“We have had three female, African-American mayors in a row. They were all passionate public servants. Two resigned, though. Is it a signal that a different kind of leadership is needed to move Baltimore City forward?” — Mary Bubala, WJZ
That’s the question that ended a Baltimore anchorwoman’s career and launched a thousand (10,000?) social media comments.
It’s a terrible question.
But journalists ask terrible questions with seemingly obvious answers all the time — sometimes, it’s true, because of incompetence, ignorance or bias, and sometimes just because they come out wrong. But generally it’s because asking them is a professional duty: The answers they elicit need to be heard.
What if WJZ anchorwoman Mary Bubala had posed the question like this: “Some in Baltimore have raised concerns that there will be a backlash against black women running for office, given that Baltimore’s last three mayors were black women, two of them resigned and the other declined to run for a second term amid intense criticism. How would you respond?”
Would we be having the same internet conversation? Because those concerns, however unjust, are being raised, and there’s a significant portion of the population in Baltimore and beyond who still needs to hear — loudly and firmly — that skin color and gender aren’t predictors for corruption or poor leadership skills.
Ms. Bubala’s guest was Karsonya Wise Whitehead, an associate professor at Loyola University Maryland, whose scholarship, according to her university bio, “examines the ways race, class, and gender coalesce in American classrooms as well as in political and social environments.” She calls herself a “black mommy activist” on Twitter and has written multiple books with race as a central theme and more than a dozen op-eds on the subject for The Baltimore Sun.
She was the perfect person to respond to Ms. Bubala’s imperfect question.
On-air, as you’d expect, Ms. Whitehead deflected attention from the physical attributes the last three mayors had in common and focused on the love and commitment they shared for Baltimore, despite their flaws. She didn’t appear to balk at the question when it was asked or hours later, when she posted on her Facebook page “Dashed right from doing radio on #TodayWithDrKaye to doing television at WJZ-TV CBS Baltimore to talk about our former Mayor Catherine Pugh and the state of Baltimore City,” though she’s since made the question a topic on her afternoon radio show, “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA, 88.9 FM.
Print journalists for the most part have the luxury of asking our terrible questions off camera — bumbling our words and mangling grammar, good sense and sensitivity — and then publishing the eloquent answers as if the subjects offered up those bits of wisdom unprompted. Ms. Bubala does not. Her position carries with it a great weight to be extremely careful at all times, especially on the fly, because when you fail, as we’ve seen, it can be devastating.
Following the broadcast May 2nd, she was swiftly condemned online for her question, with other journalists largely leading the charge; and she later apologized that night, saying on Twitter:
“I am so very sorry. The way my question came out was not what I intended to ask because race and gender are irrelevant to one’s leadership abilities. I combined two questions in my head during a live interview and said something I didn’t mean to.”
She followed up the next day with another apology, expressing regret for her words, acknowledging that they portray her as someone she knows she is not, and asking for the opportunity to regain the public’s trust.
But by then, no one was quite as interested in what she had to say. Those who cared had already dissected her earlier question to fit their personal agendas (I suppose you’re seeing my version of that here) and sent their thoughts out into the various echo chambers online.
Left-leaning liberal? Ms. Bubala is racist and sexist. Right-leaning conservative? The reaction is more evidence the P.C. police have run amok. Those who wanted to see the question as a statement did, and they generally didn’t want to hear otherwise.
That includes Ms. Bubala’s employer, who by Monday had denied her request to apologize on air, scrubbed her from the website, fired her and issued a terse statement saying “the station apologizes to its viewers for her remarks.”
That’s a shameful way to treat a faithful and popular employee of 15 years who, as far as we know, has no pattern of similarly offending viewers, despite thousands of hours and opportunities to do so on live television.
It’s also a shameful way to treat Baltimore residents — as if we can’t handle a frank conversation.
The problem with Ms. Bubala’s question is that it can be seen as inherently anti-woman and anti-black. But let’s be clear: It isn’t the gender concern that led to her termination; it’s the racial component. Race in America is such a toxic subject that even poorly worded questions, whose negative implications are easily refuted, are too much to bear.
Imagine if WJZ, instead of trying to shove the subject and its anchor under a rug, had pulled together a town hall, put Ms. Bubala and critics on a platform, and let them talk through all of this, taking questions from an audience and running the event both online and on TV. How much more productive would that have been and in furtherance of the supposed goal: better understanding among groups?
It would have been a step toward doing “the hard work” that Ms. Whitehead suggested in these pages in 2014: “sitting down in small diverse community groups and wrestling with the questions of how race and our feelings about it are still dividing our country.”
Of course we don’t need to shift away from black female mayors any more than we need to drop white men from our hospital boards on the basis of their sex and color. The reason to promote diversity in the workplace and wider world is not because any one race, religion, gender or class is better — or worse — at commanding a boardroom, educating children, building a bridge or running a city. It’s because the way each of us was raised and reacted to because of our various characteristics has led to nuanced opinions and ideas, the intermingling and acceptance of which leads to a richer republic/business/neighborhood through increased empathy, representation and creative stimulation.
WJZ could have respected the long history it has with Ms. Bubala and its viewers by promoting this. But instead, it responded out of fear, managing to both overreact and underreact at the same time. It was a sad moment for journalism, on top of Ms. Bubala’s phrasing, and a missed opportunity to further a crucial conversation.
Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @triciabishop.