Baltimore TV news needs to get better if this city is ever going to improve. And in all the years I have been writing about media at The Sun, I have seen very little evidence that any of the major stations here are committed to making that happen. That’s one of the most disheartening things I know about Baltimore media. And it was reinforced this month by an outside review of local TV news.
The review looked at local reporting on a campaign by some civic leaders in Baltimore to bring back an aerial surveillance operation that came to be known as the “spy plane” after it was revealed in 2016 that a surveillance plane had been secretly flying over the city at the direction of the police department. City officials claimed even they didn’t know it was up there looking down and into our lives.
The plane, which was paid for with private money, is the product of Ross McNutt, president of Persistent Surveillance Systems, of Dayton, Ohio — one of several cities that declined to buy the aerial surveillance, which he has been trying to sell for several years. During the last year, he has been back in Baltimore putting on a hard sell with the help of some civic leaders and politicians. Now, he and his supporters here want three planes overhead.
The issue is an important one involving the collision of two major concerns: the alarming crime rate in Baltimore versus mounting awareness among citizens about their privacy and data being invaded and stolen through the use of new technology. Think Facebook selling your personal data to unscrupulous political operations like Cambridge Analytica, which will long be remembered for its dark role in the presidential campaign of 2016.
The public outcry that grounded the spy plane in 2016 when Bloomberg Businessweek first reported its existence over Baltimore suggests how strongly some residents feel about the latter.
I have been calling for deeper, more skeptical, contextualized and much harder-nosed TV news coverage for years. My most recent call came in January when it looked like then-Mayor Catherine Pugh was going to push through with a minimum of public and press vetting a new police commissioner, Joel Fitzgerald, then police chief of Fort Worth, Texas.
Borrowing the concept of a skeptical press corps that is willing to make enemies and take on the powers that be from media sociologist Michael Schudson in his 2008 book “Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press,” I urged local TV news directors to use their cameras and reporters to force scrutiny and tougher vetting of Fitzgerald despite Pugh’s best efforts to avoid it for her candidate.
“I think some serious skepticism is warranted when it comes to hires by the mayor,” I wrote, with what I thought was some understatement.
Lack of skeptical, contextualized reporting is one of the failings cited in the outside review of Baltimore media performance in covering the latest push by McNutt and some local leaders.
Headlined “Uncritical Reporting on a Biased Baltimore Spy Plane Poll,” the analysis published on The Appeal website Nov. 7 zeroed in on the way local TV news reported on a poll that found more than 70% of Baltimore residents supported putting spy planes back in the sky over Baltimore.
“But the poll, reported credulously by some local TV and radio outlets, is deeply flawed,” the review at The Appeal says.
“Not only is it funded by private business interests who have openly expressed support for the planes, but it also contains loaded language that neglects the serious harm such surveillance would pose to Baltimore," the critique continues. “Those who commissioned the poll have direct ties to the Baltimore business community, which has been agitating to implement the program, but some local news outlets failed to report on the conflict of interest.”
(The Appeal self-describes as “an editorially independent project of The Justice Collaborative,” which is a group of legal experts, researchers, journalists and media strategists working across a collection of strategically aligned projects for criminal justice reform.)
Relying considerably on Sun reporting and what the review described as a “scathing” Sun editorial on spy plane resumption for some of its background, The Appeal’s review of coverage describes the relationship it finds problematic and under-reported on TV.
“Rev. Alvin Hathaway Sr., senior pastor of Union Baptist Church, commissioned the poll using a $40,000 grant from the Abell Foundation, a nonprofit that has been a major promoter of the spy planes. Both he and Abell Foundation president Bob Embry serve on the board of directors for the pro-business group Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), which has also been open in its support for the planes,” the report says.
It quotes The Sun describing Embry as “a prime agitator for adoption” of the spy plane.
After a brief account of what was or was not included in TV coverage on funding of the study, the report criticizes the basic lack of scrutiny by local stations as to the kinds of questions that were asked in the poll ― another aspect explored by The Sun in its coverage.
“Local media must bring a more critical eye to the issue of surveillance,” the review concludes. “It is irresponsible to gloss over key context about who and what interests lie behind private law enforcement programs like the surveillance plane in Baltimore. In a story where public support — or lack thereof — is crucial to determining whether a new, invasive surveillance method will prevail, Baltimoreans deserve more than surface-level reporting.”
Yes, we do. And we deserve media that are vigilant in reporting and explaining to citizens how groups might be trying to influence or even manufacture public opinion. A poll that claims almost three out of four residents favor the spy plane can put considerable pressure on Michael Harrison, our relatively new police commissioner, to allow the flights to be resumed despite misgivings about not having sufficient evidence of the planes’ effectiveness.
Local TV news desperately needs to go beyond the run and gun. You are not serving democracy or the citizens of Baltimore by sending a reporter and camera over to City Hall, taking what the mayor or a department head says at face value and slapping it on the air at 5, 6 and 11 with a pithy little introduction from one of the anchors.
Oh wait, I forgot the rest of the formula: a reporter standing outside a darkened City Hall at 11 p.m. so that you can put the word “live” onscreen while he or she talks about what happened hours earlier in the building.
That’s not journalism. That’s video stenography and theater. And it is one of the reasons Baltimore continues to have such monumental problems. Media needs to help a community figure out ways to frame — and carry out — civic discussions about its problems.
Ask yourself how many shady hires and sudden dismissals, like the ones associated with Pugh, have ended on local TV with a City Hall official saying they are not allowed to discuss “personnel matters.”
That should not be the end of the reporting, as it all too often is on TV news. That’s where the real, tough, honest-to-God reporting begins.
We have so many big stories on our plate: the elections to fill the congressional seat left vacant by the death of Elijah Cummings, the race to be Baltimore’s next mayor and school desegregation in Howard County. If you really want to make Baltimore better as your TV promos claim, pitch in, expend the resources to allow for more in-depth work and demand more and better journalism from your newsrooms.
You want a fast and relatively easy example of how to do it?
Instead of just getting soundbites and images of mayoral candidate T.J. Smith on the campaign trail, for example, saying what he would do as mayor, press him about his performance as spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department and then-Commissioner Kevin Davis when they put that spy plane over Baltimore without telling the public it was up there. More transparency in our next mayor sounds like it would be good thing, no? Do the research to see how transparent Smith was not just in that case but in other controversial ones as BPD spokesman.
The Sun will continue to do the journalistic heavy lifting as it did in exposing Catherine Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” dealings this year. It’s time for Baltimore TV news to do some of it too ― and be more than just live, local and latebreaking.