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Cable TV shapes national perception of Freddie Gray's death

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Anthony Batts can't compete with raw video

From Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake getting grilled on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" to CNN giving wall-to-wall coverage of an afternoon news conference, the story of Freddie Gray's death became a national TV story Monday.

And while city officials might have thought that conducting a news conference and releasing surveillance video would let them control the narrative, it was cable TV — through the use of video and still photography — that was shaping how the story and Baltimore's police-community relations would be seen nationally.

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The 25-year-old Gray died Sunday after his arrest the weekend before. Driven by citizen-made cellphone video of the arrest that showed Gray seemingly unable to walk and onlookers angrily shouting at police as they dragged him into a van, the story had already sparked protests in Baltimore.

The chasm between what city officials were saying about their handling of Gray and what viewers were seeing was evident during CNN's coverage of the Baltimore news conference.

On one-half of the screen, viewers saw city officials live, saying that their viewings of the videos showed that police did not appear angry or to have injured Gray in any way.

But on the other half of a split screen, viewers saw a steady replay of a citizen-made video with a cone of light focused on Gray as he was lifted by officers and dragged into a van. It appeared that Gray could not stand, his legs dragging behind him.

Gray's attorney, William "Billy" Murphy Jr., said of his client, "His spine was virtually severed, 80 percent severed."

But the video was only part of the loop that played throughout the news conference on one side of the screen. Following the video of the arrest, CNN would show a portrait of Gray alive and well. It was the kind of picture a family might have on a mantel or TV set. In CNN's context, it served to remind viewers of the victim as a living human being.

And that image was followed by a grim still photograph of Gray in a coma on a hospital bed, tubes attached to his body.

The video and still photographs all had strong emotional appeal — far stronger than anything that the mayor, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts or Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez had to say or show.

The one piece of video the city offered to counter what was all over social media was far less compelling, at least in TV terms. It was from a surveillance camera, but when seen on a TV screen, it showed nothing but a camera panning over what looked like mainly empty streets. As seen at the news conference, it shed no light on Gray's arrest.

Worse, when a reporter asked for the location of the camera, Rodriguez could not answer with any precision.

Giving the story full CNN treatment, host Jake Tapper followed up his channel's news conference coverage with analysis from chief legal correspondent Jeffrey Toobin and a remote interview with Baltimore City Council Chairman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who gave voice to what viewers had been hearing and seeing the previous 30 minutes.

"There's no information the public could really put their arms around," Young said of the city's news conference.

But the impact the citizen video had on him was clear when Young said he was "shocked at the way" Gray's "feet were dragged" as police loaded him into the van.

As the day went on Monday, another video surfaced — this one shot much closer to the van. But it provided an even greater visual challenge to a police report that said Gray was arrested without "force or incident."

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Unlike the original video, which was shot from such a distance that it was impossible to even identify Gray, this one showed his face clearly. It looked as if he was in pain when police pulled him to his feet and started dragging him to the van with his body twisted.

The original video, however, for all its visual flaws, had the audio of an outraged bystander yelling at the officers that Gray's legs looked "broke." In that video, the audio allowed the viewer to create a narrative out of the visual confusion.

Taken together, the two videos have the potential to strongly shape public opinion against police handling of this arrest. We'll have to wait to see what the surveillance video that police promised to release shows. It has to be more than was seen Monday on CNN.

When cable embraces a story as it did this one Monday, it inevitably shapes it. The split screen is one example. But the shaping goes well beyond that.

After the news conference, Tapper turned to Toobin and said it all remained a "mystery."

The mystery: What happened to Gray between the time he was placed in the police van still able to speak and the time he was unloaded no longer able to do so.

That's the kind of entertainment formula cable news can really sink its teeth into. But this is not a prime-time entertainment story, is it?

The thing we all have to remember is that a human being died after being in police custody. And so far, what the police are saying doesn't appear to square with what limited video evidence we have.

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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