Z on TV: City leaders can't blame the media for image-crushing DOJ report

Media columnist David Zurawik says that the Department of Justice report "is really bad news for Baltimore and it’s deserved." (Emma Patti Harris/Baltimore Sun video)

For years, Baltimore civic leaders have been blaming the media for the city's troubled image.

One of the favorite refrains when police practices were questioned was to use the metaphor of a few "bad apples" to suggest the media were emphasizing the negative exceptions to the positive norm, giving the whole department and city a bad name.


Well, all that disingenuous spin should stop today with the release of the scathing and wide-ranging Department of Justice Report on policing in Baltimore.

This is not to say there are not hard-working and honest law enforcement officers in this city – Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta said just that at Wednesday's press conference announcing her department's findings. But this report says the disease in the Baltimore Police Department is systemic – a sick and racist culture that has been allowed to infect the entire department at the expense of all citizens, but especially people of color in this city.

The media are excoriating Baltimore today in their reporting and analysis of these findings. They are taking Baltimore to task in print, TV and online in the harshest criticism the city has seen since the night of the 2015 riots in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray.

And just as it was on the night of the riots, every harsh review of the police department and the city is deserved for letting our leaders keep the lid on the mess at police headquarters through successive administrations and myriad commissioners.

Bring it on. It can only make us better after decades of secrecy, spin and pushback against every attempt by outlets like the Sun to shine light on the problems.

"The Baltimore Police Department is a complete and utter disaster. That's the only possible takeaway from reading the U.S. Department of Justice's 163-page report into Baltimore police, leaked on Tuesday," reads a story on the online news site Vox, which labels the report "incredibly damning" in its headline.

"This is not the story of a few bad apples in the police department; these are systemic issues propagated by leadership, poor guidance, shoddy training, and essentially no accountability to speak of — and these issues go back to at least the 1990s, when city leaders in Baltimore stated 'zero tolerance' anti-crime policies," the story goes on to say.

CNN started the day letting the New York Times headline that characterized the Justice Department report as "blistering" frame its coverage. Then it turned the rhetorical heat even higher as the story played in heavy rotation, with successive anchors expressing their dismay at the state of policing in Baltimore.


In a conversation with correspondent Jean Casarez, who was in Baltimore in front of City Hall, Carol Costello used the terms "unbelievable" and  "mind boggling" during the 9 a.m. hour to describe what Justice Department investigators found here. She was a referring to a woman who was stopped for a defective tail light being strip-searched on the street.

Casarez repeatedly – and correctly – emphasized the unconstitutionality of what police routinely did in Baltimore. In fact, she pointed out, the police were being trained to behave in ways that violated the constitution, ensuring that the bad behavior would pass from one class of recruits to the next.

In the 10 o'clock hour, CNN legal analyst Laura Coates offered this takeaway: "Apparently, according to this report, the Fourth Amendment does not exist in Baltimore. You've got unreasonable searches, seizures, searches, no respect for the community in terms of what their constitutional and civil rights are … "

This came after Baltimore attorney Billy Murphy told CNN's global audience: "Yes, it's what the black community has been saying for the last hundred years. ... And we've been characterized as whiners and complainers and otherwise dismissed in so many ways for so many years. And so this problem has actually gotten worse in the past 10 years."

Murphy went onto issue another condemnation of the "few bad apples" argument.

"This is an overwhelmingly widespread pattern of illegal behavior by hundreds of cops," he said. "And so we have to reexamine whether or not most cops are good and look at the numbers. It looks like a huge number of cops are bad. They are tied to the old ways of doing things that come from the years of – of racism. And so we may have to look at a more radical solution to this police department in Baltimore."

On the cluster of microphones in front of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at today's press conference, the most prominent logo was that of city-owned Charm TV.


Looking at the tableau of her, Gupta and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, I couldn't help but wonder how the mayor's producers were going to try and spin this avalanche of criticism and condemnation on the channel she set up to balance what she saw as the unfair negative imagery of Baltimore on cable news and entertainment programs like HBO's "The Wire."