Media columnist David Zurawik discusses the messages from City Hall to "change the narrative" and their criticism of the media. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)
There has been a lot of talk coming out of City Hall lately about changing narratives. And along with it, some criticism of the media.
"Happy New Year! Change the Narrative ... Goodness Is On the Rise!" Mayor Catherine Pugh wrote in her first tweet of the year at 12:52 a.m. Monday.
She was reinforcing what she wrote in her “Year-End, Year-Ahead Message” about how we in Baltimore must not let violence and tragedy “define us,” or “allow them to resist our determined efforts to change our narrative going forward.”
It is a theme she has been sounding at least since October, when she spoke to a group of business leaders at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast.
“We have got to change the narrative of our city,” she said, according to media accounts, including one posted to the Chamber’s website. She followed that with the directives, “change the narrative” and “challenge the media.”
A spokeswoman for Pugh declined to confirm the accuracy of those reports.
In November, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis also invoked narrative change in his eulogy for Police Det. Sean Suiter.
In praising Suiter as a hardworking detective who tried to make the city better, Davis added, “It’s time for the local and national narrative to start reflecting” that positive characterization of the Baltimore Police Department.
Sean Suiter, the 43-year-old Baltimore homicide detective who was killed two weeks ago while investigating a triple-murder on the city’s west side, was remembered Wednesday at a funeral attended by thousands.
I detect something distinctly Trumpian in embattled public officials deflecting blame, especially in the direction of the media.
I am also sensing the influence of President Donald J. Trump in public events where citizens are handed signs made by event organizers, as they were at a candlelight vigil Pugh held at the Baltimore War Memorial Building on Dec. 28. And I heard what sounded like an echo of Trump in City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, telling Pugh at a community meeting Dec. 12, “The more we can keep the news media out of our business, the better we can run this city.”
The statement was first reported in Baltimore Brew. Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, confirmed its accuracy, but added that the council president was referring to “petty squabbles among elected officials,” not the business of governing.
“He knows the importance of reporting to the fabric of democracy,” Davis said.
So, let’s talk a little about narrative, media, Baltimore and whether you can rebrand your way out of the place Baltimore holds in the popular imagination.
Telling a story other than the one about crime, violence, drugs and record murder rate isn’t a new idea for City Hall. The Martin O’Malley and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake administrations railed against the depictions of the city in HBO's "The Wire." Rawlings-Blake even relaunched her $1.56 million-a-year public-access cable channel as Charm TV. The idea was less coverage of public meetings and more HGTV-style programs aimed at "telling a positive story about many of the great things that make Baltimore a premier city,” she said at the time.
But the stories told by former Sun reporter David Simon in “The Wire” are the ones that endure.
As I have written before, filmmakers and producers from Washington bureaus of news outlets worldwide still come to Baltimore looking for the iconic images and compelling characters they saw in that series. They try to reproduce them through their own photography and reporting. Thus, the words and pictures are multiplied exponentially and distributed globally.
But "The Wire" is a work of fiction, and neither Simon nor the series bears any responsibility for attempts to imitate it.
One of the reasons “The Wire” continues to resonate is that it nails a fundamental truth about Baltimore: There’s a lot of crime in this city — an awful lot of crime, especially murder.
And things have only gotten worse since Freddie Gray died from injuries suffered while he was in police custody in 2015. You can’t fudge the 343 homicides in 2017 and the per capita record they sadly set.
You can’t change that with a new positive narrative cooked up by marketing experts, but that was one of the promises Pugh campaigned on. In a televised debate during the 2016 race, The Sun’s Luke Broadwater reported Pugh saying she wanted to bring "all the marketing experts together" to better promote Baltimore.
Carl Stokes, a former city council member and one of her opponents in the race, responded by saying the city doesn't need a new marketing campaign. It needs to reduce crime and improve failing schools: "To fix the perception, fix the reality," he said.
That theme was also sounded in a number of the replies to Pugh’s New Year’s Day tweet.
“PROBLEM: THE CITY has a domestic criminal insurgency,” one reply said. “You can’t beat it through great slogans and telling people to change the narrative UNLESS you ACTUALLY change the narrative!”
“Do you think having people *not* talk about the horrific crime rate in #murdaland will make everything change,” said another. “Clearly you're delusional.. #343in2017”
You want to imitate Trump in social media, you are going to get a lot of that rude blowback. Twitter might be a great tool in getting elected, but not so much in governing, if you’ve been paying attention to Washington lately. But that’s a media narrative, too.
Last year at this time, I wrote that we in the media had failed miserably in trying to cover Candidate Trump. We still haven't figured out how to cover President Trump. But we are getting there by working harder and behaving better than him, doing both our job and his in terms of moral leadership.
I have lived in the city since the day I joined The Sun in 1989. I love Baltimore, but we are in a bad place, and we do not have time for politicians and elected officials to do anything but try to fix it — really, really, really try to fix it.
Don’t waste any more thought or time trying to blame the media or sell another mantra of hope and change. I thought we were past that after the Monday-night uprising in 2015 when Young faulted the media for not reporting “the great things that are going on in the city.”
“I'm heartbroken and disturbed by the way the media is focusing on the negativity of this city and not the great things that are going on in the city," he said. "We have young people who are out there protesting peacefully, but you're not focusing on them. You're focusing on those that are burning buildings and rioting through the streets of Baltimore. Show the positive people who are trying to stop them from doing this."
This on a night when high school students “clashed with” police in the streets around Mondawmin Mall and 144 fires burned as the world looked on.
And, by the way, local and national media had been going all out the previous week covering peaceful protests and celebrating both the right to protest and the efforts of those preaching and practicing nonviolence. CNN came to town with show hosts like Brooke Baldwin doing their daily shows in Baltimore the week of peaceful protests.
The accretion of those endless loops of cable images, documentaries, TV shows, books and decades of news coverage of crime and boarded-up rowhouses can’t be erased from people’s psyches with a call to change the narrative or accentuate the positive. Baltimore’s past, as harsh as parts of it are, is intricately woven into the texture of who and what we are today. You can’t just excise that by saying, “Change the narrative.”
Let’s work on changing our reality on the streets, in the schools, in the courts and at City Hall. Replace the water mains that seem to burst every time the weather turns cold. Figure out how to accurately bill citizens for water use.
Or, tell us how BPD’s special Gun Trace Task Force ran so out of control and managed to abuse so many citizens for so long. Let Commissioner Davis give us that kind of information instead of his highly spun words of hope in the recent HBO documentary “Baltimore Rising” or his pronouncement at Detective Suiter’s funeral on what the national and local narrative should reflect.