A truly fascinating adventure in journalism is playing out this week.
British journalist Mark Hughes, in an exchange program with the Baltimore Sun (who sent their crime reporter, Justin Fenton, to London), has been in Baltimore recently, hanging out with our beleaguered police department. While he’s here, he’s been filing reports for his own The Independent, a London daily. Let’s just say that his stories have not been helpful for the Baltimore Tourism Department. The English best know Baltimore from the HBO crime drama “The Wire,” which portrays Charm City as, well, let’s say less than charming. Baltimore officials have long complained that the show promotes a false image of the city for the sake of ratings. Are they right?
Here’s an excerpt from a Hughes story:
“This was Baltimore exactly as I have seen it countless times on The Wire, but on this occasion it was real life. It was a Tuesday night, on the corner of West Fayette and North Carey streets, and it was the evening’s first shooting. There would be four more before the end of the shift. Two of the five, including this one, were fatal.”
Hughes has also reported on the corruption trial of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, and her contentious relationship with the Baltimore City Police Department. Unfortunately, neither Dixon nor Police Chief Bealefeld would make themselves available to be interviewed for the stories, no doubt because there’s little good to be said about Baltimore’s out of control crime problem. Not that Dixon and Bealefeld are entirely to blame – there have been five Police Commissioners in the last ten years, and Dixon is relatively new to the job. They’re just the latest in a long line of politicians and appointees to be swallowed up by the hopeless morass that is Baltimore City, and they are obviously very touchy about it.
Others are less hesitant to explore Baltimore’s deficiencies. In 1989, Maryland Senate President Mike Miller told a WBAL TV 11 reporter that “Baltimore is a (expletive) ghetto. It’s worse than inner city Washington, D.C.” In 1997, authors David Simon and Edward Burns released “The Corner,” an expose of Baltimore’s drug and poverty-driven neighborhoods. Of course, if you live in the city, this is not art, this is your reality.
Meanwhile, Fenton’s stories note that Britain’s police use of DNA evidence is futuristic compared to Baltimore’s, and that the sound of fireworks reminded him of home. His fourteen hour ride-along to the “underbelly” of Manchester produced contacts with a car full of pot-smoking teenagers, a kid whose bike riding behavior raised false suspicions, a slightly inebriated (but not technically drunk) driver, and a fruitless search for a man with a vegetable knife and a home that was wrongly believed to have been burglarized. Hughes, on the other hand, found himself at the scene of a shooting only minutes after he got into town. Awesome.
The two reporters have also been blogging about their experiences. These blogs reveal a contrast that could best be described in a SAT-type analogy: London is to Baltimore as Paris is to Mogadishu. Tremendous.
What all of this journalism convincingly demonstrates is that we big-city Americans exist in a frightening world largely unknown to the people of other industrialized nations. Because of our equal devotion both to the rights of gun owners and the rights of criminals, we suffer from a preponderance of both. It’s a bad combination.
Of course, were we to give up these rights, we might begin to address the violence inherent in American society, but we all know that’s not going to happen. Americans fear government encroachment and the loss of civil liberties far more than they fear for their lives. Is this rational? Probably not, but it’s part of the American DNA, and there’s no escaping it. As a people, we will consent to be destroyed from within rather than give an inch where personal freedoms are concerned.
So yes, London, I guess “The Wire” is a pretty accurate portrayal of Baltimore after all. There’s no need to pity us – this is the society we have chosen. We complain about it ( a lot), but really, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
And congratulations, Baltimore – this is your life.