Franklin's jabs at the mayor stray from truth

His claims on Fox News not supported by facts

Media

July 07, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Chip Franklin appeared on Fox News Channel to play the role of Mayor Martin O'Malley's goader-in-chief. In the words of Fox News' Bill O'Reilly: "Is this guy just insane or what?" Franklin's helpful reply: "He's a bit nutty."

Franklin has made O'Malley a repeated target of jibes on WBAL radio in recent years, and he stayed true to form on national television. "He's out of touch," Franklin said. "He's ignoring the fact that the city - the real problem in the city is to walk some of the streets. Violent crime is up there. Murders are up every year."

He added, "You know, the story with O'Malley is he could be governor now, but [Sen.] Ted Kennedy and the Democrats asked him not to challenge KKT - Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. So he stepped back, she got creamed by Gov. [Robert L.] Ehrlich [Jr.] Now he is just sitting, fuming, he's stewing, because he could have been governor."

As the city's top elected official, O'Malley should expect to take some heat - and even the occasional cheap shot. But Franklin packed at least three questionable statements into his national appearance.

1. "Violent crime is up there."

Not true, according to statistics compiled by the city police. Aggravated assault, robberies and shootings are all down considerably under the O'Malley administration.

2. "Murders are up every year."

Not even close. Homicides dropped (below 300) in 2000, O'Malley's first full year in office, again in 2001 and 2002, and then spiked up in 2003 (but still below the 300 figure). Even if you compare 2003 to 1999, the final year of the Schmoke administration, the annual homicide rate declined by more than 11 percent. This year, so far, homicides are on pace to drop from last year's levels.

3. "The story is ... Ted Kennedy and the Democrats asked him not to challenge KKT."

Aides from the Kennedy, Townsend and O'Malley camps denied in the past that any such request was relayed - by the senator, his surrogates, or anyone else. And no subsequent reporting has turned up any such appeal, whether blatant or subtle. People who work for O'Malley say he made a judgment call based on his love of the city; other political professionals have suggested he made a cool-headed political assessment.

The mayor's camp is regularly annoyed at Franklin, one of the most visible presences for a station that has a lineup of muscular and generally right-of-center voices. "We understand that conservative talk radio is going to take issue with moderate and progressive policies, but we all should be able to agree that it's important to get the facts right," said Steve Kearney, the mayor's spokesman.

Franklin called from vacation to rebut the mayor's objections. "When I say violent crime is up, and he comes after me on the number, we're rearranging the deck chairs," Franklin says, presumably referring to a sinking ship. "So much of this is perception."

Franklin noted that O'Malley came into office disputing the figures of the police department under Kurt L. Schmoke - and found that crimes had not been adequately reported. The reference to Kennedy was "a metaphor," Franklin said, shorthand for the Democrats' unity behind Townsend.

Mayoral aides had previously been angered by a May 27 story on WBAL-AM that seemed to blame the city for a significant portion of the nation's increase in homicides. "Statistics just released by the FBI show Baltimore City accounted for 10 percent of the national increase of 178 homicides across the nation last year," the WBAL story stated. As Baltimore had 18 more homicides in 2003 than 2002, the assertion is mathematically true, but distorting, say leading scholars who specialize in crime and law enforcement issues. Other cities, such as Phoenix and Philadelphia, had far greater increases in the number of murders - 64 and 60, respectively - a point that WBAL noted.

"That percentage increase doesn't have any meaning," says University of Maryland professor Charles Wellford, director of the Maryland Justice Analysis Center. Says Carnegie Mellon University professor Alan Blumstein, director of the National Consortium on Violence Research, "It's certainly a misleading way to present the statistics." Blumstein asks, if the total national increase was 18 - with some cities having even bigger rises in murders, and other equal drops in killings - would Baltimore be responsible for the entire increase?

O'Malley told WBAL, "It doesn't surprise me." Mark S. Miller, WBAL-AM's news director, says O'Malley did not object that morning when asked about the increase as presented in the story. "He didn't take issue with the way it was reported," Miller says.

And yet the standard for whether a story is fair should not simply be whether the subject of a story takes public issue with it.

As a talk show host, and not a reporter, Franklin doesn't work for Miller. Franklin is more like a newspaper columnist who shops around opinions for public consumption. But if he's to play more than the jokester, he needs to be more firmly grounded in the facts.

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