Baltimore is back in the cable news wheelhouse this week with Fox and CNN hitting Freddie-Gray-related stories hard last night and today.
And the dramatic ways in which the stories have been presented help make Baltimore look not just like a leadership-challenged city to millions of viewers globally, but also as the site of a fundamental struggle between police and elected officials - with citizens the odd persons out.
That kind of conflict makes for good television. But that kind of black-and-white storytelling often misses all the complications, contradictions and complexities that are essential to the kind of informed civic conversation about police-community relations that Baltimore desperately needs.
Tuesday night, Megyn Kelly opened her report on "The Kelly File" by telling viewers, "Breaking tonight, big news out of Baltimore. 'The Kelly File' has learned that the police crackdown that led to the arrest and subsequent death of drug suspect Freddie Gray was directed by District Attorney Marilyn Mosby, the very woman now prosecuting six police officers for what they say was an attempt to comply with her orders. … This is a stunning development in a case that has sparked riots, protests and angry debates all the way to the White House."
She called the email a "blockbuster document" that 'The Kelly File' "got its hands on."
Just for the record, the news was not exactly "breaking" at 9 p.m. Tuesday when "The Kelly File" aired; it had been online at the Baltimore Sun, for example, since 2 p.m. And Mosby isn't a district attorney; she's the state's attorney."
Wednesday, Fox Nation at foxnews.com labeled the story an "exclusive."
A spokeswoman for the channel said that Kelly never called the story a Fox exclusive on her show Tuesday. (That is true.) She also said the channel felt no need to credit the Sun or any outlet, since its reporting was based on documents that it had gained access to on its own. The email was disclosed publicly Tuesday in a motion filed in Baltimore Circuit Court.
After The Sun inquired, Fox Nation at foxnews.com corrected with the note:
Editor's Note: Fox Nation mistakenly labeled this posting a 'Kelly File Exclusive' when it was not indeed an exclusive from 'The Kelly File' and was not billed by the show as exclusive. Fox Nation regrets the error and has made a correction as of 7:35 pm ET, 6/10/15.
But the larger point involves Mosby portrayed – fairly or not – as a confused, if not disingenuous, elected official playing fast and loose with the futures of the police officers charged in the case.
As Kelly said Tuesday night, "Gray would later die in police custody and become a new flash point in a campaign against some of America's cops."
Fox has sounded that narrative of "a campaign against some of America's cops" often in its Freddie Gray coverage.
In some ways, things were just as tabloid today on CNN in an interview that host Brooke Baldwin had with two men shown only in shadows whom she described as veteran Baltimore police officers. They appeared to be wearing hoods, and their voices were distorted. Segments of the interview were played throughout the day.
"The criminal element feels as though that we're not going to run the risk of chasing them if they are armed with a gun, and they're using this opportunity to settle old beefs, or scores, with people that they have conflict with," one of the men said. "I think the public really, really sees that they asked for a softer, less aggressive police department, and we have given them that, and now they are realizing that their way of thinking does not work."
Speaking of what he described as the police being in a "reactive" instead of "proactive" mode, the other man said, "Ultimately, it does a disservice to the law-abiding citizens. It does a disservice to the business owners. It does a disservice to everybody except the criminal element."
Interviews with police officers saying the same things have previously appeared in the Sun, but without the cable-TV, tabloid, bells and whistles of hoods and shadows and monster-like voices on CNN, or Kelly's breathless,overstated hype on Fox.
As I listened to the two men Baldwin described as police officers, what I heard was, "How do you like it now, Baltimore, with the police stepping back, and the bad guys given lots of space to do their thing? How do you like watching crime spike?"
I fear we will never have that community-wide, informed discussion many of us hoped for in the immediate wake of the riot. This kind of jumped-up, cable-TV storytelling is taking us farther and farther from it.