Media Watch: The 2018 Baltimore Crime #MediaFail Awards
I hope you have enjoyed your annual wrap-ups on another terrible year in Baltimore crime stories, in which the local media continues to portray itself as an innocent spectator. "I am a messenger," one journalist wrote me when I was critical of that individual's repeated passing on of questionable stories about Detective Sean Suiter's death.
The "fourth estate" (or mainstream media) in Baltimore continues to operate largely unscathed. With the shuttering of the Baltimore City Paper and then Baltimore Beat, there are fewer alternative takes on popular stories.
Most of the Baltimore public knows the local media doesn't reflect their stories. The Baltimore Sun, for one, mostly employs white male reporters. But the public may not realize how much information, especially on crime, is filtered through a few media gatekeepers with some narrow gates.
This isn't about me not liking local reporters, a criticism I sometimes face; I like them fine. I know that local reporters work hard, are limited in what they can achieve by editors and shrinking newsrooms, are not paid a fortune, and sometimes do important work. This is about what it will truly take to effect change in Baltimore. Media needs a cleansing; the public needs to be properly informed.
In some ways, Baltimore crime reporting in 2018 has been more responsible than in the years before, with the Suiter story being one huge exception. After the GTTF trials and two commissioners left in disgrace, some crime reporters have even removed the tweets pinned to their profiles expressing how much they love cops.
Despite some improvements, the glaring issues persist. With that, I present my 2018 #MediaFail awards:
The "Whose Lives Matter More to Us" Awards
Baltimore media made it clear in 2018 whose lives matter to them by which faces they showed or protected. In November, WMAR released video of an interrogation with a police informant sharing information on Suiter's death. The informant's name was released along with the video. The article also shared that the informant had provided information about another criminal, one whose gang had a habit of killing witnesses.
If Baltimore crime media does not realize that you shouldn't expose the identity of a confidential informant who provided information on a known witness killer... I'm at a loss. Cross your fingers, WMAR, or buy the guy some security please.
Local media also continued in its long-time habit of showing the faces of police suspects even in the very earliest phases of investigation. A local bar thinks a homeless woman might have torched some cars? Get her face out there. Retaliation be damned!
On the other hand, local media has been protecting the faces of the people it does care about, like Nazis. In November, a man terrorized a theater showing a Jewish play by screaming "Heil Hitler!"and "Heil Trump!" He admitted to his crimes of disturbing the peace and hate speech. Media blurred his face in interviews because he felt embarrassed.
Did anyone ask the homeless woman if she felt embarrassed?
Media outlets also cut the face off of a suburban business owner during an interview. He had posted an offensive tirade against squeegee boys on Facebook after a young man had allegedly vandalized his car. Local TV stations provided him with a confidential platform without 1) fact checking the events of his story; 2) referencing his offensive Facebook remarks or the incredibly racist conversations that ensued; or 3) acknowledging his history of appearing on TV complaining about black youth.
So 2018 featured the emotional outpourings of headless and faceless people who have issues with blacks and Jews. Totally normal.
The Dismissive Attitude Awards
Unfortunately, some local reporters in Baltimore have a tendency to dismiss any information or analysis that comes from nontraditional channels, like independent journalists, activists, and humans who experience real things in the real world. They are more likely to share second-hand information provided by anonymous police sources than, say, the stories of the witnesses to what happened in April 2015 at Mondawmin Mall.
I've encountered a lot of snobby dismissiveness from reporters myself; it never feels good, but it's also kind of a funny. A local crime beat gig is an amusing perch from which to look down on people. Here are 2018's most notable examples of blatant dismissiveness:
1. Getting Scooped By Outsiders
On October 19th, a Twitter user named MediaWatchDog released the name of the Mayor's leading candidate for police commissioner.
This was a month before Mayor Pugh acknowledged that Fitzgerald was, indeed, her pick. The Baltimore Sun followed up on MediaWatchDog's tweet by publishing a dismissive story that treated the news as speculative. The headline called it 'news,' in quotes. But the information wasn't 'news' in quotes. MediaWatchdog is a journalist who writes a blog that has broken other stories in Baltimore. The Fitzgerald story was also confirmed by Kinji Scott, a personal and professional associate of the mayor. It should have been treated as a lead by reporters.
The snobbery was in full effect. One local radio reporter's tweets didn't age well:
A month later, when Mayor Pugh finally confirmed this news, local outlets failed to credit MediaWatchDog or Scott with breaking the story weeks before. They treated the pair dismissively and then erased their efforts when the story was confirmed.
Lack of attribution is another long-time issue in Baltimore journalism closely related to the dismissiveness of independent voices. I discovered this myself in November, when WBAL supposedly broke the news that the Suiter video evidence showed a different timeline than what the Independent Review Board (IRB) reported. I had figured this out two months before, published a detailed analysis of it, and shouted it from the rooftops into the cold, apathetic wind. I ended up having to fight a WBAL editor for two days for attribution.
All of this matters beyond our small journalistic world of wanting respect. If the early reports on Fitzgerald had been taken seriously, there could have been a whole other month to vet him responsibly. But the respect matters too. By constantly putting unfair dents into the reputations of independent voices, mainstream reporters make it harder for us the next time we have an important story to tell.
That is probably their goal, but it is not helpful or collegial. Please remember this the next time a mainstream reporter tells you how badly he or she is treated by Twitter.
2. The "Internet Sleuths"
The Baltimore Sun's leading crime reporters showed how little regard they have for non-mainstream investigators in July. A group of individuals on Twitter were working to figure out the name of the Coppin State University police officer who had shot a teenager, as told in the "Charm City" podcast. This group included a local juvenile defense attorney, a former BPD police officer, and a crime reporter for Rolling Stone.
So, it was hardly a group of slouches.
When the Sun reporters finally got the correct information through a Public Information Act request, they didn't just release it. They made sure to let everyone know that the people working on this were insignificant trifles:
"Internet sleuths" was one way to describe a group of people who investigate Baltimore crime for a living. It was all quite extra, as the kids say, as neither one of these reporters even wrote the article.
Their dismissiveness would've been rude in reference to amateurs too. The public could only benefit from mainstream reporters including independent investigators into their fact-finding missions. The reporters' superior attitude has kept us divided.
3. The "Activists"
How many different, unique ways do mainstream reporters find to dismiss anyone that isn't them or their sources?
When 2018 started, Baltimore media was promoting the idea that there were "two competing theories" for Suiter's death - homicide-by-stranger or suicide.
So, what about the theory that Suiter was killed because he was scheduled to be a federal witness the next day in a GTTF case? Fenton and Rector briefly referred to it as “another theory, largely dismissed internally but repeated often by police reform activists.”
This third theory was hardly a fringe belief. Even then-Commissioner Davis had acknowledged that it was believed by "everyone." And why not? Witnesses are killed in Baltimore often. The so-called evidence coming out was murky. Also, the public had read those GTTF indictments. These were some bad cops. Finally the federal government kept dropping explicit hints that police witnesses were in danger!
Oh, those silly activists and internet sleuths with their quote 'news.' Where do they come up with this stuff?
Grand Prize for Misinformation Award - The Sean Suiter "Evidence" Stories
In March, Fenton and Rector published an article called "New details revealed in Baltimore Police Investigation of Detective Sean Suiter's Death," sourced by anonymous police officers. I hereby offer a corrected headline:
Unfortunately, most of the article no longer holds up, factually. Some of the errors could have been easily fact-checked at the time. The article reported on the ballistics and firearms in ways that multiple experts disputed. Even then-Commissioner Davis had already admitted, the November before, that BPD guns cannot be reliably matched to bullets.
Davis had also already acknowledged that Suiter and his partner that day, David Bomenka, were working separate cases around Bennett Place. The article repeated the myth that Bomenka was tagging along on Suiter's mission (since undermined by a WMAR report).
Some of the article's misinformation became clear once BPD released the IRB findings with surveillance video and audio in August. The IRB's report described a different bullet trajectory, for instance.
More important, the article states that Suiter is seen on surveillance video "darting into the lot suddenly, gun in right hand and his radio in his left hand"- and that this happened out of view of Bomenka. The actual video is not clear enough to show anything in Suiter's hands. Also, a close analysis reveals that he is not actually seen running into the lot and appears to collapse in full view of Bomenka.
Did whoever told Fenton and Rector about the video actually even see it? Either answer is not a good one.
Not one mainstream media outlet has bothered to analyze the audio and video evidence whatsoever since its release. To this day, Google searches bring up this article, and the public believes it to contain evidence. I've reached out to the Baltimore Sun, requesting an update or retraction on this article, with no response.
This article is perhaps the most prominent example of irresponsible Suiter reporting. WBAL's Jayne Miller also contributed. She repeatedly stated that the evidence strongly leaned towards suicide, including how Suiter's gun was found under his body. All three forensics experts I consulted said that this placement did not indicate anything about his death.
Just "a messenger"? That is absolutely the problem.
The "Give The Powerful an Even Bigger Platform" Award
Are you concerned that the mayor and commissioner only have press conferences, interviews, and entire media departments to spread their messages? The Baltimore Sun is too, so it keeps giving them op-ed columns. This is actually a national trend in media that needs to stop. The point of the fourth estate should not be to function as an in-house media arm of the other estates. Please, Baltimore Sun, find another voice. Anyone.
The Misplaced Hyperbolic Praise Awards
I guess Baltimore is really looking for heroes these days. Who can blame the city? That doesn't excuse a Baltimore Sun article that celebrated Sergeant Ryan Guinn unconditionally as a heroic GTTF whistleblower, despite his confessed history of helping GTTF Sergeant Wayne Jenkins plant drugs on innocent men and not giving up Jenkins to the feds.
A hero's narrative was also provided for BPD's media spokesperson T.J. Smith, after he announced his departure in October. The Sun's Rector sung Smith's praises as "steady," "empathetic," and a "Baltimore native and frank talker with a firm grasp of the local culture and its colloquialisms."
Within days, the Sun suggested that Smith might run for mayor! Why not? He presided over this great era of BPD media relations:
Meanwhile, media didn't ask questions about the timing and manner of Smith's sudden departure. He cited some recent infighting in the department, but his media consulting blog had been set up for a month.
Well, at least Smith was able to squeeze in a company-sponsored trip to Orlando to see Trump just days before his announced departure. Can BPD have its money back?
The Shameless Tokenism Award
Kevin Rector was in Japan for a chunk of the year. He may have returned with some heightened sensitivity about race:
There were three main categories of response to this tweet: 1. Cool, the Sun is very white. 2. Are you a reverse racist? 3. This is performative tokenism.
You see, Rector is not necessarily the most racially woke reporter in town. He wrote that thing about T.J. Smith, a black man, speaking in "colloquialisms" in a majority black city.
I'm only in my third year of working on Baltimore crime issues, and I could think of a list of local black writers that would enhance the Sun's storytelling. The city also has more than one historic black college/university with a writing or journalism program. I'm sure that Rector meant well, but his putting this on Twitter is the performative part.
Then, we learned a few days after this tweet that one of the Sun's only writers of color, Brittany Britto, was leaving the job. Did the Sun ask Rector to help fill a slot? If so, that's the tokenism part.
Baltimore City is almost 65 percent black. The only black crime journalist whose work was referenced in this entire article is the one who scooped everyone on the new commissioner and was treated like crap for it.
It doesn't get better from there. So let's call it an interesting year, and see what happens in 2019. I'd like to say I'm hopeful. Eh.