Planned purge and thugs: US media criticized for Baltimore coverage

Residents, protesting the death of 25-year-old black man Freddie Gray, hold signs near riot police who lined the intersection of North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue ahead of a city-wide curfew in Baltimore, Maryland April 28, 2015. (Reuters/Adrees Latif)
The mainstream US media are facing criticism over their coverage of unrest in Baltimore. Activists and residents claim the media ignored peaceful marches, focused on labels and violence, and ignored the chronic issues of poverty and police misconduct.

Protesters shouted down Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera, who arrived in Baltimore shortly before the curfew on Tuesday. They blocked his camera and accused Fox News of lying and “false coverage.” Maryland state legislator Catherine Pugh helped extract the angry and flustered Rivera from the crowd.

Fox and other networks were accused of ignoring the peaceful marches and gatherings that were previously protesting the death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray in police custody. Gray’s spine was severed under unexplained circumstances and he passed away earlier this month.

“When we were out here protesting all last week for six days straight peacefully, there were no news cameras, there were no helicopters, there was no riot gear, and nobody heard us,” protester Danielle Williams told MSNBC's Thomas Roberts on Tuesday. “So now that we've burned down buildings and set businesses on fire and looted buildings, now all of the sudden everybody wants to hear us.”

Fox News host Shepard Smith, speaking on “The Five,” also pointed out that the media has ignored Baltimore’s chronic issues, including the Gray affair.

“We’ve got a major American city that has decades – decades – of turmoil within this neighborhood,” Smith said. “One quarter of the youth locked up. Clearly there is a big problem. Then all of a sudden, an African-American man is taken into a vehicle, and he comes out of it and dies – and you get nothing from authorities except a suspension. And those who would do harm take an opportunity to do harm. And here we are.”

Ferguson community organizer Deray McKesson called out CNN host Wolf Blitzer for pushing him to denounce violence. McKesson said that the real perpetrators of violence had been the police around the US, who have killed over 300 people just this year.

“We’re not making comparisons, obviously,” Blitzer replied. “I just want to hear you say there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests, in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King?”

“You are making a comparison,” McKesson said. “You are suggesting this idea that broken windows are worse than broken spines, right? … Freddie Gray will never be back. Those windows will.”

McKesson also criticized city officials for calling black people “thugs.” Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was the first to use the term, describing the rioters as such at a press conference on Monday evening. She later tried to walk it back.

City Councilman Carl Stokes was exasperated by CNN host Erin Burnett’s use of the word.

“No, it’s not the right word to call our children ‘thugs,’” Stokes said. “These are children who have been set aside, marginalized, who have not been engaged by us.”

“But how does that justify what they did?” Burnett pressed. “That’s a sense of right and wrong. They know it’s wrong to steal and burn down a CVS and an old persons’ home. I mean, come on.”

“Come on?! Just call them n*ggers. Just call them n*ggers,” Stokes replied. “When you say, ‘Come on,’ come on what?”

Comedy host Jon Stewart also took issue with the media coverage of Baltimore unrest, singling out CNN’s Wolf Blitzer’s statement that Monday’s imagery was “hard to believe.”

“Elvis leading a herd of orthodox Jewish unicorns through a city street – that would be hard to believe,” Stewart chided Blitzer in Tuesday’s edition of The Daily Show. “Ferguson was just a few months ago, and you were talking about it.”

American cities, Stewart said, appear to have only two states: normal and “on fire.”

“Maybe a more nuanced alert system could allow for more productive intervention beyond, ‘You have 10 seconds to disperse,’” Stewart argued. “Or we could agree to keep ignoring the roots of how systemically, historically disenfranchised many African-American communities still are, only paying attention to them when their periodic fiery ball of anger threatens to enter our airspace like some kind of Alex Haley’s comet. And once again breathing a blissful sigh of forgetful relief when it’s another near-miss.”

Meanwhile, Baltimore teachers and students complained to Mother Jones magazine that the official story about a planned “purge” was a fabrication. Baltimore police deployed officers in riot gear at the Mondawmin Mall in northwestern Baltimore on Monday afternoon, claiming that social media chatter was calling for a riot inspired by “The Purge,” a 2013 film about a world where all laws are suspended for a day.

With the major transportation hub for high school students closed, hundreds of teens were stranded at Mondawmin and, at some point, clashes with the police began. However, no evidence of social media posts calling for a “purge” has ever been produced.