I took a deep dive last week into Baltimore's drug scene. And when I finally came up for air, I had a newfound clarity on the city's troubled TV image and the line between responsible documentary filmmaking and exploitative reality television.
Online Monday, I previewed a National Geographic Channel program that depicted Baltimore as a drug-infested wasteland of vacant rowhouses and lost lives. It's titled "Drugs, Inc.: The High Wire,"and if you missed it last week, you can see it again this week at 8 p.m. Wednesday. It's not going away any time soon in the world of cable TV repeat programming.
It features drug sales in broad daylight at Lexington Market. It showcases an addict cooking and shooting heroin in her parked car on a street that appears to be in Hampden.
The hour is filled with unnamed men in masks sitting behind bags of dope and tables filled with guns, pills and money saying things like, "Life is definitely cheap in Baltimore ... somebody kill you for free."
The sensationalistic tone is established early in the piece with a drug dealer pointing his gun at the camera and saying, "Coming to you live from Baltimore." The fast and loose treatment of facts is suggested moments later by an on-screen headline saying, "With an estimated 60,000 drug addicts, Baltimore is the heroin capital of America."
First, it does not follow that having an estimated 60,000 drug addicts makes Baltimore the heroin capital of America. Maybe 59,000 of them are hooked on cocaine or prescription painkillers. There's a sleight of hand, if not outright duplicity, in linking the two statements this way.
Second, the 60,000 number has never come close to being confirmed. The Sun tried to do so twice — in 2005 and again in July — and concluded that "it likely emerged from a blend of best guesses and misunderstandings" dating back to at least 1986.
None of that stopped the producers from categorically stating the figure and branding the city "heroin capital of America" as if they were presenting established facts.
But the problems with "The High Wire" run far deeper than that number. And ultimately, they point to the way large parts of the TV industry have declined in the last decade and how the people and places it covers are often the victim of its lowered standards.
The National Geographic brand is one that has largely been defined by the scholarship, lavish production and sense of exploration in its magazine.
In the minds of many viewers, a TV outlet called the National Geographic Channel would automatically bring some of that credibility to anything it airs.
But what many viewers don't know is that the TV channel is majority owned (67 percent) by Fox. Yes, that Fox, the one controlled by Rupert Murdoch.
Baltimore filmmaker Richard Chisolm has introduced viewers around the world to some of the people and places of Baltimore via his photography on productions like ABC's "Hopkins 24/7," a backstage look at the city's famed medical institution. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County graduate won a national Emmy in 1998 for his cinematography on a National Geographic special on endangered species, "Don't Say Goodbye."
But that was for the old National Geographic, which specialized in making the highest-quality documentaries, films that were a worthy companion to its magazine.
"Ever since Fox bought the majority of National Geographic TV, they took a huge dive with respect to facts and integrity. They are fearlessly sensational and commercial now as they fully embrace 'reality' TV style and pop science junk," Chisolm said.
"Having worked with [National Geographic] for three decades, it saddens me to see the complete demise of what was once a pinnacle of cultural enrichment, scientific journalism and photographic excellence. And as a citizen of Baltimore, it pains me to see them depict and exploit the city's well-known drug problem. …"
Condemning the use of such devices as "masked anonymous people whom we can't check facts on," Chisolm said, "Basically, these reality show people don't want to make real documentaries. Real documentaries are inefficient, costly and cerebral."
As he sees it, "These people want to make pulp TV. They want to sell product, and the product is ... emotional arousal. The formula is, 'Let's do cheap video on these people, and we're going to make them caricatures of whatever we want them to be.'"
Chisolm stressed that he is not against fully exploring Baltimore's huge drug problem — as long as it's done responsibly and includes information about "treatment, recovery, better policy" and possible solutions.
"But this is an organization that has a reputation for exploitation of these human emotions and making things sensationalized," he said.
Wall to Wall is the British production company that makes the "Drugs, Inc." series for National Geographic. Other reality TV series from the company are "Secrets from the Asylum" and "Secrets from the Clink," which feature celebrities going back and tracing their families' experiences in mental institutions and prisons.
"National Geographic Channel stands firmly behind our series Drugs, Inc. and the spotlight it continues to bring to the epidemic of drugs in this country," Chris Albert, senior vice president for the channel, wrote in an email response to questions from The Sun. "We think the 360 degree view the show presents (dealers, addicts, law enforcement) gives an unprecedented look at the devastating toll drugs are taking in communities, including in Baltimore."
Albert defended use of the 60,000 statistic and labeling Baltimore "heroin capital of America" by saying that is a widely quoted statistic and label that has appeared in several Baltimore media outlets.
Albert said National Geographic never cites sources of such statistics on screen in this kind of "documentary," and that "it's longstanding journalistic and National Geographic practice to shield the identities of individuals in presentations like this."
"Finally, it is important to note that we have a very rigorous internal S&P process — we don't just take our production companies at their word — we work with them to make sure their reporting meets our standards, as was the case with this episode," he wrote.
I sense that filmmakers are now coming to Baltimore looking for the powerful images and compelling characters they saw in HBO's "The Wire." They want to reproduce them through their own photography and reporting.
But "The Wire" is a work of art, a fiction fired by the anthropologist's eye and keen social conscience of creator David Simon. It bears no responsibility for the exploitative attempts to do reality TV knockoffs like "The High Wire."
Chisolm put it this way: "They watched 'The Wire' and said, 'Hey, let's make a [cheap] documentary about the 'real' Baltimore behind 'The Wire.'"
I have heard from cops, drug dealers, drug addicts, drug counselors, mental health experts, one man who said he was involved in the production of "The High Wire" and lots of readers since last Monday. The one thing almost all of these diverse voices agreed on is that Baltimore does have a deeply rooted drug problem and that a lot of area residents who in no way buy or take the drugs nevertheless wind up being victimized by those in the game.
No news there.
But I was surprised by how strong and sharply divided the feelings are about whether that problem should be shown and discussed in the media at all.
I absolutely believe it should be fully explored. If drugs are being sold at Lexington Market, you bet citizens need to know about that — not only for their own safety, but also to decide whether they want to take action at the ballot box against civic officials who won't or can't stop to it.
But such media depictions should be done with the highest standards of in-depth journalism, documentary filmmaking or TV drama. They should not be used in the run-and-gun, hyped-up, shady way that "Drugs, Inc.: The High Wire" did.
"Coming to you live from Baltimore," as the alleged drug dealer says as he points his gun at the camera? Not really.
Coming to you from Baltimore dumbed-down and tricked-out with the gimmicks and compromises reality TV has taught many viewers to accept as truth.
Richard Chisolm's latest documentary, "Cafeteria Man," a film he directed about the effort by chef Tony Geraci to reform the food menu for students in Baltimore City public schools, debuts at 7 p.m. Sept. 6 on MPT2 and other PBS stations.