Baltimore's only televised mayoral forum a flat, mostly empty affair onscreen

Candidates at a previous debate

Baltimore's only televised mayoral debate wasn't much of an event Monday night. In fact, it was so flat and empty in terms of providing citizens with any insights into the candidates that all of us in the media should probably be a little ashamed that this is as good as Baltimore TV can do in a mayoral election.

Some of the blame surely falls on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who clearly did not make it easy for any station to herd her and her challengers in front of the TV cameras more than once.

From a pragmatic get-elected standpoint, I understand. She is the only one at such a debate with anything to lose. And with the kind of lead she has, there isn't a campaign adviser on earth who would urge her to do any TV debates.

Still, that is where the media have to be aggressive. They have to find ways to force her on-screen if that is what it takes. And when they get her there, they have to offer focused, challenging questions that test her mettle and show voters whether or not she is the best this city can do.

That only happened once Monday night when WBFF anchorwoman Jennifer Gilbert asked her about a plan for northeast Baltimore that would essentially put an end to police coming out to investigate property crimes. Instead, citizens would phone the material into police who would then file a complaint and a number that they can use for insurance purposes.

Gilbert rightly asked if this wasn't the same as "waving a white flag," since citizens have "no expectation that anything will happen with that police report and number."

As Gilbert put it, under the new plan, citizens have "no expectation that there will be any follow-up or investigation."

The mayor became quite intense in saying, "We will investigate." And she insisted that the new plan is not "waving a red flag." While Gilbert said white, the mayor heard and said red.

It was a good moment under the heading of the mayor seems a bit too defensive about this so-called improvement in policing property crimes. Good for Gilbert in cutting through the City Hall spin and speaking for the residents of northeast Baltimore.

But not so good for the folks from Maryland Public Television, moderator Jeff Salkin and Gilbert's co-panelist,Charles Robinson.

Typical of Salkin's superficial questions was this early query of candidate Otis Rolley: "...Can a guy from Jersey City be elected mayor?"

Is the point of the question that he is not born and raised in Baltimore? If so, State Sen. Catherine Pugh wasn't either. She's from Philadelphia.

In Salkin's defense, he did say the question was part of a "lightning round," so maybe fast and easy is the idea. But fast and easy doesn't have to be lame.

Robinson, on the other hand, just absolutely beat an unfocused question about cheating in Baltimore City schools on state tests to death.

He asked each of the candidates almost the full question over and over instead of stating it once and then going down the line and asking for a response without replaying the whole megillah again and again.

Two things troubled me most. One, the cheating story was first reported by Erica Green in the Baltimore Sun, and that was not acknowledged. In national TV debates, such reporting is usually acknowledged.

Furthermore, while Robinson seemed to see some deep meaning in Baltimore teachers and administrators being involved in the cheating as if it said something about the culture here, Rolley had to point out to him that the same was happening elsewhere -- as in Atlanta.

Across the board, the biggest failure of the questions: They never got the candidates talking back and forth, challenging or responding to each other in a meaningful way. That was a major disappointment.

I am not going to talk extensively about the staging except the parts that were so bad as to be distracting. The interviewers appeared to be seated at a table to the left of the candidates. But for the candidates to look like they were talking to the viewers, the candidates had to look straight ahead.

Some of the candidates were clearly confused by this. Pugh, for example, looked as if she was talking to her left shoulder throughout her entire first answer -- when she was merely looking at her questioner, which is a reasonable thing to do.

And everyone seemed to be struggling with whether to look at the questioner to their left or the camera in front of them. Even Rawlings-Blake, who appears to have had some TV coaching, struggled a bit, though, she was clearly better than the others in this regard.

That problem could have easily been avoided in the staging, and it would have made for a better debate.

I'm not saying staging or any other such TV business could have saved Monday's debate. But it wouldn't have hurt.

Here's hoping the League of Women Voters-WYPR-Baltimore Sun radio debate Tuesday night offers voters more information about the mayor and her challengers than this one did.

You can hear that debate tonight on WYPR.

(The Sun has a content sharing agreement with WYPR-FM.)