I started 2018 with a column about Mayor Catherine Pugh and the media in reaction to her first tweet of the new year calling for Baltimore citizens to “change the narrative.” It was part of what I described as a larger effort by her last year to falsely blame the media for Baltimore’s negative image.
Judging from a recent story in the Washington Post headlined “As police struggle to solve homicides, Baltimore residents see an ‘open season for killing,’ ” I’d have to say the narrative has not changed much in 2018, despite the mayor’s call.
But now comes a chance to perhaps truly change the narrative of crime, corrupt cops and death in Baltimore as the mayor heads down the home stretch in her effort to win City Council approval for her nominee as police commissioner, Joel Fitzgerald, currently chief of police in Fort Worth, Texas.
She had Fitzgerald scheduled for meetings with the public this weekend. I feared the turnout might be small for two Sunday events described on her Facebook page as “meet and greet” sessions with citizens given that the Ravens are scheduled to play the Los Angeles Chargers in a home playoff game.
But the trip was postponed Thursday due to a medical emergency involving Fitzgerald’s 13-year-old son, according to the mayor’s office. Fitzgerald is a married father of three.
The only portion of the weekend activities that remained after his trip was cancelled was the council taking comments from the public on the nomination in its chambers at City Hall Saturday . Fitzgerald was not supposed to be there anyway, and the mayor’s office says the other events will be rescheduled.
Whenever Fitzgerald comes to Baltimore, the mission for local media remains the same: Cover the Fitzgerald nomination with the same intensity and resources as they are now expending to cover the Ravens. Getting the right person in this job of Baltimore police commissioner is far more important than whether or not the Ravens beat the Chargers, or even go on to win the Super Bowl, for that matter.
It’s crazy that I should even have to say that, but ask yourself, how many reporters from print, TV, radio and websites will be covering the Ravens-Chargers game, and how many have been digging deep into the selection of someone up for the monumental jobs of driving down Baltimore’s violent crime and reforming a department dragged down by corruption and unconstitutional policing? It’s not like the Ravens’ 2013 Super Bowl victory prevented the 2015 Freddie Gray uprising. Heck, a teenager was killed just blocks from the Ravens Super Bowl victory parade.
It is not enough for the media just to show up with cameras, microphones and cellphones for the public sessions with Fitzgerald. We need to show up with our “A” game as journalists. We need to be as hard-nosed and demanding as we often are fervent in our boosterism on behalf of the Ravens.
We must not let the mayor or her nominee get away with giving only the appearance of transparency and some high-sounding blah-blah-blah in these meetings. We have to make the most of these limited public opportunities to get citizens more information about Fitzgerald and his suitability or unsuitability for the job. Every time Fitzgerald turns around or looks up while in Baltimore, let’s make sure there are cameras and microphones in his face.
Let’s also request one-on-one, in-person interviews with him as well while he is here — the chance for us to interview him in a coherent conversation with follow-ups and challenges. And let’s do our homework before those interviews so not a moment is wasted.
If he and Pugh say no to our requests, let’s push for a public explanation for their refusal — and share that answer, or non-answer, with citizens.
We all know that we cannot afford another Darryl De Sousa, and that there is good reason to question Pugh’s personnel judgment after her handling of his hiring and then his resignation after just 116 days as police commissioner when it came to light that he had failed to file income tax returns for three years.
“I’m not responsible for what people do about their personal lives,” the mayor was quoted as saying in a Sun story after De Sousa also acknowledged in court that he had tried to reduce how much he paid in years when he did file returns by claiming improper deductions. “Some of the allegations or some of the admissions that were made were as surprising to me as to other people, I’m sure, in our community.”
It wasn’t the first problem with a lack of proper vetting by Pugh in 2018.
On the morning of March 14, Pugh introduced Darryl Strange as her new spokesman at City Hall and posed with him for a photograph. By the end of that same day, he resigned after The Sun asked about three lawsuits from Strange’s five-year career as a Baltimore police officer.
The Sun did the vetting in a matter of hours that the mayor’s office had not done before making the announcement.
At a time when reforming the Baltimore Police Department is one of her top priorities, Mayor Catherine Pugh introduced as a new spokesman a former city police officer whose alleged conduct led to three lawsuits that cost city taxpayers nearly $80,000.
I think some serious skepticism is warranted when it comes to hires by the mayor.
Such skepticism of politicians and those in power is one of the things that media sociologist Michael Schudson posits as a reason some people do not like the press. But it is essential for democracy to have a skeptical, even cynical press, he argues, in his 2008 book, “Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press.”
Sun reporters have been all over the process of finding a new commissioner. They have done some exemplary reporting, including a report Friday by Ian Duncan fact-checking claims in Fitzgerald’s resume and finding that he overstated some of his achievements since becoming chief in Fort Worth in 2015.
Duncan and Kevin Rector skillfully used multiple sources in a Dec. 6 report to shine light on the secrecy in which the mayor has tried to cloak the process.
“It’s an approach that activists and members of the City Council have criticized — particularly because the [federal] consent decree mandates transparency. But the mayor says confidentiality was essential to attract the best candidates,” they wrote.
There’s confidentiality and then there’s confidentiality. In Fitzgerald’s case, not only is information from a background investigation paid for by the city being kept from the public, but also from the City Council members who must vote on his nomination.
“I requested his full background file. I received a 12 page summary that was mostly redacted,” City Council member Zeke Cohen wrote to me Tuesday night in an email response to my asking if he had received all the information he needed for an informed vote on Fitzgerald.
When I asked if he will vote against the nomination if he does not get more information, Cohen wrote: “I’m going to listen carefully to how Mr. Fitzgerald answers our questions and engages with the public. However, I made it clear to the Administration that I needed to see his full background file, and that I wanted to see community engagement across the city before the hearing. So far, neither of those things have been delivered.”
The exchange came after the release Tuesday of a 216-page report on interviews done in Fort Worth by City Council members about Fitzgerald. As The Sun reported Wednesday, the interview results were mixed. (Cohen was not one of the council members on the trip to Texas.)
Cohen had issued a statement on Nov. 28 saying, “I cannot support this nomination without seeing a completed background-check and concrete plans and public townhalls across Baltimore with stops in every police district.”
I do not cover the council on a daily basis and so I will not pretend to have enough information to assess each member’s individual agenda. But I do know that we in the press should generally be supporting calls for more information wherever they come from — especially on a matter as crucial to our future as the hiring of a police commissioner.
And I do not mean to suggest that The Sun has been the only news outlet pushing for and trying to bring information to the public through tough reporting, analysis and prominent display of its coverage online, over the air and in print.
WMAR’s Brian Kuebler broke an important story Nov. 19 about Fitzgerald not being the first choice of the panel advising Pugh on choosing a commissioner. WBAL’s Jayne Miller has been digging hard into this story as well.
But this is not enough. We all need to do the much harder work of being real journalists seeking information that people do not necessarily want us to have. Everyone needs to go all out down the home stretch of this selection process, pushing for information and answers and some sense of Fitzgerald’s philosophy and temperament.
Don’t let the mayor determine the focus of our attention and the parameters of this discussion, and don’t let members of the City Council — who may be seeking their own political advantage — be the only ones to do any serious vetting. We also have power to set the civic agenda based on where we point our cameras, what we publish on Page One and which questions we ask.
To news directors, general managers and editors: Make sure you have reporters and cameras at any sessions you have access to and make sure we have videos online of Fitzgerald as he answers questions from the public. And let’s see more enterprise and investigation of Fitzgerald and the process here at City Hall — even if it means paying overtime for more staff or shifting some of your resources from the Ravens to coverage of the mayor’s attempt to win council approval for Fitzgerald.
I think we can live with one less reporter outside M&T Bank Stadium or in a sports bar asking fans, “So, how excited are you?”