TV broadcast gives powerful juxtaposition

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Stereotype: When WBAL-TV played the tape of Col. James L. Hawkins Jr. speaking to 911, his stuttering manner upset many.

May 09, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Jayne Miller was off in Florida covering the hype of the Ravens' drive to the Super Bowl, and she initially missed the story of the bungled sting. But her follow-up piece on WBAL-TV last week showed the visceral power of television news, as competitors and public officials scrambled to respond.

In January, Col. James L. Hawkins Jr. sought to show Lt. Regis L. Phelan was inappropriately driving a department car to his Westminster home. Hawkins arranged a trap, slipping into the car and spiriting off with it to test whether Phelan would lie about taking the car home.

Phelan didn't. He reported the car stolen to state police, who launched an investigation. Yet Hawkins still called 911, disguising his voice, claiming to report a suspicious car - the department's car. Commissioner Edward T. Norris said both men were in big trouble.

All of this was reported in January. And little subsequently happened.

In April, however, Miller sought to learn how much time had been squandered by state and city police agencies on Hawkins' sting effort. She asked the police department for materials, including recordings of police radio transmissions and that 911 call. And when she obtained the call late last month, it became a story in itself.

As Hawkins pointed out, he never intended his call to become public. But it was part of the public record. And on the news last Wednesday, Miller played nearly the entire audio tape.

In talking with the dispatcher, Hawkins spoke in a tone utterly unlike his confident baritone, instead stuttering in an eager-to-please and uncertain manner. Because the images and sound were so powerful when broadcast on television, the juxtaposition was jarring.

And that tone - reminiscent to some listeners of "Stepin Fetchit" stereotypes - took over the story. Only after he knew that Miller had spoken to Norris did Hawkins agree to an interview, getting someone in the department to slip her a note as she left the commissioner's office. Suddenly, the free-lanced integrity test was again on the front-burner.

City Council President Sheila Dixon called for Hawkins' demotion. Leaders from organizations representing the city's black police officers and churches condemned Hawkins for racial insensitivity, although the colonel himself is African-American.

And equally sudden, Hawkins, whose actions four months earlier had not prompted any formal inquiry before, found himself under investigation by Norris. By the weekend, Deputy Commissioner Barry W. Powell also became a target of the review. Once-hidden fissures within the top levels of the department were starting to reveal themselves - and Miller has placed herself perfectly to cover them.

In an interview for this column, Miller says her focus was, and remains, the waste of time by police prompted by Hawkins' actions. Norris and Dixon said Hawkins' deceptive 911 call was more serious than its offensive tone.

One wonders, however, whether the story would have packed the same punch on television if viewers hadn't heard the police colonel - first in the bizarre 911 call, then in Miller's interview as a proud professional under siege.

Sermon on sports

Was that really Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler reading the sports news unto us on television Monday night? In fact, it was, and "he did pretty good," said Kevin Anderson, sports producer at WBAL-TV.

The region's Roman Catholic archbishop was first asked to be a "celebrity sportscaster" - a sweeps-period tradition stretching back several years at WBAL - last spring, but his schedule wouldn't allow it. For Monday's broadcast, sports anchor Gerry Sandusky tailored the report to a religious theme, including items about NHL's New Jersey Devils, baseball's St. Louis Cardinals, and the NFL's New Orleans Saints.

Anderson suggested Keeler made the appearance because it "puts the cardinal in a different light." Aides to the cardinal could not be reached for comment, but the archdiocese's Web site had touted his WBAL spot, even adding the admonition: "Woe to the New Jersey Devils, who face elimination tonight." Alas for the cardinal, the Devils survived.

Other celebrity sportscasters are scheduled through the week.

Charmed by the city

WJFK (1300 AM) abruptly removed G. Gordon Liddy's syndicated talk show at the start of May, replacing him with Fox Sports talk show host Jim Rome. The station, home of the Baltimore Ravens, told him it sought an even greater emphasis on sports. While station official Bob Phillips did not return a call seeking comment, Liddy says that he's in active negotiations to return to the air here.

"I spent three weeks in Baltimore during my successful defense of the Wells [libel] case in the United States District Court in March and really enjoyed the vibrant life of the city," the colorful Watergate felon says by e-mail. "Last October 8th I participated in the 5K `Race for the Cure' in Baltimore and rang in the new year last December at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel. I love Baltimore, and it will be good to be back."

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