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Media Circus

Shots in the Dark

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 6/13/2001

In recent weeks, no local news story has received more coverage than the shooting of 12 people at a North Avenue block party on the evening of Memorial Day, May 28. The attack, apparently related to a gang feud, pushed Baltimore street violence to a new extreme.

Apparently, though, the story wasn't extreme enough to make The Sun's front page the next morning. Instead, the daily's first article on the shootings was squeezed into one column on the right-hand side of page 1B, the front page of the Maryland section. The same day's page 1A featured, among other things, stories on President Bush's Memorial Day speech and an ethical squabble involving an Annapolis City Council member.

The placement of the article caused consternation among journalists who saw it as a race-based demotion of a high-priority crime report--both the victims and the suspected assailants being African-American. "There is no way on Earth it would have been relegated to [the Maryland section] if it had been 11 white people," a City Paper colleague excoriated in a morning-after e-mail. (The Sun initially reported there were 11 victims; it didn't get the correct number until about 1 a.m. the night of the shooting, past the paper's first deadline, says Paul Moore, deputy managing editor.) "That is the most outrageous bit of institutional racism from [Sun headquarters on] Calvert Street in quite a while."

Similar sentiments about The Sun's news judgment were voiced around the daily's own newsroom. "Everyone knows if there'd been a shooting like that in a wealthy or middle-class neighborhood it would have been on the front," one Sun vet told me. I asked this old pro if it mattered that the crime happened a scant two hours before the paper's midnight deadline. "I don't think so. . . . Somebody just didn't think it was important enough. Nobody should make the excuse that it was too late to change the page."

For the next two days, detailed follow-up stories on the crime ran on the top left of The Sun's front page, as if the paper was compensating for the initial faux pas. The coverage then retreated back to the Maryland section, where follow-up reports have appeared sporadically ever since.

While asserting that he is "not one to second-guess our editors," Sun Editor William Marimow says he would have handled the story differently. "In my view, if 12 people are shot, it belongs on page 1," he says, but adds, "I trust the judgment of the people who make our calls on page 1, and once in a while my opinion may differ from theirs." Marimow pointed to several news-gathering problems that could have led to the bad call: the lateness of the incident, confusion at the crime scene, "information [coming] in dribs and drabs" between editions. Moore, who is in charge of The Sun's front page, echoed Marimow's points, and noted further that the crime happened on a holiday, when the paper runs on reduced staff. "It had nothing to do with black or white," he says.

"Certainly, the next day it was discussed," Moore continues. "Every day you look at a paper and wish some things were done differently." Marimow and Moore both claimed responsibility for the final product and declined to identify the editor who actually made the layout decision on Memorial Day.

On balance, I find my CP friend's initial charge of "institutional racism" to be far-fetched. The Sun's continuing coverage of the North Avenue mayhem--underscored by two signed opinion columns and a furious editorial on the subject--belies the notion that the paper as an institution underrates the importance of the case. And don't get me started on the abuse of the word "racism," which in my book means a deliberate, race-based ideology. At worst, some measure of racial bias, on one editor's part, tipped the scales toward a bad decision. At best, it's an embarrassing screwup, the product of haste and confusion.

Differing racial perspectives, however, have strongly influenced discussions of the block-party violence in The Sun and Baltimore's black-owned newspapers. Broadly speaking, The Sun has viewed the incident over the shoulders of the police, while writers at The Baltimore Afro-American and The Baltimore Times have tended to identify emotionally with the community where it occurred.

What struck me in both black-owned papers was the subtext of agonized soul-searching and sheer bewilderment at how bad things have become. Headlined "Block party ends in tragedy/ Community struggles to overcome," the Afro's top story June 2 quoted a number of east-side community leaders, including City Council member Bernard "Jack" Young, who expressed frustration and despair, anger at police for earlier inaction, and anger at witnesses who have failed to come forward. Afro columnist Talibah Chikwendu wrote, "I simply cannot wrap my mind around the enormity of the horror and uselessness of it all." The Times' Jehuti El-Malik Amen Ra sputtered, "Why anyone would want to celebrate the memory of a former gang member is beyond me," and launched into a lecture on creating healthy neighborhoods. In the same paper, Jewell C. Chambers had a column titled "What does it all mean?" Her answer: "I don't know." Both Times writers called for community renewal through families and churches.

By contrast, The Sun's editorial two days after the shooting crackled with indignant outrage, berating the City Council, Gov. Parris Glendening, and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for failing to take action on Baltimore's street violence. "It's time to push back," the daily declared--three times, preacher-style, in the course of the editorial--and it called for "a massive influx of new officers to make it possible . . . to have a cop on every drug corner of the city."

While it sounds much tougher than anything in the Times or the Afro, The Sun's rhetoric springs from a similar level of desperation and shock, as if the Memorial Day violence had blasted away a final veil of denial. The difference is that the Sun editorialists can afford to blame everything on a faceless population of "thugs," issue some ringing denunciations, and move on. The Times and Afro writers, for all their horror at the bloodshed, saw the shootings in their messy, miserable human context.

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