A Different Kind Of Leadership: How politicians and white media continually fail Black Baltimore

Last week, Loyola professor and WEAA radio host Dr. Kaye was live on WJZ, talking about what’s next for Baltimore after Catherine Pugh’s resignation, when anchor Mary Bubala asked the question.

“We’ve had three female African-American mayors in a row, they were all passionate public servants, two resigned, though,” Bubala asked. “Is it a signal that a different kind of leadership is needed to move Baltimore forward?”

Since two Black women in power had scandals, Bubala seemed to be asking, wouldn’t all of them?

Video of the question went viral. I saw it when Nicki Mayo, president of the Baltimore Association of Black Journalists, shared it on Twitter.

The question Bubala posed wasn’t only racist and sexist, it put Dr. Kaye in the awkward position of having to speak for every member of her race and sex. How can you even begin to answer that question?

Whitehead answered the question by talking about the things that Pugh had accomplished through the course of her career. She addressed the question further Monday on her show.

“It speaks to a bigger broader issue. It speaks to where we are in this country, it speaks to where we have always been in this country, and it speaks to where we want to go in this country,” she said. “It is very clear to me that we are still having an issue with sharing the issues around race and we need to get to a point…where race and gender are not determining factor in how we see ourselves, how we judge our leaders, or how we allow people to have access to positions of power.”

My initial response to the question was anger. How could the actions of two Black women shut all of Black women out as contenders for the office? Why isn’t the same kind of question posed to white people, especially white men?

Because of my work as a journalist, a Black journalist in particular, and especially now as head of Baltimore Beat, I’m sometimes called on to offer similar commentary. In fact, I saw Mayo’s tweet not long after speaking about Pugh’s resignation myself on WYPR’s “On The Record With Sheilah Kast.” On that day, just like every time I start speaking into a microphone, I knew I wasn’t just speaking for myself, I was speaking for every other person who looks like me. I know that my being there is an anomaly. It’s not often that brown girls are asked for their opinions. It’s a lot to shoulder.

Bubala’s question solidified what I already knew: that there is an enormous amount of pressure that comes with being a Black woman. You can’t get mad about anything, because then you are seen as difficult, angry. You can’t be too loud, too happy, too imperfect, too anything—because then you are dismissed.

“When people ask how it feels to be the first or one of the few black women at my job, I tell them I feel pressure,” tweeted Black lawyer Alexis Sykes in response to video of the WJZ incident. “These type of dumb questions are why. Just like all white people aren’t the same, neither are all black people. We are individual humans just like you.”

My next response to Bubala’s question was hurt. Racism is a painful thing to comprehend, and the double shot of hate you get when you are also a woman makes it worse. It hurts to know that you will be completely underestimated, completely shut out, no matter how pure your motivations and how excellent you are.

It would be easy to write Bubala’s comment off as just a slip of the tongue. She said as much in a tweet apologizing for the incident. “I asked  question that did not come out the way I intended,” she tweeted. “I am devastated that the words I used portray me as someone that I know I am not.”

Mistake or not, the question didn’t come out of nowhere. There are many people who doubt Black women are fit to lead and they’ve said as much during the fallout from this incident. We should be able to discuss a Black woman’s political legacy without grouping every single Black woman who ever lived into the conversation. But that’s what part of what racism does. It doesn’t allow us complexity.

This has never made sense—racism really doesn’t make sense anyway — but it is even more ridiculous as our national political landscape is dominated by rich, white men and women doing all kinds of unethical things. That doesn’t make the scandal that eventually engulfed Pugh’s administration acceptable, it only makes arguments like the one Bubala tried to make even more ridiculous. Donald Trump is in the White House. Maryland’s governor is Larry Hogan, a politician posing as the anti-Trump even as he dabbles in dogwhistle racism and casts this city as corrupt and mismanaged (and maintains involvement in his real estate company).

Baltimore Fishbowl wrote about Bubala’s question and the outrage that it sparked almost immediately. On Twitter, Senior Editor Ethan McLeod expressed shock at the way some readers reacted to the story.  “The comments we’re getting on this @baltimorefishbowl” — ‘sometimes the media gets it right;’ ‘she should run for mayor,’ –are exactly why media (yes,us too) deserves close scrutiny. But especially TV news,” he wrote.

It’s not lost on me that most of the people reporting on, or guiding the reporting on Catherine Pugh’s story don’t look like her, and that matters. How can you understand the nuance of being a Black woman in power if you have never experienced and don’t seem interested in inviting Black women to speak on the subject in a meaningful way? That could have been what happened with Bubala and Whitehead, but it didn’t.

One of my complaints about some Black media is that, as much as I love and support it and recognize why it is needed, I often wish they’d be tougher on Black politicians. Essence, for example, ran a piece on Pugh just as the scandal was breaking. “Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, the city’s 50th mayor, says she is laser-focused on the job at hand,” the piece, published on March 18, read. Editors later amended the story to reference the Healthy Holly scandal, but it never even touched on any of Pugh’s political beliefs that could use a critical eye—like her push for mandatory minimum sentencing on gun possession charges or the way she changed her stance on raising the minimum wage. You see this too with coverage of Marilyn Mosby who deserves—and surely can withstand—a critical eye rather than “black girl magic”-fueled pieces praising her.

The Afro, Baltimore’s historic Black paper, broke the news Pugh was resigning and provided her further cover during this political storm at the same time. In a piece, published on the morning of the day Pugh resigned, it said that Pugh had told Afro publisher Rev. Dr. Frances “Toni” Draper she was resigning. It did not feature any quotes from Pugh, so you had to take the Afro entirely at its word (they added quotes to the story later).

The story then noted that Draper was part of a prayer circle for Pugh and what followed was an overwrought description of the prayer circle that also critiqued the hawk-like ways reporters have covered Pugh. That critique has merit. Reporters—white reporters primarily—posted up at her home for days began to look cruel rather than dogged. The response to that though, with what is ostensibly a puff piece, is not the answer. It wasn’t something I would have done, but questions like Bubala’s let us know there’s a reason for this overcorrection: White, mainstream media has not been fair to us.

Then when the Baltimore Sun reported that Pugh would be resigning later that day, they made no mention of the Afro, which whatever one thinks of their story, did report the resignation first.

This summer, I did a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review about minorities in media. As part of my reporting, I asked the Sun for statistics about what their newsroom looks like. After much hemming and hawing, I finally got the numbers: at the time the piece went to press, just 20 percent of the Sun’s newsroom were people of color. I I have worked at WJZ, and I’ve worked at the Sun. I know how few faces in those newsrooms look like mine and I know that means many parts of the story that we are telling about who were are as a community are missing.

Racism steals a lot from us. It steals time—I’d love to focus on what’s next instead of taking time to address racism and sexism that is almost as old as time. It steals people who are legitimately talented and bright.

Bubala said the quiet part loud. We already knew, or should have known, that this would happen. How many Black women will be denied opportunities to lead just because of what happened with Pugh?

And already, people are starting male-dominated lists of who should run the city next. How is it that former Baltimore City Police spokesperson TJ Smith, who has no experience running government and who oversaw the media side of a corrupt police department, considered a front runner in the next mayoral election over any number of Black women who are already actively doing the work? Senator Mary Washington has rightly been mentioned. What about Senator Jill Carter, who is the person who set the Pugh scandal into motion? For decades, Carter has been pushing for many of the police reforms that are just now becoming part of mainstream political conversation. During the last legislative session, she was one of the few voices that spoke out against a private police force for Johns Hopkins University. There’s also City Councilperson Shannon Sneed, Delegates Robbyn Lewis, Stephanie Smith, and Melissa Wells?

How many more women would run for public office or take on even higher positions, if they didn’t have to wear the weight of racism and sexism on their backs along with the very difficult job of holding office? How much more effective would they be in helping marginalized communities if they didn’t have to kowtow to respectability politics given life and breath through white media?

Monday afternoon, the Baltimore Association of Black Journalists released a statement addressing the Bubala question and the television station’s response to it.

“The implicit bias presented in Bubala’s interview should be addressed company-wide at WJZ-TV, with a concerted effort to avoid marginalizing by race and gender, particularly in a city whose population reflects its leadership demographics,” the letter read.

The group demanded that Bubala apologize on-air and also address incorrect reporting from late April that claimed Pugh had left the state. Instead, WJZ fired Bubala. “Mary Bubala is no longer a WJZ-TV employee. The station apologizes to its viewers for her remarks,” General Manager Audra Swain said in a statement.

Firing Bubala debatably, has the effect of addressing the immediate concern (I’m really not sure firing someone is the solution here). It also allowed WJZ to avoid looking at their organization as a whole.

It was also not what the Baltimore Association of Black Journalists requested. I have reached out to WJZ to ask if they plan on addressing the incident on-air and have so far received no answer. If WJZ wants to make amends they need to apologize to Whitehead for putting her in that position. This incident needs to be more than an unfortunate viral moment to be brushed under the rug by firing.

“We did not call for the firing of WJZ anchor Mary Bubala. We were very specific in asking for an on-air apology because that would have been an apology in the same manner in which the offense was dealt out,” Mayo told me in a phone call on Tuesday.

It was a great example of news media once again not listening to Black journalists.

“This was a teachable moment and they blew it,” she added.

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