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WBFF and WBAL offer two very different ways of examining Baltimore’s problems | COMMENTARY

WBAL anchor Jason Newton co-hosted WBAL's "Building a Better Baltimore" with Kai Reed. The hourlong show features residents working toward solutions to the city's problems.
WBAL anchor Jason Newton co-hosted WBAL's "Building a Better Baltimore" with Kai Reed. The hourlong show features residents working toward solutions to the city's problems. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Local TV told a tale of two cities Saturday night. Both are named Baltimore.

TV stations WBFF and WBAL had special public affairs programs focused on some of the issues and problems confronting the city and its residents. WBFF, the Sinclair-owned Fox affiliate, titled its broadcast “Baltimore is Dying,” while WBAL, the Hearst-owned NBC affiliate, called its production “Building a Better Baltimore.” As the titles suggest, there could hardly have been more difference in the ways the two stations framed the problems and discussed them.

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Outside the world of tabloid journalism, I have not seen a title for a public affairs program quite like “Baltimore is Dying.” It is even more intense than the station’s “City in Crisis” branding for town halls and other programs on Baltimore. If your goal is to attract attention, it is a winner, I guess. It got my attention. But such framing does not provide much room for an open-minded, balanced discussion of the problems facing the city and possible solutions.

“Baltimore is fighting to find its soul as it loses souls in a cycle of crime and violence,” the show’s narration says. “By virtue of being born in one of America’s most dangerous cities, some are doomed before they have a chance to live.”

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The program begins by examining the death of Amoni Grossman, an 18-year-old man who was gunned down in 2016. The mode of telling the story of Grossman’s life and death is similar to the way local stations regularly cover homicides on their newscasts. There are interviews with grieving relatives. There are family and school pictures to give some sense of who the victim was and the potential that will never be realized. It is a visceral and highly emotional formula for TV story telling. The program goes on to revisit several homicides that way.

The WBFF production is technically solid. But I have problems with some of the ways blame is apportioned.

Halfway through the report, the narration says, “progressive policies from a crusading state’s attorney are tying the hands of officers who want to keep the peace.”

The theme is hit again later: “That brings us back to the city that is dying. So many symptoms: progressive policies releasing criminals, police citizens don’t trust. The list keeps growing.”

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If WBFF wants to blame the violence on “progressive policies,” that’s fine. And they can go ahead and present Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby as the poster prosecutor. But if you are going to explore the pain of crime, give your viewers a fuller answer that includes some explanation of the role of systemic racism. Without that, you are not doing explanatory journalism. You are doing Republican talking points, the kind that try to make Baltimore into an example of what you get with decades of Democratic rule.

There is no such ideological taint to WBAL’s “Building a Better Baltimore.”

“Baltimore, an iconic city,” the narration of WBAL anchor Jason Newton begins. “Home to our national anthem. A city built by pioneers and innovators. A city sparked by urban renewals. A city served by heroes, where people march toward equality. But our city has been plagued by problems. Blight seen for blocks. Poverty stricken communities with no hope and gun violence of epidemic proportions fueling a fractured relationship between police and the community they serve. But the community and culture have not fallen. A bright future lies ahead. Lawmakers, activists forging change with bold ideas. Our city is still a city with promise.”

“Building a Better Baltimore” acknowledged some of the same problems WBFF did, but it served as a caldron of discussion for them in this hourlong production co-hosted by Mr. Newton and Kai Reed. It also showcased residents working on solutions. I counted 12 civic leaders and activists sitting down with the hosts. They ranged from Mayor Brandon Scott to activists Erricka Bridgeford and Aaron Maybin. Yes, the production ultimately came down on the side of hope for better days, but it was no Chamber of Commerce, feel-good whitewash. The model it aspired to, in balance and proportion, appeared to be that of a network news special at NBC, CBS or ABC.

Media play a huge role not just in how we see the world, but also in what we can imagine for ourselves and our community. I am not sure what WBFF’s production would have me imagine for the city in which I have lived for 30 years.

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter:@davidzurawik.

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