David Zurawik

On Freddie Gray coverage, don't blame the messenger

The national media spotlight has shone more brightly on Baltimore this past week than at any point during my 25 years of writing about media at The Baltimore Sun.

To some local officials, it must feel like a national media sun lamp that is starting to burn.


And they have pushed back, criticizing and even blaming the media for some of the ugliness that was captured by network and cable cameras.

Sensing an outlet for their general enmity toward the press, some audience members have also jumped in, tweeting or posting on Facebook about how awful they think CNN's Don Lemon or Fox News' Geraldo Rivera is. If you're from Baltimore, it's us (locals) against them (national media), and it just feels good after drowning in a week of profoundly disturbing hometown images to blast away on social media.


But if we are going to review media performance, let's do it fairly and honestly, and not through a haze of ideology, boosterism or political misdirection.

Not for one second, for example, should we let Bernard C. "Jack" Young, Baltimore's City Council president, get away with what he tried at a news conference with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on Monday night.

"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."

No. 1, the local media had been going all out the previous week covering peaceful protests and celebrating both the right to protest and the efforts of those preaching and practicing nonviolence.

And it wasn't just the local media. CNN came to town in considerable force during the week of April 19, with show hosts like Brooke Baldwin on the ground, and did a sound journalistic job. There was no violence on the streets at this point — only peaceful protests.

And that gives the lie to the claim in President Barack Obama's 14-minute news conference that the network and cable TV cameras only come to a place like Baltimore when there's violence — and that they then use TV tricks to further hype the images of destruction.

"Point No. 4," Obama said in the lecture-like answer he gave reporters at the White House on Tuesday, "the violence that happened yesterday distracted from the fact that you had seen multiple days of peaceful protests that were focused on entirely legitimate concerns of these communities in Baltimore. Led by clergy and community leaders, and they were constructive and they were thoughtful, and frankly, didn't get that much attention."

Frankly, they did get quite a bit of cable and local attention, in fact.


He went on: "And one burning building will be looped on television over and over and over again, and the thousands of demonstrators who did it the right way, I think, have been lost in the discussion."

Actually, Mr. President, there were fires in 15 buildings and 144 vehicles Monday. No one needed to "loop" anything — there was no shortage of live fires to show. The problem was keeping up with all the mayhem and destruction in the city under the eerie orange glare of the city's urban streetlights.

But it's easier to suggest that what viewers saw on their screens was an exaggeration created by a ratings-hungry, conflict-crazed, cable TV industry. Everyone knows "if it bleeds, it leads."

And how about the performance of some of those network and cable stars who came to Baltimore last week once the violence started?

Rivera was an embarrassment, saying of the protesters on the street in Baltimore at 10:02 p.m. Tuesday, "It seems they want trouble."

"No, they don't want trouble," state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, whom he was interviewing, said forcefully.


When he asked what they did want, Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat, told him the organizers wanted him and the rest of the media to "move back" so they could try and get the remaining protesters to leave.

Rivera is a clown. The guy's taking shirtless selfies of himself and posting them online at age 71. Fox should send him into retirement, not the streets of West Baltimore on a story as volatile as this.

Don't condemn the entire media because of fools like him.

CNN was in Baltimore the week of April 19 covering peaceful protests in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, while Fox News wasn't.

CNN passes; Fox fails.

On the other hand, on April 25, when violence first erupted in Baltimore, CNN stuck with its coverage of the White House Correspondents Dinner and couldn't be bothered to provide one cut-in. If you were watching CNN, "the worldwide leader in news," during prime time that night, you knew nothing of looting and violence in Baltimore.


CNN fails.

Yet here's a moment featuring the work of a TV news star that no one wrote about as far as I can tell.

On Tuesday night, NBC News anchor Lester Holt did the "NBC Nightly News" out of Baltimore. NBC News also brought in Chuck Todd, NBC political director and host of "Meet the Press," who works out of Washington.

In a report on Obama's comments about the riots, Todd, who lives and dies to some extent on White House access, took a chance and called the president out.

Standing in the street alongside Holt in front of charred buildings, Todd said, "It will be interesting to see if [Obama] does something he hasn't done before. He's never walked the streets of Ferguson. Didn't go to Sanford, Fla. Didn't go to North Charleston. Is Baltimore different? Does he come and walk the streets? Does he actually smell the burning ground that we smell, the smoldering? The bully pulpit — does he actually use it? There's been some critique that he hasn't done enough."

Todd seemed genuinely moved by the experience of standing in West Baltimore, and his suggestion was a bold and brilliant one. Can you imagine the impact it would have had on our national conversation about policing and race if the president had gotten in his helicopter and flown the 50 miles or so and made a speech in West Baltimore?


Tell me again how the media are only filled with self-serving phonies and poseurs.

For all the media's sins, the performance of network and cable news in Baltimore last week challenged as many negative stereotypes as it reinforced.

If you believe the industry focuses only on negative stories, tell me why it couldn't get enough of Toya Graham, the Baltimore mother who pulled her 16-year-old son off the street when she saw him throwing rocks at police Monday. No person got more airtime that Graham last week. And what about the extensive coverage of U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, walking the streets trying to get protesters to honor the curfew?

And if you think TV is incapable of deepening the national conversation about race, I would encourage you to check out videos of Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes taking on the use of the term "thugs" to describe teenage lawbreakers in Baltimore.

The terrible images of cars and buildings burning through the night, as looters crawl through the shattered windows and doors of businesses, are indelibly etched into my mind along with those of millions of viewers worldwide.

But don't blame the media. They didn't light the fires and loot the stores. They just showed what was happening in Baltimore to the world. That's what we do.