Blue Lives Matter criticism since May 1, 2015, when she charged six Baltimore police officers in the death of Freddie Gray. That made her an instant superstar among people who believed for years that bad cops literally had been getting away with murder. Mosby got national attention — Annie Leibovitz, the famous celebrity photographer, took her picture for Vogue — but she didn’t prove a thing. No officer was convicted, and the trial judge said the state never came close to demonstrating that Gray had been the victim of a crime.

Didn’t matter. Even as the city became increasingly violent, Mosby remained popular among voters in Baltimore and became celebrated as a fearless prosecutor. She had blamed her predecessor, Gregg Bernstein, for a relatively modest increase in the city’s homicides between 2010 and 2014, but she takes little heat (or responsibility) for the much worse increase in homicides during her tenure since then.

So, while Baltimoreans elected her to a second term, she became a lightning rod for criticism by conservatives who see Mosby as all that’s wrong with Baltimore — too soft on criminals, too hard on cops, and buoyed by an electorate still rewarding her for prosecuting police.

Instead of being seen as a way to free up police and prosecutors for more serious offenses in the cause of public safety, her recent decision to not prosecute certain low-level crimes is seen by the right as a concession to criminals and a recipe for more chaos. There isn’t much room for nuance in that view and little interest in the whole complex of factors that fuel violent criminality.

Mosby catches hard backlash — I’ve seen and heard it, and some of it is just sick — from people who have little to do with the city and take ghoulish glee in its problems because its leadership, in both City Hall and the State’s Attorney’s Office, has been Democratic for the last half century.

WBFF plays to the audience that sees it that way. Their coverage must be good for ratings.

The conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group owns stations that are affiliated with Fox in 25 U.S. markets, and WBFF is its flagship. In her letter to the FCC, Richardson mentions this affiliation and suggests that the local station’s “distorted coverage” of Mosby flows from the mother ship.

You can argue that WBFF has the public interest at heart with its coverage of city crime — it is, indeed, an ongoing and depressing crisis — and its focus on Mosby’s part in criminal justice. But I suspect WBFF just found a groove for its audience, people who look upon the city as a “crime-infested wasteland” (that’s how a letter writer put it to me on Sunday), and Mosby should realize by now that feeding that narrative is mainly what they do, and there’s little she can do about it.

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