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Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Zurawik: Inside the firestorm of reaction to WJZ firing Mary Bubala. Did punishment fit the crime?

In 29 years of covering media in Baltimore, I cannot recall a story I wrote that resulted in as immediate and intense a reaction as Tuesday’s report announcing WJZ’s firing of anchorwoman Mary Bubala.

The closest was the coverage in 2014 and early 2015 of two staffers being fired and a news director suspended for a day by Sinclair’s WBFF after the station aired a misleadingly edited video of a protest march in Washington that made it seem as if protesters were chanting “kill a cop.” Then as now, a reaction of this magnitude means there is more going on with the story than just the bare-bones facts of the matter. Then, it was the tension over the new Black Lives Matter movement and the rise of Sinclair’s right-wing messaging machine. Now, the causes of the uproar range from from WJZ’s handling of the case to the frustration and anger many feel about the state of political life in Baltimore today. As if that’s not enough, the equation of understanding here also includes the intense relationships many of us form with people we only know from seeing them on-screen. And all those factors are multiplied by the unpredictable power of social media and the polarized state of American life at this moment of revolutionary change in relationships of race, gender and power.

I know that’s a lot. But it all matters in trying to understand the intensity of the response to this controversy. Comprehending some of the forces at play also helps us understand some things about ourselves during these troubled times in Baltimore and the nation at large.

The bare-bones facts are that in coverage on May 2 of the resignation of Catherine Pugh as mayor of Baltimore, Bubala asked an on-air guest about leadership at City Hall with a question that referenced gender, race and leadership.

“We’ve had three female, African-American mayors in a row,” Bubala said. “They were all passionate public servants. Two resigned, though. Is this a signal that a different kind of leadership is needed to move Baltimore City forward?”

Video of Bubala asking the question was posted on social media, and the blowback was powerful. It continued over the weekend, and on Monday, the Baltimore Association of Black Journalists posted a statement on its website labeling the question “racist and sexist.”

Monday night, in answer to questions about Bubala’s question, Audra Swain, the station’s general manger, sent an email to me saying, “Mary Bubala is no longer a WJZ-TV employee. The station apologizes to its viewers for her remarks.”

Swain has declined further comment in response to followup questions from The Sun.

The vast majority of emails sent to me in the last two days have been critical of WJZ’s handling of the matter. In short, the authors of those emails thought firing an employee of 15 years the way WJZ did was excessive.

With the acknowledgment that I don’t have all the facts that WJZ probably has, I have to say I agree: Firing Bubala was excessive.

Nicki Mayo, a broadcast journalist and immediate past president of the BABJ, wrote in a tweet Tuesday that the organization itself did not call for Bubala’s firing. What it called for in its statement Monday was an on-air apology administered by CBS-owned WJZ.

“We @BABJ-md called for an on-air apology, not a termination,” she wrote on Twitter

“While Bubala apologized with a tweet May 3, there was no acknowledgement of the gaffe or apology on-air by her, WJZ-TV or CBS,” the BABJ statement said.

“This is unacceptable since the apology should be administered in the same fashion that the damaging question was delivered,” the statement added. “WJZ, it is your responsibility to administer this apology on-air.”

Back in 2015, WBFF never adequately explained the inexcusable and reprehensible editing of video to make it seem like protesters were advocating violence against the police. (The marchers were actually chanting in response to the lead of a Baltimore woman, Tawanda Jones, “We won’t stop. We can’t stop ‘til killer cops are in cell blocks.”) But the station did react to complaints and protests over the video with an on-air apology and studio discussion with the protesters.

In a statement emailed to The Sun Tuesday morning, Bubala said she wanted to apologize on air, but the station would not let her.

Swain declined comment when asked about Bubala’s contention by The Sun.

At the same time as I say firing was excessive, I also believe Bubala’s question demanded a loud and clear correction, prominent on-air apology and substantive punishment because of the damage such words as those of her question can do, especially when multiplied by mass media.

By prefacing the question with the race and gender of the last three mayors as Bubala did, she generalized in an unfair and negative way to an entire demographic, ignoring the historic and profound problems anyone trying to lead Baltimore has to face.

As Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, the Loyola professor who was asked about black female leadership by Bubala, put it Tuesday in a statement to The Sun about the question: “There is an assumption that since three black women have served as mayor — and the city has not entirely changed for the better — then perhaps black women are not fit to lead this city. No one can ask racially biased questions in the public sphere — including in the media — without being held accountable.”

Such an inference about black women and leadership cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged. If you don’t correct it forcefully, it will be used in the future as it was in the past to try to keep black women out of leadership positions.

One way you correct it is with public words and action. Viewers need to see the person who said it publicly punished in some way. A significant suspension without pay might have been enough to serve that purpose.

I have been teaching media ethics for 20 years at Goucher College, and one of my core precepts is similar to that of the medical profession: Do no harm. And when you do harm with words or actions, intended or not, expect to be punished, because your words or images are still out there in people’s minds. You can’t take the damage back just by taking down a tweet or apologizing on Twitter, something too many who have been given public voice by digital media don’t seem to get.

Furthermore, in times of high civic drama, such as a mayor being forced to resign, professional media workers have a responsibility to be extra careful to do no harm because the audience is already in a state of heightened volatility.

I believe some of that heightened emotional tension blew back on Bubala and WJZ in the wake of her question and the station’s failure to publicly respond for four days — when it finally sent me the email about Bubala no longer being at the station.

Many of the emails I have been receiving from readers this week show an affection, fondness, even a sense of protectiveness toward Bubala.

In part, I believe this is a result of a phenomenon that started being seen in the earliest days of network television during the 1950s. One of my dissertation advisers, now-retired University of Maryland College Park American Studies professor John L. Caughey, wrote the seminal book on it titled “Imaginary Social Worlds: A Cultural Approach” (University of Nebraska Press, 1984).

One of the book’s key findings is that some people form deeper social relationships with characters and people on TV than members of their own families.

This is not surprising when it comes to network and local TV teams that are promoted day and night as friends and family to viewers.

The affection for Bubala, who had been at WJZ for 15 years, is real in that way, and viewers who feel a connection to her say they are very angry about her firing.

Unfortunately, based on the information readers are including in their emails, feelings toward Bubala and WJZ’s firing of her are breaking down to a large extent along racial lines.

To me, that is a reflection in part of the horribly polarized times in which we live — particularly since the white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017 and President Donald Trump’s reaction to the death of a counter-protester, Heather Heyer, saying there was “blame on both sides” for the clashes.

Sadly, Trump is also part of this discussion. One of the most distressing aspects of some of the angriest emails about Bubala getting fired is the characterization in them of Baltimore City using the same vulgar term used by the president to describe African countries. And seeing Bubala’s question to Whitehead as anything but 100 percent righteous is categorically denounced in such emails as the act of liberals shamefully caving to “PC” culture. There is little attempt to see any middle ground.

I try to find the middle ground when it comes to social media, which played a significant role in this controversy. I hate the hostile rhetoric and mob mentality that is often found there. But it also gives citizens and consumers who previously did not have much power a voice that can be heard.

Twenty years ago, protest over Bubala’s question would have been mostly limited to phone calls and letters to the station and possibly picketing at the base of TV Hill atop of which WJZ sits.

Twitter offered a much more immediate, visible and effective venue of complaint, especially with the void provided by WJZ’s four days of silence.

I wish I could offer a takeaway saying what we can learn from this.

But, more and more, as our media lives grow in terms of sound and fury and options, the less and and less we seem to learn about listening to, respecting and understanding each other’s histories, social locations and points of view.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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