Mary Bubala gets her shot at professional redemption now, hooking up this week with WBFF Fox 45 after an act of momentary self-sabotage while anchoring last spring at WJZ-TV’s “Eyewitness News.”
Everybody around here remembers the story. Back in May, during a live segment about Mayor Catherine Pugh and the “Healthy Holly” book scandal, Bubala asked Dr. Kaye White, who teaches communication and African and African American Studies at Loyola University, a truly bonehead, unconsciously racist question.
“We’ve had three female African-American mayors in a row,” Bubala said, referring to Sheila Dixon, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Pugh. “They were all passionate public servants. Two resigned, though. Is it a signal that a different kind of leadership is needed to move Baltimore City forward?”
Would any reporter ever say, “We’ve had several Jews in a row” – or Italians, Greeks or any minority – and frame the question that way?
Of course not, because the specific shortcomings of Dixon and Pugh had nothing to do with their race and everything to do with their character as individuals. And by phrasing the question that way – narrowing it down to that common denominator – Bubala was thoughtlessly poking a finger into ancient, festering American wounds.
She was also feeding into ancient blood libels about certain minorities – take your choice, every American minority’s been targeted at one time or another – being incapable of handling the job because of their race, religion or ethnic background.
Highly embarrassed, Bubala immediately issued an apology.
“I am so very sorry,” she tweeted. “The way my question came out was not what I intended to ask because race and gender are irrelevant to one’s leadership abilities. I combined two questions in my head during a live interview and said something I didn’t mean to.”
When the Baltimore Association of Black Journalists called for an on-air apology, Bubala issued a Facebook post saying she requested that opportunity but the bosses – it’s unclear if it was WJZ or its CBS parent company – said no.
A few days later, Bubala was gone from the station.
Her embarrassment and apology were, of course, based on professional fears. She knew there would be rough public reaction. But there were personal reasons, too. I only know Bubala a little bit, but I know a lot of people – black and white – who know her well, and they universally describe her as fair-minded and unbiased.
But she lost her job anyway.
It didn’t matter that, in a 20-year career filled with high-pressure moments, there had never been a whisper of prejudice. The bosses panicked. They thought there would be overwhelming public outcries, and they wanted to cut them off before pressure mounted.
In fact, there was quite a public outcry – against the station, for so callously firing her over what was clearly a momentary mistake uttered in the pressure of a live television moment.
Local TV stations are in a continuous state of panic these days. Nobody’s watching. There are too many other venues, and some of them do actual news reporting.
The irony is, WJZ, once the clear ratings leader in town, may have unwittingly encouraged lots of their remaining viewers to follow Bubala and start tuning into her new professional home.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Tonight at 6: A Daily Show Masquerading as Local TV News” (Apprentice House). His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.