The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

During Baltimore’s painful week, local TV reporters shine

A member of the National Guard stands outside City Hall on Wednesday in Baltimore. (David Goldman/Associated Press)
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I never think about which TV networks or anchors I trust to break news to me in times of crisis, until I’ve been parked in front of the television for hours, scared to move or to break eye contact with the screen. I don’t realize it’s the anchor’s soothing voice or the on-the-ground reporter’s empathetic interviewing style that’s tethering me to their coverage, until I feel my heart rate steadying. So it didn’t immediately occur to me that I was favoring local news networks, rather than cable ones, in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death and Baltimore’s ongoing response to it. But since Monday, when the city’s unrest reached a boiling point, Baltimore’s WJZ and WBAL have been the only networks I’ve trusted.

Finding myself in the most recent injustice-suffering city to draw national media attention has been more surreal than I could’ve imagined. I know that the poverty, police brutality, student frustration and community organizing going on in Baltimore could use the broader amplification that networks such as MSNBC and CNN can provide. But it also feels voyeuristic for national reporters to swarm the heart of your home town and grill the people there about its brokenness.

I’m not an outsider looking in right now; I’m an insider looking around. I don’t want to talk to or hear from anyone who can’t recall what Baltimore was like long before this Monday. I’d rather watch anchors such as WBAL’s Barry Simms, who reported all day on Tuesday from the 3200 block of Piedmont Avenue, where he was raised.

He let his childhood memories of the 1968 riots choke him up and mist his eyes. I watched him recall a liquor store that was burned down on Monday as a place where, decades ago, families could purchase light groceries and fill prescriptions. I watched as he shared footage of the fire. “My old neighbor, Willie Price Jr., recorded it,” he said. He reported the story of a mother who not only lost her home in the fires that raged the night before, but also the wheelchair that belonged to her son, who has cerebral palsy. Within hours, offered poured in from area residents and viewers to replace the wheelchair. At one point, newsroom anchor Stan Stovall even offered to connect the mother to his wife, who he said had access to hospital supplies through her job. That would prove unnecessary; her neighbors showed up with donations and a wheelchair before the end of the day.

There’s a marked difference in the way so many interviewees talk to local reporters such as Barry Simms or his fellow Baltimore-native colleague Deborah Weiner and the way they talk to national news personalities such as Chris Hayes or Don Lemon. Residents talk to their local reporters like they know them.

In many ways, we do. I’ve spotted WBAL and WJZ reporters at grocery stores, gas stations and our local Barnes and Noble. I remember the first time I saw them in my living room (or, in the case of Stan Stovall, at a podium in my high school auditorium 18 years ago). And when something terrible is going on in our city, I know they’re feeling as affected by it as I am. So do the members of the community they interview. Depending on the anchor and whether or not their interview subject watches their network regularly, talking to that anchor is like talking to a friend of the family who’s merely stopping by to check in on you after a natural disaster, the death of a loved one or the loss of your home.

Since Monday, I’ve watched WJZ’s Marcus Washington place a consoling hand on a city resident’s shoulder, as the man mused aloud while looking at burned-out buildings and broken glass, “We still have to live here.” I’ve seen WBAL’s George Lettis, who also grew up in Maryland, engage in a spirited, civil debate with Edward Ellis, a teenager who indicted local media for referring to the high school students who threw rocks at police on Monday as “criminals.”

It has been comforting to witness the genial exchanges between local media and a community recovering from weeks of extreme duress. It would be just as easy to exacerbate tension, as Slate’s Justin Peters has accused CNN of doing. But our anchors have a unique investment in seeing Baltimore heal. When outside reporters roll out of the city, they’ll still be here, listening to the stories of those who call it home.