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  • Writer's pictureJustine Barron

Thiru and the Baltimore Sun, An Encore

The Baltimore Sun reckons with the mayoral candidate's reputation, sort of (not really)

Vignarajah on the campaign stump, during the lockdown

Thiru Vignarajah, candidate for Baltimore mayor, was profiled in the Baltimore Sun on May 19, as part of its series of profiles of all of the candidates. Most of these profiles provide a soft retrospective of each candidate's careers, based on previously reported information.

Vignarajah's profile stands out from the rest, because it also breaks news. With a headline that refers to him as "shadowed by questions" and a "complicated choice," the article points out some chinks in Vignarajah's reputation. It includes accounts of him being hard on staff and interns. Most damaging, it describes "loyalty tests" and an incident involving "abusive" yelling. It is perhaps the most critical piece on the candidate published in the Sun in years.

A few days after this piece was published, Vignarajah failed to pick up the Sun's endorsement for mayor, which went instead to City Council President Brandon Scott. In the last week, the Sun seemed to be making Vignarajah's campaign harder.

Yet, in other ways, the profile is helpful to the candidate. More than half of its text is glowingly positive. The reporter describes him as "meticulous" and "dedicated." And Vignarajah is given lots of space to respond to any criticism. Overall, the profile holds back the tide of full accountability for the candidate, which the Sun also did in January, when it covered body-worn camera (BWC) footage of his police stop, as previously reported.

The Last Word

The Sun's profile on Vignarajah provides an object lesson in the kind of reporting that, as a result of the way in which it is written, ends up favoring the powerful. The article introduces some criticisms of the candidate and then allows him to have the last word, repeatedly. While it's typical for reporters to get comment from their subjects, in this case, the reporter did not fact check Vignarajah's responses.

For instance, the candidate responds at length to reports from seven former subordinates that he was "controlling and unreasonably demanding":

"There was never a complaint, formal or informal, in any place I’ve ever worked," he says. He calls the claims as "false" and "insulting." The Sun doesn't fact check that nobody ever complained about Vignarajah; it would be nearly impossible to prove no history of "informal complaints." The candidate then reframes the accusation that he worked unpaid interns around the clock into a discussion about discipline and work ethic. He describes what he perceives as a lazy work culture in Baltimore government, which he defines as working 9-to-5 with a long lunch break.

The takeaway for readers is that maybe Vignarajah was too tough as a boss, or maybe he was a fair amount of tough and his complainants couldn't handle the rigor. The complainants are not given the chance to respond to his characteristic of them as either liars or lazy, thereby tipping a "both sides" discussion in his favor.

Faced with accusation that he could be "abusive" and demand loyalty tests, Vignarajah responds by describing his "high standards." He provides a list of people that will vouch for him. The articles notes that one of them is retired judge Wanda Heard but fails to mention her well-documented conflicts of interest around the Adnan Syed case.

The reporter also allows Vignarajah to frame the January traffic stop story and his record as a prosecutor to his favor. For instance, he blames Marilyn Mosby's office for his failure to secure many convictions in his 2013 gang bust. Yet, as previously reported, Vignarajah held most of those cases for a year and a half, through dozens of postponements, without turning over discovery evidence. Mosby's team resolved most of the cases within their first six months in office. This can be easily fact checked. Attorneys and police whistleblowers have been outspoken about these cases for years, as well as about the candidate's prosecutorial record.

When media critics describe journalists "doing PR" for officials, this is what we mean. It's not a metaphor. It literally involves offering a positive spin on a possibly negative story.

Back Story

For its profile, the Sun interviewed "more than a dozen people who worked under Vignarajah during his career as a prosecutor." My information, speaking to sources since January, was that there was an effort to speak to women colleagues in particular. Indeed, all of the anecdotes from former subordinates in the story are from or about women.

That may explain why some of the social media discussion about the article was about sexual harassment, even though nothing of that sort is mentioned in the article. None of the article's generalizations specify the gender of Vignarajah's subordinates.

(I'll follow the Sun's lead by protecting the anonymity of sources that can't speak out due to employment-related concerns and/or fear of retaliation.)

The stories I heard about Vignarajah from sources were similar to what was printed in the article, with two major differences. First, sources have consistently shared for years that Vignarajah tended to surround himself with young female lawyers and interns, not just "young lawyers," as the article states. (Outside of the Robert De Nero movie "The Intern," aren't interns and clerks usually young?)

Second, several sources shared that the Sun also heard stories of a more serious nature than it reported. Vignarajah has been asked to address "me too" issues in the past, including in the aftermath of the Project Veritas videos. There have been allegations shared on social media and called into radio shows. But there has never been a specific story in mainstream media.

The Sun's profile of VIgnarajah may end up being the most that it will publish on his working relationships with women. Sources are providing different reasons for why the newspaper may have withheld some of its story, including an inability for reporters to confirm accounts independently and the failure of women to attach their names to their stories. I do not have this part of the story very well confirmed.

I will point out that the Sun's story is already anonymously sourced by "more than a dozen" former subordinates, without back-up evidence of their accounts. Does the Sun have standards for anonymously sourcing? Does it draw a line at the type of informant, the type of information, or both?

By not directly addressing gender but including anecdotes that are from and about women, the Sun perhaps fosters speculation. A similar thing happened in January. When the BWC story dropped, many people on social media suggested that Vignarajah had been caught with a sex worker, even though there was no evidence to support that. It didn't help that the Sun's article about the police stop focused on the candidate's explanation for why he was driving a young woman around in the middle of the night. It was as if the reporters had been tasked with investigating his passenger and not his interaction with police on the hour-long video, which they barely covered.

On Balance

On balance, the Sun profile may have hurt Vignarajah in the election. While the actual text of the article was another infuriating example of PR-style reporting, parts of the story and the headline are suggestive of scandal. The headline describes him as "shadowed"; the opening refers to "questions about his judgment."

With Vignarajah, there is now an accumulation of reported behavior that is suggestive of scandal. This puts him in a consistently defensive position. Once again, he blames political enemies for accusations in the article. He was also defensive when confronted by Sergeant Bill Shifflet at public forum about the police stop in January.

The suggestion of scandal may be enough to harm a candidate like Vignarajah, especially after the last few years of Baltimore leadership,. The race still includes other centrist candidates like Mary Miller and T.J. Smith (who helped provide cover for the Baltimore Police Department during an era of nonstop scandal).

Unfortunately, whoever wins and loses at the mayoral election, there remains the problem that the Baltimore Sun—aka, the only game in town —cannot always be counted on to investigate and share the full story in a way that protects and affirms those who challenge power. Even if there is nothing more to the story than what it published, it still gave a powerful person the last word. That leaves the people who do come forward disappointed, vulnerable to retaliatory public figures, and probably unwilling to go through the process again.

In case you missed it, please take a look at my recent article in The Appeal, which offers new evidence in the death of Freddie Gray. And check out this interview that my investigative partner Amelia McDonell-Parry and I gave to the Real News about the Gray case, in which we discuss witnesses that got burned by media not telling their stories properly.


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