David Zurawik

Pat McDonough and our problem in talking about race in Baltimore

State Del. Pat McDonough's news release alleging that "black youth mobs terrorize" downtown Baltimore has certainly set off a firestorm of debate. But what about the nature of that discussion, particularly as it relates to race?

Without an inclusive, candid and wide-ranging conversation about race, such discussions tend to inflame rather than enlighten. And instead of getting smarter as a community about our feelings on race, we can get more confused and polarized.

One thing that has bothered me for several days is the way that various parts of the community tried to silence McDonough in the immediate wake of his Wednesday news release. Even if McDonough were not a part-time, weekend radio show host on WCBM (AM 680), this part of the controversy is my business as a media reporter and critic.

I am always troubled when someone calls for a a member of the media to be pulled off the air or fired without a thorough hearing. But that's what I heard in the words of a local pastor, the Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, who said that WCBM should take McDonough off the air if he didn't apologize for his news release.

As Sun reporters Yvonne Wenger and Colin Campbell wrote on May 18:

Witherspoon said he is planning a rally at 5 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall to include ministers, politicians and civil rights leaders. He said McDonough should apologize, or WCBM and the station's sponsors should pull the plug on his talk show.

"He is attempting to galvanize a right-wing conservative base," Witherspoon said. "He is attempting to awaken a very dark side of the electorate in this state."

You do not compromise free speech and First Amendment rights without a a full review -- and in some cases, a fight. You might not like what McDonough says or the way he says it, but immediately calling for someone to be pulled off the air or fired if he doesn't behave as you say he should is wrong.

And, by the way, I do believe that "attempting to galvanize a right-wing conservative base" would be covered under free speech. At least, I hope it is.

And, it should be noted, what McDonough said about "black youth mobs" had at the time of the Rev. Witherspoon's complaint been said only in a news release -- not over any airwaves.

McDonough will have a news conference at 11 a.m. Tuesday where he promises to continue his critique of public safety failures in downtown Baltimore.

It would be hypocritical of me to talk about the role of the media in shaping our conversation about crime and race and not mention a Baltimore Sun editorial from May 17 that McDonough and his callers cited several times during the delegate's WCBM show Saturday night.

Under the headline, "Baltimore and bigotry," was a subhead summary that said, "Our view: Where others might view the unruly mob behavior on St. Patrick's Day at the Inner Harbor as criminal, one delegate sees 'black youths.'"

One of the premises on which the editorial is constructed is the suggestion that it is always wrong to mention the race of criminals, as McDonough did. At least, that is my reading of this line in the editorial: "Why is the race of those involved in criminal behavior pertinent? It isn't, of course. People are people. Criminals are criminals."

Such categorical "of course" statements worry me, because the exceptions are often so easy to find. Did race not matter in the Trayvon Martin shooting? Would it have been correct for law enforcement and the media not to mention the race of George Zimmerman, the man criminally charged in the case?

Such categorical declarations tend to narrow the range of what is and isn't discussed. Reading that statement, I think it reasonable to conclude that one can never mention the "race of those involved in criminal behavior."

Let me be perfectly clear about this: I am not endorsing the style or the substance of McDonough's latest campaign. I have major problems with both.

But we need to talk openly in this city about race. Maybe it is not so crucial a topic in less multicultural and diverse cities, such as, say Boise, Idaho. But it is here. And we all need to make sure we don't allow only those viewpoints with which we agree to be heard.