CNN MIA, local TV tries to step up as Freddie Gray protests turn ugly

After a week of cable and network news providing most of the best TV coverage of protests in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, the national outlets were mainly missing in action tonight when things got ugly.

For all the praise I heaped on CNN earlier in the week for its journalistically sound coverage of the protests here, the channel has my utter contempt for its commitment to the White House Correspondents' Dinner tonight. It focused its cameras on this self-aggrandizing exercise in black-tie narcissism while just 55 miles down the road civil unrest led to smashed car and store windows, convenience store looting and vandalism, and more than three hours of face-to-face confrontations between police and protesters that led to gridlock on the streets of downtown Baltimore.


Fans were kept from leaving Camden Yards during the Orioles game because police did not yet have adequate control of the streets around the park. That sounds like news to me, how about you?

Or, is it only news if it's Nationals Park? I wonder if Washington journalists and editors know how disconnected they are from the real America?


I guess the so-called 24/7 "news" channels don't go all out to do real news on weekend nights any more. Did I miss that memo?

I expected nothing of MSNBC with its commitment to exploitative prison reality programming on the weekends. But for CNN to set up shop here the way it did all week and then provide next to nothing when the real trouble starts is unforgivable.

Oh, the people on CNN's empty-headed, Hollywood-style, studio show dedicated to talking about the White House Correspondents' Dinner made note of what wasn't being covered in Baltimore, but they then excused it. In the best style of Hollywood spin, they reminded us of the scholarships the dinner provides. As if that justified their self-absorption and the channel's lack of attention to a serious moment of civil unrest right down the street.

The good news is that local TV generally made an effort to fill the void. There was live streaming during the afternoon, with program managers at WBAL (Channel 11) and WJZ (Channel 13) getting their helicopters and reporters on air by 6 p.m. when things started getting serious in the downtown streets. And they kept them on the street and hovering over the confrontations and violence into and through the 11 p.m. news -- blowing out all network programming and commercials through prime time as far as I could tell.

I understand that not all stations are equal when it comes to resources, but helicopters were essential on this story with disturbances and confrontations breaking out simultaneously in different part of the city and the downtown streets gridlocked. Don't expect me to judge a station by different standards just because its parent company doesn't think Baltimore warrants copter coverage. You don't get a pass for your parent company being cheap or greedy.

WBFF (Channel 45) and WMAR (Channel 2) got on air last, and WMAR was the first to leave live on-air coverage to show a "Toy Story" movie during the 9 o'clock hour. I am not going to rag on WMAR, except to say if you are watching WMAR when as big a story like this breaks, good luck.

And don't tell me about digital – everyone was live streaming and working social media with their coverage. If you can't give over your TV airwaves to cover this kind of civil unrest, what will you break out of movies and infomercials for?

After its misleading editing of a protest video in December, WBFF won back some major ground and respect in my book with its late-night, essentially cinema-verite coverage of police battling rock, brick and bottle-throwing protesters to regain control of the Western District after even WJZ and WBAL returned to normal entertainment programming.

Nothing I saw anywhere all night matched the intensity of the up-close-and-personal, on-the-street camera work as Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts gave the command for waves of police in riot gear to advance on the rock throwers and sweep the streets of the Western District block by block. The choreography of deployment was stunning with phalanxes of officers advancing shield to shield in the night surrounded by similar teams advancing up the side streets to outflank the rock throwers.

The police were far more aggressive than I had seen them in the five hours before. I saw one officer injured and five persons arrested in the space of 10 minutes just before midnight.

As committed as WBAL was to covering this important story, I have to voice a complaint about its helicopter pilot, Roy Taylor, referring to the vans that police used to transport those who were arrested as "paddy wagons."

It's an ethnically offensive term originating in 19th Century prejudice against the Irish. It is meant to define and denigrate the Irish as drunks and troublemakers who are disruptive to a civil society. And if Taylor doesn't know it, one of his bosses at WBAL should have – and should have told him to stop using it Saturday night. It's time for all of us to get past using language that stereotypes and demeans any ethnic group.


And even as I complain about WJZ for not going live to the mayor's press conference, I have to say one of the most impressive performances of the night was that of Denise Koch anchoring solo from 6 p.m. on. That's a long time to do live TV on a story breaking on multiple fronts, but Koch was more than up to it.

There was a lot of good camera work done on the streets of Baltimore on Saturday night. Here's to the folks behind the cameras who brought us the images of Baltimore on the brink Saturday night.

They make us more informed about our community. They do the real work of journalism without much recognition – unlike the people CNN chose to celebrate Saturday night and who get way too much recognition for the tiny bit of journalism they still do, largely reproducing the White House spin, seldom challenging the conventional wisdom.

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