National media lose interest, switch storylines in Freddie Gray case

With the start of Caesar Goodson Jr's trial in the death of Freddie Gray, the national police trial coverage has been shifting focus. It has gone from "Will Baltimore explode again without a conviction?” to “Will State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby ever be able to get one?” (Baltimore Sun video)

The primary press storyline in the trials of the six officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray shifted with the case of Caesar Goodson Jr. this week.

It went from "Will Baltimore explode again without a conviction?" to "Will State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby ever be able to get one?"


With no violence or major protests after two previous trials that failed to end in convictions, it also appears that cable and network TV are losing serious interest in the Gray story altogether.

In the first trial, which ended in a hung jury in the case of William Porter, channels ranging from Fox News to CNN and NBC were so wedded to the narrative of potential violence that they found signs of a pending explosion where there were none after the verdict.


Even more telling, in the second trial, which ended in the acquittal on all charges for Edward Nero, cable TV producers booked several Baltimore Sun reporters in the morning of verdict day for talking-head roles on their channels later that night. But as it became apparent that there would be no violent response to the outcome, those bookings evaporated.

Surfing through cable news coverage Thursday morning before the start of Goodson's trial, I didn't see one report from Baltimore setting the stage for viewers. CNN did manage a crawl at the bottom of the screen saying the trial was going to start and that Goodson faced the most serious charges of the six.

Indicative of the new narrative that kicked in last week are headlines like this one at nytimes.com:

"Stakes rise for prosecutors trying officer in Freddie Gray case for murder."

Or, as another curtain-raiser at theatlantic.com asked bluntly: "Can prosecutors convict anyone at all in the death of Freddie Gray?"

Nbc.com went one better, with a piece saying, "Failure to net a conviction for Goodson, who was driving the police van when Gray sustained ultimately fatal spinal injuries, could spell an end to Baltimore City State's Marilyn Mosby's high-stakes legal gambit to send a message on combating police brutality. … The odds are against her."

I am not suggesting there's anything inaccurate in such framing. But it does reduce a story steeped in complicated and deep-rooted social issues to personalities and winning and losing.

In a year-end essay, I wrote about losing respect for several national news outlets as a result of their coverage of the Gray story in 2015.

But the bad reporting and ideologically charged framing of the story continues unabated in 2016.

On the night of the Nero verdict in May, WBAL radio talk-show host Clarence Mitchell IV got a firsthand taste of it with Bill O'Reilly on "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News. Mitchell says he knew what he was getting into.

"With Bill O'Reilly and others in the national media, it was constantly, 'Is there going to be violence in Baltimore? Is there going to be violence?'" Mitchell, who is known as C4 on-air, said.

"That's why I went on his show and went directly at him and said, 'I'm glad to use this national opportunity to decry this narrative that Baltimore citizens cannot handle justice, that Baltimore citizens are out of control,'" he said. "I was so upset at this continuing narrative that Baltimore was going to erupt if Nero was acquitted."


Mitchell attributes the lack of national interest in Goodson's trial to the lack of violent response in Baltimore to the first two.

"That's why you don't see national media on this trial," he said. "They don't see any violence, so, guess what? 'Why be there?'"

Mitchell is also critical of the shift in storyline to Mosby's ability — or inability — to win a conviction.

"This is not the Steelers and Ravens, who wins, who loses," he said. "This should only be about justice. That's why I'm refusing to get into discussions of political futures for Marilyn Mosby or anyone else involved until all the trials are over. This should be about arriving at justice in the case of Freddie Gray."

Marc Steiner has also used his daily talk show, which airs on Morgan State University's public radio station WEAA, to consistently discuss the death of Gray and the events that followed. He has appeared on MSNBC as well to talk about the riots and trials.

"Without violence, there will be no real national media presence here for the rest of these trials, and that's unfortunate," Steiner said.

"Mosby's indictment of the officers was already a huge step and a major story," he added. "Police do not get indicted for shooting and killing black people in this country — only very rarely. But as big as the story of those indictments and the trials is, the national media is not interested in coming here and covering it in depth if there is no violence."

Steiner predicted the storyline about Mosby would intensify both locally and nationally if she does not get a major conviction with Goodson.

"There are forces that want to see her fall and fail," he said.

One of the first national show hosts to put a harsh spotlight on Mosby was Megyn Kelly, of Fox News.

The night after the Nero verdict, Kelly had Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz on "The Kelly Factor" to assess Mosby's performance.

"You say this is serious misconduct by this young woman, by this prosecutor, why?" Kelly asked Dershowitz on her show of May 24.

"What she tried to do is stop the mob," he said. "I understand that, but you don't use the criminal justice system to solve racial problems."

"Could you go after Marilyn Mosby for malicious prosecution?" Kelly asked.

"I think this is politically motivated prosecution," Dershowitz said. "I think the voters have to go after her. I think the voters will, because she oversold the case and everybody's disappointed."

Kelly was one of the only cable show hosts to seriously advance the start of Goodson's trial. She brought on two former prosecutors Wednesday night to talk about allegations that the prosecution withheld evidence involving testimony from another prisoner who was in the police van with Gray on the day he was arrested and injured.

In a 90-minute hearing before opening arguments, Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams "blasted prosecutors for failing to disclose" that information to defense attorneys, according to Sun coverage Thursday.

Kelly has come at the Gray story from a decidedly pro-police, anti-Mosby place, but she has been on the case more than any other cable news host.

The tale of a relatively unknown prosecutor overreaching and then failing in a high-visibility case might not be as compelling by TV standards as a riot.

But the story line does have a certain schadenfreude mojo and is packed just below the surface with all the tensions of race and troubled police-community relations that Gray's death exposed.

Why do I think cable and network TV are not going to spend the time or resources to explore those deeper sociological currents so important to American life today — unless things get violent in Baltimore again?



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