Kweisi Mfume brought the history. D. Watkins provided the passion. And Sherrilyn Ifill delivered clear-eyed, sharp-edged analysis on MSNBC's "All In -- Back to Baltimore" special report Friday night.
The best moments in the report on Baltimore during and since the April unrest following the death of Freddie Gray came when host Chris Hayes got out of the way and let those three Baltimore residents speak.
In the case of Mfume, a former Democratic congressman, the producers were wise enough to leave him totally alone one-on-one with the camera delivering what could almost be called a soliloquy comparing April 27, 2015, the day of the worst unrest in Baltimore, with April 4, 1968, when rioting broke out following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
After recollecting the anger that flooded the streets of Baltimore after King's death, Mfume said, "When Freddie Gray died in police custody, that same anger was visited to a new generation ... because people thought there was no justice and that there should be no peace."
He continued in an elegiac tone: "And I remember leaving the funeral of Freddie Gray at my church that day, and it reminded of 1968, April 4th, people were just pouring into the streets in kind of collective mourning ... It was, like 1968, impulsive and very hard to control because it was for many an expression of their anger, their frustration for their sense of reality that said to them over and over again in many respects, 'You really are different. You really are second class.'"
That's the kind of recollection oral historians dream of. And all praise to whoever at MSNBC decided to get everyone out of the room and just let Mfume and the camera roll, man to machine.
All praise to Ifill and Watkins as well for putting the unrest in a deeper and wider context, bringing in issues like public transportation and the way Baltimore's current system limits the lives of many residents. Ifill, the president of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called out Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan for his recent decision not to support a rail line that would have connected the east and west sides of Baltimore.
Watkins, the author of "The Beast Side," and Ifill were interviewed on a studio set by Hayes. But it wasn't a case of the interviewer eliciting great answers. It was more the interviewees going above and beyond the interviewer.
Speaking of Baltimore today, Hayes said to the pair, "It does feel like a crisis there now."
But Ifill was shaking her head in disagreement even as the words were leaving his mouth.
"The crisis was before everybody saw it. Baltimore has been perpetually in crisis," she said. "What erupted was a crisis that rose to the consciousness of other people who were not in crisis."
Watkins chimed in with: "So, I grew up in Baltimore. We've been living in crisis so long, I don't even know what crisis looks like."
What I hated about the special was the narrative voiced by Hayes that "the cameras" of American news organizations only came to Baltimore after violence erupted in the streets.
Over images of the burning CVS store and youths pelting police with rocks and bricks on April 27, Hayes said, "It was the chaos that brought the cameras to Baltimore."
That's a popular narrative: that TV news only shows up in places like Baltimore when there is violence. And that was true for the majority of stations, networks and cable channels that covered the unrest.
But, as I reported multiple times in the Sun, CNN was in Baltimore covering peaceful protests in the wake of Gray's death the week of April 20th, five says before the Saturday night violence, and seven days before burning and looting following Gray's funeral on April 27.
And it wasn't just one camera. To its credit, CNN had multiple crews and cameras here, with hosts like Brooke Baldwin anchoring their shows from the streets of Baltimore by April 21. Read my review of the channel's extensive coverage posted April 22 here. That's a pretty big commitment from a very big news operation to ignore.
To its discredit, CNN pulled up stakes when the work week ended and was missing in action that Saturday night (April 25) when violence first erupted. That was the night of the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, and CNN was all over that with no coverage out of Baltimore. You can read about my outrage here over CNN's commitment to the black-tie narcissism of the correspondents' dinner at the expense of covering Baltimore.
But it makes me almost as angry to see Hayes ignore the facts of CNN's all-in coverage of peaceful protests before the unrest, because it fuels a false narrative that seeks to denigrate all mainstream media. The Sun and CNN were all hands on deck long before the violence started.
I understand how hard it is to praise a competitor that pounds you journalistically and in the ratings the way CNN does to MSNBC. But facts are facts. Journalists report them, ideologues only include those that fit their narratives.
If MSNBC wants to be thought of as a journalistic operation now that its catastrophic commitment to trying to imitate Fox News from the left has officially been declared a failure, it can start by scrupulously reporting stories like "Back to Baltimore" with all the facts. It is far too important a story to shade the facts to fit your narrative.