Mike Rowe describes his CNN series, "Somebody's Gotta Do It," as "a light-hearted show on a serious network."
But this season, which starts at 10 p.m. Sunday, he's going to take on a very serious topic: Baltimore's media image following the violence in April after the death of Freddie Gray.
Rowe, who was born and raised in Baltimore, has been talking about the city's image to me and thousands of other people in social media since he got the CNN job two years ago. An exchange he had with David Simon on the impact of images in the series Simon created, HBO's "The Wire," generated online heat last year.
But like so many things in and about Baltimore that changed after the two nights of violence in April, Rowe's plan to produce a soft and light segment on the city shifted dramatically. And his account of that change in a Sun interview offers a window into the complicated nature of how a city's image is constructed.
The piece on Baltimore that Rowe had in the works for Season 2 of "Somebody's Gotta Do It" featured Allan Charles, chairman and creative director of the TBC advertising agency, whom he characterizes as an "old friend," and Tom Noonan, CEO of Visit Baltimore, the nonprofit that markets the city. Rowe was going to show Charles running a "very traditional and deliberate" PR campaign for Visit Baltimore on behalf of the city.
Called "My Bmore," the campaign featured the likes of Rowe, Cal Ripken Jr., Julie Bowen, Common and Josh Charles, who is Allan's son. It launched nationally April 7 — five days before Gray's arrest. Gray was injured while in police custody and died April 19.
"They had $2 million, maybe $3 million in media," Rowe said this week. "But what happened is after the riot, they pulled the plug on everything. As soon as they launched that PR campaign, they had to walk it back, because obviously you can't throw 3 million bucks against the images viewers saw of the riot. It would be a waste of money. Plus, it would look a little tone-deaf."
On his end, Rowe also had to pull the plug for a segment he had filmed with Noonan and Charles on the campaign.
Noonan confirmed that the "My Bmore" campaign was shut down right after the unrest but said it was re-launched in June. He said the campaign is expected to run from three to five years, with new celebrity spokespeople added from time to time. Some of the content was altered to make sure each piece was in sync with post-unrest reality.
Rowe said that as he watched Baltimore's turmoil on TV at his home in San Francisco, he was thinking about Charles, Noonan and Baltimore's image. He wanted to talk to them as soon as possible about how they were going to deal with the hand that the riots dealt them.
"If you were in charge of any city's image, the only two I wouldn't want now are Ferguson and Baltimore," Rowe said. "After the riot, my piece became, 'What if you're Tom Noonan in charge of a city's image, and Allan Charles in charge of the PR for getting the town's image out there? That's a very different proposition pre-riot versus post-riot,'" Rowe added.
"So, I sat down with Allan and Tom, and the first question I said was, 'Let's do this the other way around. If you had to put a dollar figure on it, how much negative press did Baltimore just get if your goal was to purchase negative advertising? How much would you have had to spend to create the impressions now in most people's minds?'"
The two said the answer was somewhere "between 100 and 200 million dollars," according to Rowe.
Noonan confirmed the answer, explaining that it was an estimate.
"But I don't think it's high," he said in a telephone interview. "Think of what a 30-second ad on CNN costs, and then consider that the coverage was running 24 hours."
The estimate is probably low when you consider that the images were running globally not just on CNN, but also MSNBC, Fox News and the Al Jazeera channels. They were airing, too, in news programs on all the networks, as well as streaming on major websites like Vice News and Vox.
Before the unrest, Rowe had asked Charles to explain the difference between advertising and PR.
"Oh, that's easy," he quotes Charles as saying. "Advertising is the stuff you pay for. PR is the stuff you pray for."
Rowe said he brought that up when he interviewed Charles after the riots, saying, "That really wasn't what you were praying for, was it?"
Charles confirmed the conversation in a Sun interview.
"Man, those negative images of Baltimore have been seared into the retinas of everyone in the country by the overload of them being shown again and again in the media," Charles replied. "And there's no way to erase that overnight. But those images are not representative of the total Baltimore picture. And we have to tell that story, too. … Right now, though, we are maybe looking at the most lopsided portrayal of a town that any of us has ever seen."
Rowe said Baltimore has nowhere near the money it would take to counter the relentless news imagery. Given the complex way images enter our consciousness and become stereotypes in our minds, I wonder if there is enough money anywhere. What viewers saw April 27 and afterward surely meshed in the minds of some with other images of Baltimore as an urban crucible of crime already in the media ecosystem.
Nevertheless, Rowe said he feels an obligation as a "native son" to use his talent and celebrity to try and help "pull our town into a slightly better focus or more balanced view."
That starts Sunday night, he said, with a segment on the Ladew Topiary Gardens. Located in Harford County rather than in Baltimore, he feels this is still a strong counter-image for the metropolitan area.
Most CNN viewers probably don't think English country gardens when they think of Baltimore, so in that sense, at least, he is right. The segment is lighthearted, with Rowe interviewing Tyler Diehl, head of gardens at Ladew, and trying his hand at topiary.
The segment with Charles and Noonan will be the last of eight episodes this season and is expected to air around Thanksgiving, according to Rowe. It is not yet finished.
Good intentions, hometown love and upbeat segments with Rowe in goofy-looking work outfits are one thing. Getting inside the process of trying to shape or repair a city's image is another — especially a city with as bloodied and battered an image as Baltimore's.
Rowe himself acknowledges the season's final episode "is not a traditional segment for this series by any stretch."
I give Rowe credit for caring about his hometown and trying to use TV to make a difference in how it is perceived. But changing such a complicated media image is a big, big, tricky job, and until we see the segment, the question remains whether Rowe is a somebody who can actually do it.