David Zurawik

Freddie Gray's death getting lost in a sea of TV formulas

Tuesday's 10 p.m. curfew was a cable-news, TV dream.

Like a countdown clock, the whole day's coverage on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News was relentlessly driven by it with the drama of viewers wondering whether a curfew would work in bringing order back to Baltimore.


And if it didn't, what would authorities do to protesters who defied it by staying on the street? Tick, tick, tick.

Baltimore could not have been more front and center on America's screens Tuesday. From the start of the morning shows, the national media was out in force after a night of rioting, rage and arson. And what the networks and cable channels mostly showed on TV during the sunny day were far more positive scenes of citizens cleaning up debris, protesters standing arm-in-arm in the streets, drumming, dancing, hand-clapping and singing.


Correspondent Chip Reid described the difference between Monday and Tuesday in his lead report for "The CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" by saying, "Instead of sirens and shattering glass, there was singing and dancing. Instead of cowering behind locked doors, residents swept debris from the streets and charred stores."

Television even found a couple of heroes in Baltimore residents Robert Valentine, a Vietnam vet who had stood his ground on the street Monday during the riots, and Toya Graham, the mother of a 16-year-old boy whom she saw wearing a hoodie and a mask and throwing rocks at police.

After recognizing her son, Graham came after him and started dragging him home. The video of her slapping him about his head as she pulled the mask from his face and berated him for being on the street went viral with monster websites like CBS News doing its best to drive it.

Pelley's newscast featured an interview with Graham and she was booked to appear on the "CBS Morning Show" today. Her quote saying that her anger at her son was the result of her not wanting him "to be another Freddie Gray," was the soundbite of the day.

But her appeal went well beyond that quote. As she unmasked and took control of her adolescent son, she made viewers feel empowered. Finally, an adult authority figure was saying, "enough," without worrying how she looked or sounded on video – or whether she was being too strong in her response toward the boy. She also made the frightening images of conflict on the screen seem a lot less scary by showing us the frightened teenage face of one of the rock throwers.

There was no shortage of stark and even grim images to be sure. Viewers saw major Baltimore thoroughfares lined with members of the National Guard who were armed and wearing combat gear. Humvees and other armored vehicles were parked in the middle of streets. And police in full SWAT gear were shown walking through the crowds of protesters and past the charred remains of fire-gutted buildings, cars and homes.

There was still plenty of anger voiced in interviews with protesters as well. But for all the war zone imagery and anger that remained, a positive vibe permeated the coverage on every channel until dusk.

That's when the countdown to curfew really started to click in with headlines across the bottom screen constantly reminding viewers of the 10 p.m. deadline to be off the street.


"Marchers in the street as curfew nears," a CNN headline said appearing every two minutes during the 6 o'clock hour.

There was some genuine tension as 10 p.m. approached and crowds were still standing in the streets. Community leaders urged the people in the streets to leave, as police in combat gear and carrying shields formed phalanxes nearby.

CNN focused on one location at Pennsylvania and West North Avenues, where protesters started to throw bottles at police as they started to inch forward in an attempt to clear the street.

Chris Cuomo was outstanding in the clarity he brought to a tableau as one of several reporters. Don Lemon was, well, Don Lemon as he mistook a deft maneuver by police in using an armored personnel vehicle in the arrest of a protester as the vehicle almost hitting the protester. Cuomo had to explain what really happened without sounding like he was actually correcting misinformation provided by the guy anchoring the hour.

There was a lot of TV talent in Baltimore Tuesday for better or worse.

Lester Holt anchored "NBC Nightly News" from Baltimore, and one of the smartest moments of the day came during that newscast when Chuck Todd, host of "Meet the Press," deconstructed remarks made by President Obama about Baltimore earlier in the day.


Todd pointed out that Obama had never visited Ferguson, New York or any of the other sites where unarmed black men had been killed or died during or after arrests. Citing the proximity of Baltimore and Washington, Todd wondered why Obama didn't come and stand in the streets of Baltimore and smell the aftermath of the fires for himself as Holt and Todd were doing.

I can't let Obama's remarks go without notice. Once again, the president went after the media. And once again, the president was dead wrong in his facts and his analysis.

Alleging that the peaceful protests following Gray's death didn't get much TV attention, while the riots Monday night did, Obama said, "One burning building will be looped on television over and over and over again. The thousands of demonstrators who did it the right way, I think, have been lost in the discussion."

Actually, Mr. President, there were 15 buildings and 144 cars set on fire Monday, according to police. And there was no "looping" of any one fire on TV Monday night as far as I could tell. There was more than enough live fire to fill several nights of TV. Surely, someone on your staff could have checked those facts for you. But then, those facts don't fit your anti-press narrative, do they?

I am not prepared to say TV did a great journalistic job Tuesday. Any time you have Geraldo Riviera reporting on scene for a show anchored by Sean Hannity, as Fox did Tuesday,  you want to be careful how you use the word "journalism."

The question we all have to ask ourselves: After all the hours of coverage on all the channels focused on Baltimore this week, are we really any smarter about race, police-community relations or the death of Freddie Gray?


I'm not even sure after riding the countdown clock all day, whether or not I should consider the curfew a success.