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Kai Jackson and Mary Bubala moderate WBFF town hall Jan. 9, 2020 in Baltimore.
Kai Jackson and Mary Bubala moderate WBFF town hall Jan. 9, 2020 in Baltimore. (Screen Grab WBFF)

The exchange between mayoral candidates T.J. Smith, a former Baltimore Police Department spokesman, and City Council President Brandon Scott was real, raw and revealing.

Last week, during a “City in Crisis" town hall on WBFF, Mr. Scott was answering an audience member’s question about campaign finance reform by saying he and the City Council are already working on it.

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“Yeah, but you haven’t funded it,” Mr. Smith interrupted, citing the necessity of public money to make such reform work. “Haven’t funded it. Haven’t funded it. Still haven’t funded it ... Twelve years on the council, and you haven’t funded it,” Mr. Smith insisted, talking over his opponent’s answer until Mr. Scott could no longer ignore him.

“T.J., you worked for the most corrupt police department in the country,” the city council president said. “You should be quiet about that."

Later in the session, Mr. Smith charged Mr. Scott with having “worked for the most corrupt city hall in American history.”

So, how do you really feel about our city government, which you’ve seen from behind the curtain, guys?

The last place I thought I would be directing Baltimore voters for coverage of the 2020 mayoral race is Sinclair-owned WBFF. The Hunt Valley-based company shredded any credibility it had left with me when it hired an aide to President Donald Trump, Boris Epshteyn, as its chief political analyst in 2017 and forced its news-producing stations to carry his slavishly pro-Trump commentaries. Mr. Epshteyn was dropped from Sinclair’s airwaves in December, however.

I have been tracking WBFF’s coverage of Baltimore’s mayoral candidates over the last two months. After seeing Thursday night’s “City in Crisis” town hall, it needs to be said that there is no TV or radio station in Baltimore making a bigger commitment to covering this race thus far than WBFF. More importantly, WBFF is so far ahead of other broadcasters in this regard that it is playing an out-sized role in shaping the civic conversation of this crucial election.

That’s a serious concern. But I have to admit that the 90-minute town hall that took place last week, before a large and loud audience in the chapel at St. Frances Academy, was an impressive example of public affairs broadcasting. The station brought together four major candidates, including former mayor Sheila Dixon and former deputy attorney general Thiru Vignarajah; and a large audience of citizens, many of whom were clearly upset about the state of life in Baltimore. And it let citizens challenge the politicians within parameters set by two veteran moderators, WBFF anchors Kai Jackson and Mary Bubala. (Ed Norris, a former police commissioner and current radio show host, was also a panelist.)

Setting parameters wasn’t easy. At the start, Ms. Bubala reminded members of the audience that they were in a chapel and asked them to behave respectfully. But throughout the event, people shouted out questions and challenges to the panelists. At several points, Mr. Jackson and Ms. Bubala forcefully called for audience members to let the candidates speak without interruption.

“This is what democracy looks like,” Mr. Smith said early in the meeting, and he was right. But while the citizens in the chapel at St. Frances were the ones who brought the energy and passion that made this event successful, it also takes planning, talent, money and commitment to create the kind of forum in which such a spirited conversation can happen.

WBFF’s event opened with a skillfully-edited montage of city problems with voiceover by Ms. Bubala. It then included a powerful report by Keith Daniels on a man who was not only robbed of his backpack but also set on fire during the crime. It made the sense of lawlessness that’s allowed to thrive here real and heartfelt. It definitely set the stage for a passionate discussion.

We are way past the canned, orderly, videotaped studio interviews on TV with candidates running their talking points and smiling for the cameras. All broadcasters who claim to cover Baltimore need to also get their reporters, photographers, cameras and microphones into the community to capture the frustration, concerns and anger of citizens toward those politicians as WBFF did with this town hall. We need to help the beleaguered citizens of this city talk back to the candidates.

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

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