In the media, divergent perspectives on Baltimore

Baltimore is an American version of Gaza, with an occupying army of heavily armed police in the streets and military helicopters overhead night and day.

No, it's a flash point for social revolution against economic inequality with an even larger army of street-fighting men and women on the march for social justice.


Sorry, everybody knows it's actually "The Wire," with all those boarded-up rowhouses and young men on the corners.

No, wrong again. For all its problems, Baltimore is mainly its citizens with their rich cultural traditions, valued institutions and tenacious optimism.


Those are some of the different visions of the city that various TV and Internet producers have been creating and distributing worldwide since riots in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray in April. The media outlets range from such global enterprises as Al Jazeera to the city-run CharmTV, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's cable effort to provide what she sees as more positive pictures of the city.

Dueling images? To some extent, yes. But it's not that simple. There is social-reality truth in each of the depictions of these documentary-style reports.

But the one media truth they collectively tell is this: What Baltimore looks like on screens around the world is largely dependent on what lens is used to view it.

All of the portrayals discussed here focused on Sandtown, the neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested before he died of injuries sustained while in police custody. And all of the portrayals include multiple images of the same wall murals that commemorate Gray. But each of them then moves on from those shared visual depictions to plug events surrounding his death into different narratives that fit their point of view.


For all the talk of objective reality and truth in documentary filmmaking, media producers usually find the story they came looking for — sometimes whether it is representative of the larger social reality or not.

"Baltimore: A Moment to a Movement," which streams on GRITtv, focuses on what it sees as a deep connection between economic inequality and the death of Gray as causes of Baltimore's unrest in April.

Produced for "The Laura Flanders Show," the 25-minute documentary opens with protesters marching through the streets of Baltimore chanting, "All night, all day, we will march for Freddie Gray."

The point of view of the camera is street level — first filming the marchers coming toward it, and then joining the group and filming from within. It could be read as a visual statement of solidarity.

The first words from the first talking head: "Nobody's been talking about the economic inequality and the economic violence that's been happening all over the city all the time until somebody lights a cop car on fire. And then, there's attention there."

As she speaks, viewers see protesters confronting police in the streets at night with flash bombs and tear gas filling the air. It's followed by a lingering shot of the Gray mural at Gilmor Homes.

The second voice in the piece comes from a young man sitting on a step in a row of abandoned rowhouses. It looks like a scene opener for the HBO drama "The Wire." But he's talking social protest, not drugs.

"I'm proud of what we've done in Baltimore," he says. "I don't condone the violence and the destruction of property. However, if that's what it takes to unite and motivate people, then so be it. It's a small sacrifice."

"A Moment to a Movement' is the most overtly political piece I've seen so far. Some might call it advocacy journalism. But it's compelling and well-reported.

You can see it on Link TV (DirecTV 375 and DISH 9410) on Thursday, June 25 at 7 p.m., and Friday, June 26 at 1 p.m. (ET). Viewers can also see the full episode online at https://www.linktv.org/programs/laura-flanders-show-47.

Al Jazeera America focuses its lens on the death of Gray to look at police-community relations in "Baltimore Rising." Al Jazeera does some of the most sophisticated nonfiction storytelling anywhere online or on TV, and this is no exception.

The 25-minute report with correspondent Anjali Kamat is filled with images of police helicopters hovering overhead and the sound of sirens.

The narrative is Baltimore as Gaza, with city police described by talking heads as an "occupation force."

As I said in my online review, "Baltimore Rising" is dramatic, no doubt about it, with vivid video of police and protesters in the street — including one scene with Kamat running with protesters from police, which helps establish point of view.

But there is also context here with Kamat and her crew exploring other cases where lawsuits have been filed against the police — cases involving Abdul Salaam and Tyrone West. Salaam says he was beaten by Baltimore police after a traffic stop in 2013. West died after an encounter with police who pulled him over in Northeast Baltimore in 2013.

There's a point of view present in the coverage that media scholars call Global South, according to Philip Seib, author of "The Al Jazeera Effect: How the New Global Media Are Reshaping World Politics."

This point of view focuses on those who have been the victims of colonialism. While it generally applies to populations of non-European nations south of the equator, Al Jazeera sees persons of color in North American cities like Baltimore, Detroit and New Orleans as victims of oppression in the same way.

That's how Baltimore becomes Gaza in this telling.

You can see "Baltimore Rising" on Al Jazeera America TV: channel 107 on Comcast in Baltimore, as well as channel 347 on DirecTV and 216 on the DISH Network.

No one will probably be surprised to hear that there are not a lot of police helicopters hovering overhead in "Sandtown: The Path Forward" premiering at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday on CharmTV (Channel 25) in Baltimore.

But that doesn't mean this 25-minutes presentation is an attempt to spin or whitewash what happened in Baltimore in the wake of Gray's death. In fact, the civil unrest is used as a structuring device.

One of the early screens includes a time stamp that says, "April 7, 2015, three weeks before the Baltimore riot." A later time stamp sets the scenes as: "Two weeks after the Baltimore riots."

Tonia Lee, general manager of CharmTV, said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun that the original plan was to pair a piece on Sandtown with another on Greektown for the premiere episode of the second season of the channel's "My Town" series.

But shortly after Karen Frances, producer of "My Town," started interviewing in Sandtown, the civil unrest started.

"So the unrest happened and, obviously, we paused," Lee said. "We didn't want to capitalize on a negative story. … But when we saw the footage, we realized we had what residents were saying before the riots, and now we had a chance to go back after the riots and see what they were saying."

That's a unique opportunity, and the CharmTV team was smart enough to seize it.


The biggest difference between "The Path Forward" and the other two reports is the element of hope; the back end of this report is steeped in it.


Also note the way some of the people interviewed are pictured in front of buildings and institutions rather than empty rowhouses. Ray Kelly, president of the No Boundaries Coalition, stands in front of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church as he talks about problems facing the community. Another resident, Roxane Prettyman, is seated in a church for her interview.

Such stagings show not just institutions, but people whose lives are connected to those institutions — rather that being just victims of larger economic forces or police repression.

That's another wise choice in a report that gives the Sandtown residents it interviews the time to speak in more than sound bites about their lives.

Civic leaders who might have been insecure about the way Baltimore was seen around the world before the civil unrest of April 25 and 27 could not be blamed if they abandoned all hope of ever overcoming the images of arson, looting and street battles that aired in what seemed like an endless loop throughout the media ecosystem those two nights.

Seeing some of those images now resurfacing and going online in these productions, where they can be seen globally and forever, might seem like more bad news for Baltimore.

But understanding how the image of Baltimore differs lens to lens, depending on the worldview of the person behind the camera, reminds us that no one set of images totally defines us. The truth about Baltimore in 2015 is somewhere in the mix of all the films and reports made — and about to be made — about Baltimore after Freddie Gray.


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