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Media Circus

Head Spin

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 6/14/2000

For weeks, the headlines on The Sun's Ray Lewis coverage stuck tersely to the facts of the narrative: "Lewis murder trial opens"; "Lewis aided friend, woman says"; "Deal near in Lewis murder case"; "Probation for Lewis after plea." Pretty straightforward stuff. Even "Jurors retrace a trail of blood" (June 3) was a valid, if lurid, description of the previous day's evidentiary proceedings. But when Lewis, cleared of the murder rap, became the star witness, the front-page headline screamed "Cognac, knives and fists" in 96-point type. Why the sudden change in tone? My theory--and frankly, my cynicism appalls me--is that The Sun played this story straight just as long as our $6.5 million hometown sports hero was in jeopardy. Had the headlines screamed like that while Lewis was still on trial--say, "Witness: Raven fled in bloody limo"--a lot of Baltimoreans, including anyone with any emotional investment in the Ravens, would have rightly taken offense. But nobody in Charm City--not fans, not investors, not advertisers, not readers--gives a sniff about co-defendants Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, so the paper felt free to unleash a week's worth of pent-up sensationalism in one juicy phrase that reads more like a mid-'70s Rolling Stones album than a headline.

Weekend Updates

Absent murder verdicts, fatal car accidents, and fires, Saturdays can be slow news days, meaning local TV reporters have to fan out and hunt for material rather than stampede to the obvious top story. When they are forced to forage, their choices can be interesting. On Saturday, June 3, while its competitors led their evening broadcasts with a Housing Authority gun buyback and a demonstration against the execution of Eugene Colvin-El, WBAL's 11 News opened with coverage of the annual Pride Parade and Block Party in Mount Vernon, an event organized by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB). What struck me about WBAL's treatment of the Pride event was its apparent objectivity: Reporter Lesli Foster provided the basic who-what-when-where, then pointed the mic at a series of party-goers who made thoughtful, articulate statements about the purpose of the event and, more interestingly, about issues internal to the gay and lesbian communities. WBAL gave this item about five minutes at the top of the broadcast, and treated it like any other neighborhood event--no winks, smirks, or editorial innuendo.

That's exactly what event organizers had hoped for, says Anthony McCarthy, chief of staff for City Council President Sheila Dixon. McCarthy, former editor of The Baltimore Afro-American, lends his free time and media skills to GLCCB and was one of several spokespeople at the Pride event who stood ready to expound for whatever media might turn up. So it was not by accident that McCarthy--identified only by name, not by City Hall sinecure--was interviewed in the 11 News segment.

For some time, McCarthy says, GLCCB has been pushing the message that gay people are regular folks--as he puts it, "the person next door, or in the next cubicle." Although he missed seeing himself on the June 3 telecast, McCarthy says local mainstream media are generally getting "more and more sophisticated and tolerant" in their coverage of gay and lesbian people and events. "In past years," he says, TV reporters "tended to talk only to people that they knew would get a reaction [from viewers]--people with [leather] chaps or with their breasts hanging out."

One week later, on June 10, GLCCB staged the 20th annual Pride Festival--the central event of "Pride Week"--and it was completely ignored by Baltimore's mainstream media, including 11 News. It was, after all, a much hotter news day, literally: A fatal house fire, a weird boat fire, and temperatures in the 90s led the late news.

Utility Hit

The June 10 rowhouse fire, in which a grandmother and three children were killed, was caused by a candle left burning in an upstairs hallway because the household's electricity had been turned off for nonpayment. Both WBAL and WJZ (channel 13) turned their 11 P.M. reports into public-service announcements for the city's energy-assistance program (which helps indigent households with utility-bill-payment problems); 11 News went further and became, momentarily, a de facto free ad for Baltimore Gas & Electric, splashing the familiar BGE logo across the screen along with numbers to call for help. Whenever a corporate monopoly makes news, there's a risk of blurring journalism with advertisement, but it was dazzling how quickly this fire story, which could have become a PR nightmare for BGE, instead became a feel-good promo for the company.

Media Literacy

"The issue is simple: Is Ray Lewis and his two defendants guilty?"

That was WJZ news anchor Denise Koch leading into the big story on June 2. As we now know, Lewis are in the clear, as is his co-defendants.

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