David Zurawik

Beefed-up media capture images of Baltimore burning for world to see

Television was filled with images of Baltimore burning Monday night. And those pictures that were seen nationally and globally have been seared into the minds of at least another full generation of viewers.

You will forgive my cynicism, but I don't think Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's rebranded "Charm TV" public-affairs channel is going to be able to put a dent in this nightmare.


I thought I was profoundly affected by the video images from Ferguson in the way they flashed me back to TV news of the 1968 riots. But it was nothing like what I saw Monday from Baltimore on cable and local TV starting only hours after Freddie Gray's funeral.

"I'm sure viewers around the world are watching and asking, 'Where are the police? Why is this happening? How is this happening in Baltimore?'" CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer said at the 5 p.m. start of the "Situation Room" Monday. "This is hard to believe this is going on in a major American city right now."


"Holy hell, Wolf," said correspondent Miguel Marquez, who was on the streets for what seemed like all day and night. "I've covered a lot of things, but nothing as chaotic as this."

And the fires that burned into the night had not yet even started.

I ripped CNN as hard as I could in a Sunday morning post for the way the channel known for news stayed with coverage of the White House Correspondents' Dinner Saturday night at the expense of covering any of the face-to-face confrontations in the streets of Baltimore between protesters and police. (Read that here.)

CNN wasn't alone. MSNBC showed prison documentaries, and Fox News had only a few brief cut-ins featuring pictures and narration only -- no reporter on the scene.

I'm glad the folks at CNN finally realized the tremendous importance of what's been happening here and sent in several crews and show hosts Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo Monday.

But I have to note the irony of Lemon pressing Gov. Larry Hogan on why the National Guard and State Police were only coming in Monday night "when there was so much chaos Saturday."

Hogan might have asked Lemon: Why wasn't CNN covering Baltimore at all Saturday night "when there was so much chaos" here? Really, why not? I'd like to hear one the CNN executives answer me that.

There was tremendous chaos and danger here Saturday, as the Sun reported extensively. But CNN has no right to get holier than anyone given the dismal and boneheaded choices its managers made Saturday in ignoring what was happening in Baltimore on-air.


That said, thanks in large part to Marquez, CNN did do some good work Monday. Marquez and his videographer got closer than anyone else on TV to the huge fire burning at a CVS drug store during the 5 o'clock hour.

As he choked on tear gas and fumes, Marquez directed viewers' attention to a firefighter trying to hook up a hose to a hydrant a few feet away from him. He explained that there was a great need for more water to fight the blaze.

But what viewers saw seconds after the hose filled with water was a man in a mask run up and stick a knife or box cutter into the hose to try and make it useless in fighting the fire. And that person was followed by another in a mask who succeeded by cutting another hole in the hose.

It was a great live visualization of what authorities were up against, and it showed in a snapshot how badly they were losing the battle to regain control of the city.

Not 20 minutes later, I saw a report from MSNBC with the correspondent near police headquarters. He said he and his crew had to leave West Baltimore because it was too volatile. He said their truck had come under attack.

I am in no way questioning the MSNBC account of the dangers its crew faced. Several photographers and correspondents were injured yesterday. But I also know that Marquez never left West Baltimore working his way through scene after scene that was nothing if not volatile.


The great helicopter advantage WJZ and WBAL, which have their own choppers, enjoyed Saturday night when only local stations were covering the violence was lost Monday as everyone else paid for and used pooled helicopter pictures. As I said in my Sunday morning review of coverage, you cannot cover this story with its lightning-quick shifts in pockets of violence without helicopters.

Fox News, which seemed to have almost no interest in the Freddie Gray story last week, was all over it as well Monday with Shepard Smith taking the afternoon lead on the Fox News Deck. I have never been a fan of that visual. I thought it was mostly blue smoke, mirrors and hype. But it did succeed in illustrating some of the street battles around Mondawmin Mall better than anything on any other channel Monday afternoon.

Fox appears to have gone from one crew to at least three in Baltimore by Monday night.

If you thought the media spotlight was too intensely focused on Baltimore Monday, it is only going to get worse. And I welcome it.

If nothing else, the events of Saturday and Monday should have convinced even the most starry-eyed up-with-Baltimore promoters that this city has cosmic problems and we need an honest review to figure out how we got here – and how we might fix some of them.

And we cannot let politicians try to blame the media for highlighting the dysfunction of Baltimore as Bernard "Jack" Young, the city council president, did in a press conference with Rawlings-Blake Monday night.


"I just want to say this because I'm heartbroken and disturbed by the way the media is focusing on the negativity of this city and not the great things that are going on in the city," Young said. "We have young people who are out there protesting peacefully, but you're not focusing on them. You're focusing on those that are burning buildings and rioting through the streets of Baltimore. Show the positive people who are trying to stop them from doing this."

Number one, every channel I saw offered major coverage of ministers who walked the streets and tried to bring some order to them Monday.

Number two, by and large, most channels avoided the TV tricks used to make civil unreast look more dramatic. They did not show the same one or two cars burning over and over to make it look like there were more fires than there actually were. By nightfall, there were plenty of fires to cover.

And, thanks in large part to the heavy use of helicopter shots, almost no one relied on tight close-up shots that made small crowds look larger. Even on the ground, wide angle shots were widely used - shots that gave a more accurate representation of the size of the groups generating the violence.

Young himself said what he saw reminded him of the riots in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

That's the news, Mr. Young, the fact that somehow for all our talk of progress, we are back to a state of existence in Baltimore that reminds us of the violence, danger and chaos of 1968.


That's the story that needs to be covered with everything we've got -- as unpleasant as it might be. And all the lame political-P.R. talk about how the media isn't "positive" enough isn't going to get it any more.

Nor is that kind of talk going to do one bit of good in putting out the fires burning through the Baltimore night.