Baltimore as America CNN finds the nation's voice is well-represented here

January 31, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

MEN AND WOMEN FROM Patapsco High School Class of '66 sit around a picnic table as night falls on the eve of their 25th reunion and talk in sad and angry words about their hometown and hard times at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrow's Point plant.

A man in a baseball cap stands at the bar of Schwartz's crab house and explains why he recently wrote a campaign contribution check to presidential candidate David Duke, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Chesapeake Bay in a golden wash of sunset. Body bags loaded into an ambulance as police look on. The Inner Harbor all aglitter at night. Duckpin bowling in Dundalk. The Kenwood High School marching band at a pep rally. The riots of 1968.

These are some of the pictures and images of Baltimore CNN will be telecasting nationally in prime time Sunday night at 9 when it airs "The Peoples' Agenda," a two-hour report on the concerns of American voters.

The report is the centerpiece of CNN's launch of its Election '92 coverage. It is an effort, says Tom Hannon, CNN political director, to put the concerns of voters back into the discourse of electoral politics and not concentrate solely on the candidates as they travel the campaign trail.

It remains to be seen whether the program and other CNN political coverage will have the long-term effect Hannon hopes for. But the report -- which features Bernard Shaw as anchor and Ken Bode, Art Harris and Brooks Jackson as reporters -- is an ambitious, vivid, fast-paced, thoughtful and ultimately illuminating piece that goes well beyond most TV efforts of national news organizations to report the concerns of people living outside Washington, Los Angeles or New York.

There are flaws. The most serious is that, like much TV reporting, it tends to heighten conflict and paint groups as being more polarized than they may, in fact, be. Reports on crime and race especially feel like the producers may have turned the flames up an extra notch or two. Watch those with care.

Also be careful about expecting this report to be a portrait of life in Baltimore. It isn't.

But it was never intended to be, according to CNN. In an interview in Washington, Jackson and Jim Connor, one of the producers for the report, said they were not in any way trying to paint a representative picture of Baltimore.

They were, instead, trying to find people in Baltimore who were representative of what polls told them voters were feeling across thenation. That's an important distinction.

"The process was to distill from the national polling data . . . a number of issues most important to the public and then go find people . . . whose personal lives dramatized some part of those national concerns . . . people who spoke for other people in the nation," Jackson said.

Connor and Jackson said one thing that distinguishes this report from many other out-there-in-America specials is that the CNN producers and reporters were in the Baltimore area on and off from July through December finding "real people."

"We found these folks ourselves by going to Baltimore County senior centers,going to the Dundalk Chamber of Commerce, all sorts of little places," Connor said. "It took time."

Why Baltimore?

Jackson and Connor said it's a "real" city with diverse neighborhoods, an ethnic mix that mirrors the nation (except in its small number of Hispanics) and, not unimportant in these cost-conscious days, it's close to Washington where Hannon's political unit and Executive Producer Pamela Hill's special assignment team, which co-produced the report, are based.

Sunday's report seems to support the claims of Jackson and Connor about finding real people "with stories to tell" about national concerns.

Listen to Linda Groth, talking about changes from 1966 to today at the Sparrows Point plant in the portion of the report titled "End of the Dream":

"And all of our parents or someone we knew worked there. . . . And it's a ghost town down there now. . . . It's sad to come across that bridge and see the darkness down there."

In a section on race relations titled "The Great Divide," the narrator states that "high on the people's agenda this year -- as it has been in previous elections -- is white anger at government assistance to blacks." At a meeting with taxpayers, Louis L. DePazzo, a state representative from Baltimore County, who doesn't consider himself a racist, asks: "How much are we gonna have to pay for what happened 150 years ago?"

Then the show moves to West Baltimore, where Ron Bailey, who runs youth activities at a community center, says: "People will often go to blacks and say that they are . . . the people who get the most out of social services and that's not true . . . and those statistics show that there are more whites on social services than blacks."

The voices you hear will linger and affect how you see your own life and the upcoming election. Voices like that of Bill Randolph, from the Patapsco High School group talking about Sparrows Point in the gathering darkness:

"Something's got to change. You can't take these people that built this country and fought and died and sent kids off to wars. You can't throw them out on the damn woodpile."

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