The Sun's David Zurawik talks about TV coverage of the Super Bowl, on WYPR FM's 'Take on Television'

In a majority-black city with a black mayor and majority-black City Council, it seems perfectly natural that its professional team would be led by a black star. But don’t expect everyone in the country to react positively to it, given the NFL’s and their TV partners’ history of celebrating the Peyton Mannings and Tom Bradys of the league.

HBO’s “The Wire” encountered the same issues in attempting to reflect the diversity of Baltimore. It featured black actors and it offered black characters as police officers, criminals and politicians who were complex, multifaceted human beings viewers came to care about. That was one of the series’ many gifts to American culture, but it was also the reason some TV executives and analysts privately said it would never find a hit-size audience.

That was also the case with NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street,” another Baltimore-made quality drama. Again, black stars and brilliant complex black characters like Detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher).

In fact, one of the replies to Meyers’ tweet was: “Detective Frank Pembleton vs. Detective Lt. Mike Stone? Pembleton 3-to-1. #HomicideLifeOnTheStreetsOfSanFrancsico.”

Maybe Twitter is the way we now talk about race in the media without having to mention it. We can blame the omission on the demands of brevity.

Lewis is a lot like one of those characters on “The Wire,” a criminal by virtue of pleading guilty to obstruction of justice in the Atlanta murder cases who now has a street named after him and is seen as a source of inspiration by some. That’s a complicated identity in a world of one-dimensional media labels. Lewis further complicates his image by marching to his own drummer and doing so with a red-hot fervor on television at a time when the medium celebrates being ironic, detached and “cool.”

Ravens fans got a taste last week of how complicated a figure Lewis is in the minds of many outside the city. Forbes magazine contracted the social media research firm Fizziology to look at Lewis’ image on the eve of the Super Bowl.

“For all the great storylines attached to the 2013 Super Bowl ... one player is the recipient of mixed feelings from the masses,” the subsequent article said.

Fizziology found “that even with Lewis’ consistent devotion and declaration of his faith, combined with his excellent play on the field, approximately 1 in 5 U.S. social mentions around the linebacker were analyzed as negative or mixed.”

And about one out of every two of the negative or mixed mentions referenced “his involvement” in the Atlanta deaths.

The underdog

There is, of course, more to the image of Baltimore than just Ray Lewis and race.

Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain agrees that color plays a major role in the image of the Ravens. But in his mind, it’s blue, not black, that matters most — as in blue collar.

“Hard work, hard work, hard work and being an underdog — that’s what I think the team represents and that’s what Baltimore represents,” he said Thursday. “It’s a blue-collar city that understands what a hard day’s work is. And that’s what the Baltimore Ravens are: a blue-collar team that knows what a hard day’s work is. And is always the underdog.”

McClain will be representing the Ravens and Baltimore in another TV production Feb. 8 when the USA channel premieres “NFL Characters Unite.”

In the film, “Jameel is paired with an 8-year old boy from Baltimore, Jesse, who faces similar issues to what Jameel endured as a teen — both grew up in poverty, facing homelessness and hardship,” the channel says.

McClain’s analysis of Baltimore is echoed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who says both the Ravens and the city have often been “undervalued.”

“Baltimore has a history of resilience and guts and triumphs over major obstacles,” she says. “That mirrors the history of the Ravens.”

At the heart of that narrative, which she hopes will prevail tonight in New Orleans, is Lewis.

“Ray is a great example of focus, persistence and the power of motivation,” she says.

Part Cedric Daniels. Part Omar Little. As complicated and contradictory as the city he will represent to many of the expected 112 TV million viewers tonight. #LastRideEndsInGlory.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com
@davidzurawik on Twitter