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Fire Chief Niles Ford, left, and Mayor Jack Young, center, and other city officials joined residents of Carrollton Ridge in a walk through their neighborhood, which was beset by a spate of arson fires in December.
Fire Chief Niles Ford, left, and Mayor Jack Young, center, and other city officials joined residents of Carrollton Ridge in a walk through their neighborhood, which was beset by a spate of arson fires in December. (Amy Davis)

The way things are going in Baltimore, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young might wind up rewriting the book on free media and elections ― and not in a good way.

Being an incumbent candidate is generally considered a tremendous asset when it comes to getting media exposure during an election. Just doing the job will get you in the news almost every day. A responsible press has to cover your words and acts because what you say and do has the power to affect citizens’ lives.

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But in starting to assess the media images of Mr. Young, who’s running for the office he inherited last spring when his predecessor resigned, as part of an ongoing look at the role of media in local elections, I am beginning to think incumbency in a city as beleaguered as Baltimore might not be such a good thing ― especially when you make the kinds of questionable comments Mr. Young does.

Yes, he is constantly in the news, but a large part of that coverage involves his being linked to images of frustration and civic failure, whether he’s trying to explain how a cyber attack knocked major city services offline or how we are going to stem the rising tide of violent crime. When we see him in news footage on the streets, it is often at a crime scene or under fire at City Hall.

There’s a long way to the April 28th mayoral primary, but at this point, nothing defines Mr. Young’s media image more than a comment he made in November in response to a question about city leadership in the wake of another murder.

“I’m not committing the murders, and that’s what people need to understand,” he said. “So, how can you fault leadership?"

It was not a good look or soundbite, and it is going to take a lot of positive media ― free or bought through advertisements ― to make some voters forget moments like that.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of incumbency is access to money, and Mr. Young should have plenty of that. Once he launches a traditional campaign and starts spending some of it on paid advertisements, we will have a better sense of what the mayoral campaign as a whole is going to look like on our screens. (We will also have a better sense of the size of his war chest after campaign finance reports are filed Jan. 15.)

We essentially have two candidates with the power of incumbency in this race. In addition to Mr. Young, who had been City Council president since 2010 and then took over as mayor this spring, there’s Brandon Scott, the current City Council president and a mayoral candidate. While Mr. Scott doesn’t have the access to money that Mr. Young has, he too can command some media coverage through official council acts.

Mr. Scott has been far more successful in crafting his image through traditional media coverage and more active with low-cost social media advertising than Mr. Young. No one in the mayor’s race is likely to best the kind of coverage Mr. Scott received as a council member in the widely-praised “Charm City” documentary, which aired on PBS last year.

Mr. Scott is depicted in the film as a young and energetic reformer, deeply connected to the community at the street level and working at City Hall to better the lives of his constituents despite the obstacles they all face. I don’t care how much money you have, you cannot buy that kind of media.

His 30-second Facebook and Instagram ads and a 3-minute campaign video on his campaign page do a solid job of reinforcing that image, with messages like, “It’s our time. It’s my generation’s time to take the mantle, to take the baton and take it across the finish line.”

Mr. Scott is targeting young men with his social media, according to data from the Facebook Ad Library. And even though he is council president, the 35-year-old is using all media to distance himself from the old order at City Hall.

Given all the problems of Baltimore these days, that seems like a wise strategy.

I can’t wait to see how Mr. Young deals with those problems and his relationship to them in his media campaign ― problems that traditional media link him to on a daily basis as mayor of Baltimore.

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

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