By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun
12:12 PM EDT, August 19, 2012
Baltimore-area viewers won't see it in their TV listings, but this week a program will premiere on the Al Jazeera English channel that could do more to shape the world's image of their city than any other media coverage or civic promotion done all year.
"Baltimore: Anatomy of an American City" will debut Tuesday night to a potential worldwide audience of 260 million homes. And what those viewers will mainly see is a landscape of young men on bleak street corners, block after block of boarded-up rowhouses, drugs, death, crime scenes and prisons.
The port stands idle, factories are silent and warehouses look empty. Images and repeated references to the war on drugs evoke HBO's"The Wire." Except, of course, this is real.
"When you walk through neighborhoods like this," Al Jazeera correspondent Sebastian Walker says, picking his way down a narrow street of weeds, garbage and rowhouses at the end of the documentary, "it's hard not to feel that the legacy of the war these communities have been living through is so bad that rhetoric or anything short of radical change simply won't solve the problem."
Such words and images are part of a larger conversation — often heated — that ranges from City Hall to Hollywood about how Baltimore is depicted to millions of viewers. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has shown a keen interest in media images of the city, complaining about the ones she sees as negative and working to generate ones she likes.
She is interviewed in the film. So is Ed Burns, the former Baltimore City police detective and schoolteacher who created "The Wire" with David Simon.
"We each want our own reality," Burns said in a telephone interview last week when asked about the kind of images Rawlings-Blake wants to see. "And the mayor wants the reality to be that of a city on the make with a strong middle class and things like that. And if you look down by the harbor, there's a reality there."
But that reality is not shown in "An Anatomy of an American City."
The film opens with a somber, mood-setting overture that includes a funeral cortege and the graveside service of a young man shot and killed in Northeast Baltimore. From there, it moves to City Hall with officials applauding the mayor's optimistic "State of the City" speech.
But those words are quickly undercut as the cameras follow Walker through a series of crime scenes. A police helicopter hovers overhead at the start and the end of his journey through some of the most desperate parts of Baltimore, making it feel like a war zone or occupied territory.
"The pace of violence in Baltimore can feel relentless," he tells viewers.
The producers, crew and correspondent from Al Jazeera who spent two weeks here last February to film the 30-minute production say they didn't come to Baltimore looking to find "The Wire." Walker resists the suggestion that they might have been chasing TV-generated stereotypes rather than social reality with their cameras.
Instead, he says, the global powerhouse headquartered in Doha, Qatar, picked Baltimore for reasons including its proximity to Al Jazeera's Washington broadcast center. The channel has a history of doing stories out of Baltimore, he adds, in part because it see the city as crucible of larger issues throughout urban America.
"Baltimore's a place where we've actually filmed quite a lot," Walker said in a telephone interview last week. "I've been based in D.C. since 2008, and I was there in Baltimore when the Russians were taking over the steelwork plant [Sparrows Point] back in 2009. It's a city that we like because it's close to D.C. and it's a great place to go and get a sense of what's really going on in the country. It's one of the places where the economic crisis has been keenly felt."
In other words, it's the Real America — or, at least, a city within an hour's train ride that feels distinct from Washington. Baltimore's neighborhoods have long been a favorite of international journalists in Washington looking for an America with less marble, more grit and plainspoken citizens who can give voice to some of the nation's more pressing concerns.
"We came to Baltimore in the run-up to 2008 to sort of take the pulse of the city and see how people were feeling about the possibility of the first African-American president to enter the White House and how that might change things for them," Walker said. "We wanted to get a sense of how it might change the war on drugs and the incarceration system that afflicts Baltimore."
The idea for the visit in February was to "basically come back four years later, in the run-up to this election, and see how things had changed and whether there had been a real difference in how the criminal justice system is working now and how people feel about what's been achieved the last four years."
Walker says the producers "broadened it out to look at the larger structural problems, using Baltimore as a way of looking at the system as a whole."
Al Jazeera English is a major journalistic operation that has won Peabody, Robert F. Kennedy and George Polk Awards — among many others. The consensus among media critics is that it covered the Arab Awakening better than any other TV news operation in the world.
"Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Senate Foreign Affairs panel last year. "You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners."
Philip Seib, a University of Southern California professor and author of "The Al Jazeera Effect: How the New Global Media Are Reshaping World Politics," also gives the channel high grades.
"It's good journalism," he says. "When things go crazy in the Middle East, Al Jazeera English is where you go unless you speak Arabic. The television sets throughout the U.S. government last year, when the Arab revolutions were getting under way, were all tuned to Al Jazeera English."
But like all TV news operations, from MSNBC to Fox News, there are certain narratives Al Jazeera English favors. And that also helps explain why Baltimore, with its seemingly endless backdrop of boarded-up rowhouses, is a favorite of the channel.
"Their basic approach to narrative is that they favor the interests of what they call the Global South," Seib says, "which has never been the case with the American and European broadcasting giants in the past. They're sensitive to the idea that they are giving voice to and adopting the outlook of parts of the world that in the past were very much just passive recipients and have been condescended to."
The term Global South is geographic, using the equator as a dividing line.
"North is the U.S., Western Europe and Russia, for that matter," Seib says. "South is black Africa, Latin America and South Asia."
Mohammed el-Nawawy, author of "Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network That Is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism," adds that the channel sees U.S. locations like inner-city Baltimore as just as much a part of the Global South landscape as Asian or African nations that suffered centuries under colonial rule.
"When Al Jazeera English sheds light on the kinds of stories it finds in Baltimore, that for them is Global South right there," says el-Nawawy, the associate professor at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. "And that's more telling for the viewer than the Global South as we traditionally think of it south of the equator, because here you are in a very developed country, you know, in the greatest nation on earth, and you have these stories and you have these situations of people living in these kinds of [dangerous and deprived] situations in Baltimore."
Al Jazeera is up front about its point of view and priorities. "Anatomy of an American City" will debut Tuesday as part of the channel's "Fault Lines" series, which is similar to "Frontline" on PBS. The mission statement says: "Fault Lines takes you behind the U.S. headlines, putting a face to those who are falling through the cracks of society while holding the powerful to account."
It should not be surprising that the producers treat Baltimore's mayor as one of the "powerful" — and what they mainly choose to show is at odds with the upbeat words viewers see and hear Rawlings-Blake sounding in her "State of the City" address near the start of the film.
"We have not seen the documentary yet, so it is impossible to comment on the content," Ian Brennan, the mayor's press secretary, wrote in a statement emailed to The Sun. He said a producer had contacted the mayor's office to discuss "her vision to grow Baltimore and ... our progress in reducing violence. We thought it was a good opportunity to share our story with Al Jazeera English's 260 million viewers. What they made, and how they used the interview with Mayor Rawlings-Blake, is not in our control."
The statement goes on to say: "Mayor Rawlings-Blake talked about our historic lows in homicide, the 10-year decline in overall crime, and how we have successfully reduced juvenile violence and juvenile arrest. She also talked about how, despite three years of budget deficits, the city did not lay off police officers, and invested in technology to further reduce crime."
The words of Rawlings-Blake are part of a highly informed discourse on race, social class, crime, drugs and incarceration within the film. But they primarily play foil to the words of Burns and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow." Alexander and Burns make the case that the so-called war on drugs was a war on civil rights gains, and that it devastated cities like Baltimore, particularly with the astronomical rates of incarceration that it generated.
"It's not a war on drugs," Burns says in words likely to resonate throughout the Global South. "It's a war on the blacks."
Walker says the filmmakers and Al Jazeera English try extra hard to be "objective" in part because of a legacy from the administration ofGeorge W. Bush, which made a concerted effort to brand the channel as a source of dangerous propaganda.
The legacy has resulted in Al Jazeera's being available only on a handful of cable systems even today, USC's Seib says.
The channel is on Comcast, Cox and Verizon Fios in Washington, but nowhere in Baltimore. Millions watch a live stream of Al Jazeera English, however, each week at watchaljazeera.com. The Baltimore documentary premieres at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday with multiple replays throughout the week. After that, it will be available on Al Jazeera's YouTube channel, which receives 8 million views a month, according to the network.
"It's quite a fair film, I think," Walker says. "I wouldn't want people to think we think Baltimore is this stereotype of this city with all of these urban problems that have gone wrong and is without hope… While it's a very depressing film, I hope that it just points out some of the expectations people have for the next president to make some real positive change in the city and try to stop some of the problems people are facing on a daily basis."
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