Frank DeFilippo: There’s Something About Mary

Mary Bubala

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.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Well stated! The action taken by WJZ to fire Mary Bubala over what was viewed as a single insensitively worded question has left me confused and searching for reason for such an extreme reaction. Your op-ed has addressed some of what has troubled me the most.

    If we live in a society where a single perceived misstep is punishable by the most severe penalty, which I think losing your job qualifies as, then where does that leave us as a society… intolerant, divided and without a forum in which to disagree and try to understand another perspective. I think it is also worth noting that if the same statement had come from someone who had expressed racist or sexist thoughts at other times, even if only privately, then a strong and swift reaction might be appropriate. But I see no evidence of that from Mary.

    Mary’s question could have instead been an opportunity to talk about what’s underneath the different reactions to her question and what needs to happen in leadership to move Baltimore forward.

    It’s not too late to have that debate.

  2. The author completely fails to see the problem with the question, and in this failure reveals a blind spot to its inherent racism and misogyny. The implication in the question is that it is specifically the sex and race of the past three office holders that are somehow the explanation for the corruption and failure in leadership. Why did the journalist specifically mention race and sex as somehow the relevant characteristics of the office holders? Doesn’t that imply that she felt that the race and sex of these politicians was somehow an explanation for their corrupt and even criminal actions? If that was not her implications, why would she have brought them up? Wasn’t she, in essence, saying that “a change” in these specific characteristics for the next mayor was necessary to get the city back on track, that males, perhaps specifically white males, should once again take the reins of the city? If she had pointed to the career background, or the political philosophy, or the management style, or any one of hundreds of relevant non-race non-gender attributes, there would have been no backlash. In that question, she specifically placed the blame for the leadership failure on these inherent characteristics. That is the very essence of racism and misogyny. That the author of this piece cannot see that tells us volumes about his own world view, sadly.

  3. Problems in government and leadership are not a new thing. Nor is corruption. But I don’t recall a time when it was ever asked if we should remove a leader simply because he is a white male. The problems in the city are not a result of the leader being black or a woman. It is the specific person rather than the generalization of a type. Shame on you for not realizing the difference. Your article doesn’t express why Mary shouldn’t have been fired as much as try to justify her racially insensitive question. Racism is an ugly and uncomfortable reality. Just because others may have been wondering the same thing makes it no less racist.

  4. This was a terrible decision. I complain all the time that i want to see local news stations covering local news not rehashing what i see can see on cable news or the network evening news. So here you have a competant local reporter addressing the recurring sad state of Baltimore’s political problems. As for the way she phrased the question, people ask about whether its ok to have a white man. Old white man for president and that’s ok.
    Given the sad state of State and National politics, we should be looking for the best candidates in a sea of mediocrity and grifters

    And we need our news orgs and reporters to ask tough questions of all to expose the charlatins and lowlifes that populate our political parties.

  5. Mary Bubala is a class act.
    I hope Mary Bubala gets an anchor position with one of the other tv stations in Balto.
    I wonder if being fired cancels her Non Compete clause?

    And, I hope whom ever over reacted by firing her is forced to retire.

  6. This commentary by Mr. DeFilippo was most correct in his sentiments. It does concern me that our journalists have to tred lightly when asking questions in fear of offending some at the expense of obtaining a legitimate response from from those being interviewed. Freedom of the press and speech could well become in jeopardy.

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