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Media Circus

Call and Response

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 6/28/2000

Several years ago I attended a conference of community leaders, at which I served as the token print journalist on a panel that included WMAR-TV's Mary Beth Marsden and several local radio anchors. We were supposed to advise the activists on how to get better coverage of neighborhood issues. As the broadcast personalities chattered responses to audience charges of superficiality and sensationalism, I raised my hand to be recognized. "Folks," I growled, "if you want coverage of any depth, I have two words for you: print media." The other panelists uttered a mock-wounded "Awwww!" as if I'd scored a naughty cheap shot. OK, I take it back--a little--and offer a few sacrilegious words in praise of talk radio as a medium for thrashing out some of the most difficult subjects on the nation's agenda.

In recent weeks, there was a good-sized media splash over a report by the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) documenting racial disparities in the punishment of drug crimes in the United States. "Five times as many whites use drugs as blacks, but blacks comprise the great majority of drug offenders sent to prison," Jamie Fellner, the HRW attorney who wrote the report, stated in a press release. In Maryland, Fellner found, "black men are sent to prison on drug charges at a rate that is 28 times greater than whites." HRW calls for alternatives to imprisonment for nonviolent offenses, an end to racial profiling, and sentencing reform, including equal sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine.

The Sun gave the report a respectable 23 column inches of text, under the headline "Study shows drug efforts target blacks," starting at the top of the June 8 Maryland section. An odd placement for a national story, perhaps, but still highly visible. The paper next visited the subject a full week later, in the form of two letters to the editor. One took issue with the paper's use of the word "target" in the June 8 headline; the other questioned the source of study's statistics, asked whether HRW had lumped together marijuana and heroin offenses, and expressed amazement at the assertion (in the body of the story) that "few resources are devoted toward white people using illegal drugs in such neighborhoods as Federal Hill." On June 17, The Sun ran an editorial inspired by the report, arguing that police need to go after more white drug users. Two days later it picked up an Op-Ed piece by Atlanta-based columnist Tom Teepen that also used the HRW paper as its springboard.

This rundown is not intended to fault the level of The Sun's coverage, but rather to show the time-lag--and hence the disjuncture--between newspaper reportage, public response, and editorializing.

On June 16, Marc Steiner got Fellner on his WJHU (88.1 FM) show, along with state Sen. Delores Kelley (D-Baltimore City/County), who serves on the state's Commission on Sentencing. Fellner summarized his report, emphasizing the Maryland findings. Callers asked skeptical questions, as did Steiner, prompting Fellner to clarify, qualify, and provide context for her findings. Toward the end of the program, the HRW attorney commented that it had been the best radio interview she'd done.

In an interview with me, Fellner said she'd been on roughly 40 radio shows around the country. Steiner, she says, "clearly understood the issues, was well-prepared, and went beyond having read the headlines," and that the questioners were skeptical but civil. "You don't think of [a call-in show] being a learning experience for the guest, but it's been great for me to hear the response [to the report] directly from so many people," she says. "[A] lot of people don't understand the difference between being hostile and being an intelligent devil's advocate. Someone who's just trying to score points by criticizing . . . sort of wastes listeners' time."

Talk radio, at its best, is a free, immediate dialogue informed by facts--exactly what we need when it comes to complicated, hyper-sensitive issues revolving around race. Had The Sun's letter writers called in to the Steiner show, their questions--which related to matters of wording, definition, and methodology--could have been answered on the spot. As letters, they became freestanding rhetorical volleys that served to undercut HRW's report without shedding better light upon the issues.

In practice, of course, the call-in format is so routinely abused that enlightening discussion is an exception to the norm. The preferred talk-jock format in Baltimore is the Rush Limbaugh/Ron Smith model: Host spouts opinions, dittohead listeners agree. You can quibble with Steiner's style or argue with his politics, but in the intellectual wasteland of local radio, his show is the real voice of reason.

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