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Commentary Government & Politics

Frank DeFilippo: There’s Something About Mary

Reporters ask impertinent questions to get pertinent answers.

The best of them are relentless in their pursuit of information, for the most part respectful to a point until resistance occasionally turns the hunt adversarial. Of course, there are always a couple of tough guys in the scrum.

Today’s reporters are not wiseacres out of “The Front Page,” but most, if not all, are mannerly and well-educated, many with advanced degrees and specialized training. It’s tough getting in the front door of The New York Times or The Washington Post these days without a Harvard or comparable degree or a Rhodes Scholarship.

News is what happens. The three most important letters in the word are N-E-W. More often than not, news, like metaphysics, proceeds from the question. Mary Bubala learned that the hard way. She became WJZ-TV’s human sacrifice to identity politics and the ratings-game that sets advertising rates in the Baltimore viewing area and the reach of cable TV. (Disclaimer: I do not know Bubala personally.)

Bubala asked a perfectly legitimate question on family-friendly local TV: “We have had three African American female mayors in a row. They were all passionate public servants. Two resigned, though. Isn’t it a signal that a different kind of leadership is needed to move Baltimore forward”?

Bubala, intentionally or not, stated a concern that’s been on many Baltimoreans’ minds.

Bubala was fired for asking the question of a black expert-guest on the news set. Bubala is white. Bubala later issued an apology, but was not allowed to do so on camera. Bubala, an Emmy winner, had been with the station for 15 years.

Like it or not, the answers are yes, yes and yes. Skip all the pop palaver about racism, plantation owners, gender insensitive and demonizing women as poor leaders, as some of the responders emoted. Review the record instead.

Sheila Dixon, as mayor, was convicted and driven from office for stealing gift cards intended for the poor and buying gifts for herself, her family and friends. A side issue was her extravagant shopping sprees on out-of-state trips with her developer-boyfriend who had contracts before the Board of Estimates.

Next was Stephanie Rawlings-Blake who, as far as we know, ran a scandal-free administration. But Rawlings-Blake was so aloof and inept under pressure that she allowed the city to crash and burn by failing to act decisively during the riots following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. In fact, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) literally had to take charge to help restore calm in the city.

As a result of her failures, and the notoriety the city realized during her watch as mayor, Rawlings-Blake chose not to run for reelection rather than face an angry and dispirited electorate in a riot-torn city.

Rawlings-Blake’s run for cover left an open seat at City Hall and a competition between two rivals – a comeback attempt for Dixon and a move from the Maryland Senate for Catherine Pugh. Pugh won the match-up by a scant 2,400 votes with a mighty financial assist from the corps of lobbyists in Annapolis.

Pugh proved one indisputable instinct during her short reign as mayor. She has a bloodhound’s nose for the scent of money. She assembled $1 million for a reelection campaign which she won’t run next year and which the donors want back.

And she pocketed $800,000 from the dubious sale of her literary masterwork, “Healthy Holly,” a series of children’s books on healthy living which she sold (or they bought) to entities doing business with the city and state.

Along the way she paid $171,000 in cash for a house and thousands more in cash to a contractor for repairs and upgrades.

And oh, by the way, Pugh managed to botch the hiring of four police commissioners before settling on the fifth hire, the current commissioner, Michael Harrison, formerly of New Orleans. One of her choices for commissioner was convicted of tax fraud.

Frank A. DeFilippo

The capstone of Pugh’s years in office was camera-ready – the FBI and the IRS swooping down on City Hall, Pugh’s home, her lawyer’s office and a couple of other locations, following the money to wherever it leads, which will no doubt end up not being a very good place. Her epitaph is yet to be written.

Pugh finally wrapped her head around her troubles and resigned as mayor. Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who had been City Council president, automatically inherited the thankless job of following the elephants in the parade.

That’s three in a row by anybody’s finger-count.

The codicil to Bubala’s question is that no such transgressions of venality, brazenness or betrayal of the public trust were reported under Mayors Theodore R. McKeldin Jr., Thomas D’Alesandro lll, William Donald Schaefer, Clarence “Du” Burns, Kurt Schmoke, or Martin O’Malley. And PUH-lease, don’t roll out the misogynist harangue. Women have been in positions of power for years in Maryland without a blemish on their records and with honor rolls of significant achievements.

So, it is fair to ask: Did Mary Bubala ask the appropriate question?

Scroll down the responses and more people are discussing race and demographics than Bubala’s query and the future of the city – which is precisely the point of her question.

And it’s also noteworthy that Pugh, in an op-ed piece a while back, called for a change in the city’s “narrative” as did the

president of the Weinberg Foundation, Rachel Garbow Monroe, a couple of weeks ago. That, too, seemed to be implicit in Bubala’s question.

Television is radio with pictures. Write to the pictures is a TV newsroom’s dictate. Follow it and often lose the story for lack of corresponding footage. Local television fares better with visuals such as weather reports, natural disasters, ribbon cuttings and celebratory occasions such as the Flower Mart and the Preakness. Animal stories are premium.

Local television stations, unlike newspapers, avoid controversy out of fear of offending a single viewer or, even more important, an advertiser. And they reject hard news in the same way baloney rejects the grinder. Bubala thought she was on TV to generate news and instead she became news.

The public decapitation of Bubala was carried out by WJZ-TV’s management and not by its news department. Station managers are usually products of the business side, or advertising sales, of television.

If there’s a fault in this whole messy episode it lies not so much with Bubala but with WJZ-TV’s management for its knee-jerk reaction and for not standing firm with its reporter-anchor. The penalty was harsh indeed. (TV station contracts vary, but most contain 13-week windows, or options. This means that on-air personalities, as they’re called in the television business, can get a once-over every three months and be let go for whatever reason. Or, contracts can simply be bought out.)

Instead the station’s management reacted to a story in The Sun and a few e-mails with points of view and an ax to grind, notably from Niki Mayo, a past president of the Baltimore Association of Black Journalists. One among Mayo’s e-mails that helped to launch the chain reaction read:

“I don’t take any joy in another journalist not working. This was another ceremonial falling on the sword that continues to cut a serious hole in efforts for newsroom inclusion and diversity.”

But Bubala now has scientific support for her question. The latest Gonzales Research poll shows that the vast majority of Baltimoreans of all races, genders and ages are fed up with conditions in their city and believe that things have gotten worse in the past 10 years – precisely the time-line bracketed by Bubala’s question, beginning with Dixon’s term, forward.

Sixty-three percent of those surveyed believe the city is heading in the wrong direction and 57 percent said conditions in the city have deteriorated in the past 10 years. And there is no question that education and crime top the woes. A resounding 83 percent of those polled are unhappy with attempts to reduce crime and 78 percent are dissatisfied with the education system in Baltimore.

It’s tough to get fired and humiliated so publicly, Mary. But don’t beat yourself up over this. You did your job – maybe too well for television.