Jayne Miller has been a continuous and vigorous presence on Baltimore television for decades, and as the chief investigative reporter for WBAL-TV, has deployed tenacity and passion to break some of the biggest stories in the region.
On July 6, WBAL announced that Miller will be retiring at the end of the month, bringing an end to one of the most noteworthy careers in regional journalism. Baltimore Fishbowl is republishing the “Big Fish” Q&A conducted with Miller earlier this year.
She started in journalism in 1975, joining a newspaper while still a Penn State undergraduate. Her first television job came the following year, and she joined WBAL-TV in 1979. She briefly joined CBS News, but returned to Baltimore in 1983, and is approaching 40 consecutive years with the station – a remarkable run.
In February, Jayne was awarded the Radio Television Digital News Foundation’s lifetime achievement award. It is just the latest in a string of accolades. In 2016, she won a DuPont Award from Columbia Journalism School. In 2012, she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award. She has twice been named by “Baltimore Magazine” as one of the 50 most powerful people in the region.
Miller talked with Baltimore Fishbowl about what’s changed, and what has stayed the same, since she got in the business, along with her thoughts about urban planning as a tool to help neighborhoods, and her views on journalists being involved in their communities.
BFB: Sometimes us print journalism folks have looked down our noses at TV people. But you have a newspaper background, and your skill set is unmatched. What are the skills you need to be a successful journalist?
Jayne Miller: I tell folks that want to be involved in journalism, if you’re not a curious person — if you don’t always wonder ‘Why did that happen? What happened?’ — then it is not the right profession.
I grew up in a really small town in Pennsylvania that had a volunteer fire company, and when the fire siren went off, in the middle of the night, when I was eight, I’d be the first one out the door, to see what’s going on. If you don’t have that sense of curiosity, then you don’t belong in journalism. There’s a lot of other jobs you can do. They’re perfectly fine. But not journalism.
The second quality that I think is so lost these days is to have an innate sense of fairness. I really mean that you’re able to see the underdog story, you’re able to see all sides of a story. I’m not talking about “both-sides-ism.” I’m talking about fairness. There are many, many people who never get a fair shot. And I just think as journalists, we need to be interested enough in the lives of people and everything that they go through in a day, to be able to say ‘This is just not fair.’
I take phone calls every day from people who are in some situation where they feel like they don’t have any recourse. They feel like nobody’s listening to them. And I have always thought through the course of my career in journalism, that that is really an obligation of journalists, because we have influence and we have power. We have power to get answers for people. If you are going to be a journalist, then you need to have a really strong sense of fairness, and to be almost offended when people say ‘Why won’t people listen to me.’ As a journalist, you really have to go to bat for people.
BFB: So when you’re going to bat for these people, you’re also holding institutions accountable. But if I’m, say, the Deputy Mayor of Baltimore, and Jayne Miller’s coming, I don’t want to talk to her. If I’m the secretary of the State Department of Environment, and Jayne Miller is coming after me with a microphone, I’m in trouble. How do you deal with that in your profession?
Jayne Miller: Actually, I think that I have had a reputation for being fair, so that people don’t run away. I mean, they may not want to talk to me. But they respond. And I treat them fairly. I think one of the reasons that journalism is under pressure is because it’s losing its reputation for that, that it’s not fair and it’s not objective, and it picks and chooses winners and losers as opposed to kind of telling a straight story. But I have found over the years that, yeah, I have that reputation, but, you know, people respond to me and they usually answer my phone call. And, and again, I’m going to be fair to them.
BFB: You have raised questions about perceptions of media. And I think if you’re in television, you get lumped together sometimes with people you might not want to be. Tucker Carlson is in your business. And you know, the folks at MSNBC are in your business. How do you get people to understand where the lines need to be drawn between you as an investigative television journalist, and talking heads on cable?
Jayne Miller: First of all, you need to do good work, on a daily basis, every day, every newscast, so it doesn’t start to sound like you’re taking this side or that side. Number two, actually as long as it was cable and broadcast, it was distinguishable. But the biggest issue is really social media. Social media throws everything in the same pot of stew. Every day I deal with it on my social media. I mean, when I retire, I can’t wait to either get off of it altogether. Especially with COVID, it has been a real situation with all this misinformation, and I get called all kinds of things. I’m not going to respond to people that have no name. The vast majority of people that are trolling you on social media do not have a name, or have some handle so you know who they are. There are occasions when I will respond to clarify information if I think someone has misinterpreted something. The misinformation around this pandemic, and the response to it is profound. And it has been a daily challenge.
BFB: Let’s switch gears and talk about the work in your career that you are most proud of.
Jayne Miller: I did a couple of things that had really big impacts. One of them was in the mid-1980s, there was a situation of a nine-year-old girl who was the fatal victim of child abuse. We were able to reveal a lot of confidential stuff about how the system had completely allowed her to fall through the cracks, multiple reports of serious child abuse from doctors, schools, etc. And I think as the result of that reporting, there was improvement in the system. At the time they had a manual system, and the big question was could they easily track really serious cases? And the answer at that time was no. And I think that changed.
Not long after that I got involved in the Kirk Bloodsworth case. And, of course, Kirk is the main reason we don’t have a death penalty in Maryland. This was a risky piece of reporting. I was essentially raising a question about whether there was a fair prosecution of a man who was accused of — probably to this day — the most horrific crime I’ve ever covered. A little girl was brutalized. And what I was really trying to raise is was this kind of a rush to judgment, and a rush to prosecution. With a case like that, no matter who the defendant was sitting in that chair, because that was such a grisly case and an awful case, they’re gonna be convicted….So we all know the rest of the story. And probably one of the moments I always talk about is when Kirk called me from prison in 1993. He was crying, and could barely speak, and this is when the DNA testing came back, to exonerate him. You don’t get a lot of opportunities to do work like that.
And then, I did a lot of work in the early 2000s about the mortgage servicing industry. And that led to some changes in standards and practices, and the FTC got involved.
We were really the first to raise questions about the governor’s purchase of those tests from a South Korean company which didn’t have emergency use authorization yet and, and we all know what happened, they had to get swapped out, they had to buy more of them.
I’m really interested in doing work that kind of sheds light on best practices or brings attention to things that may not get a lot of attention.
BFB: With the level of respect you have, you can say to an assigning producer or general manager ‘Well, you know, that’s a bullshit story.’ A younger reporter probably doesn’t have the ability. So how do you mentor that reporter? Is that part of your role?
Jayne Miller: We’re very lucky at WBAL-TV, because we have a lot of experienced reporters. So there are any number of them, they’re gonna say, ‘That’s BS, let’s do this instead.’ We do have younger employees with less experience, and we do try to bring attention to things that are important, to bring perspective to it. I think that’s the role of leadership anywhere, to apply your experience to the current situation, in the current organization to help mentor.
One of the ways for journalism to get stronger is hiring people who don’t look like you, who may not think like you, and means promoting them, mentoring them, supporting them, paying them. And I don’t think there’s anywhere near enough mentoring that goes on in corporate America and in organizations to really help.
BFB: Even though you were born in Pennsylvania and went to Penn State, you’ve been in Baltimore a long time. How has Baltimore changed? What’s the difference now versus the 1980s?
Jayne Miller: Well, number one, the violence hasn’t changed. And that’s where people really lose sight. They think that we’ve only had this violence for the past seven or eight years. No, no, we’ve had violence all along. And sometimes we’ve had a few less homicides per year. But one of the things that I think is very important, and you hear Brandon Scott say this all the time, because he grew up here, is that what we are experiencing now with this level of violence is the cumulative effect of never addressing what’s causing violence.
We’ve never addressed the underlying issues, and we all know them: poverty, lack of opportunity, housing, and more. I’m speaking now as a reporter, and also because I’m a mentor, and have been for 12 years to a young man who grew up in Baltimore, and has had a pretty rough time of it. Lack of housing security is a major issue. And it affects everything that happens. When you don’t quite know where you’re going to hang your hat the next night, or where you’re going to spend the night, it is very disruptive. it’s impossible to work effectively if you don’t have housing security.
The other thing that I think is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is…I grew up in a small, white rural area. There were a lot of poor folks, and high levels of adult illiteracy, and all kinds of issues. My father was a lawyer, so we were better off than others. But I always knew that there was a pathway out; that if I didn’t want to stay in a small town…if I wanted more opportunity, more exposure to things, I knew there was a pathway out, because I had really strong family support. I had great role models in my father, my mother.
When you think about young people of color who are growing up in this city in chaos, you know, what do they see as their pathway out? Those are very narrow pathways. The young man I mentor told me some years ago, he says, this is when minimum wage was what $7.75 or whatever it was, he said, Look $10 an hour is not getting anybody off corner.
So one of the things that is real to me is the failure of us as a society of not being able to develop and support and think about pathways. What are real pathways for people who aren’t born to wealth and privilege and strong family support? What are their pathways to succeed?
BFB: It’s interesting in a city like Baltimore, where you have Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland Health System, T. Rowe Price, the Port of Baltimore, all of these big institutions and companies, and there should be pathways.
Jayne Miller: I interviewed the chief operating officer of Exelon, Calvin Butler, and he talks about the underutilization of our assets. We have an amazing port. And you never hear anybody talk about it. We should have an entire high school that teaches about logistics, cybersecurity, healthcare technology, like it’s all there. It’s just, I don’t know, if it’s a lack of leadership or a lack of what, you know, whatever, Calvin Butler and Brian Pieninck, the CEO of CareFirst, I mean, they’re the big picture thinkers about this stuff. We have major universities, we have a port. We have a wonderful waterfront setting. Yeah. And we’re struggling. Why, right? It doesn’t make any sense.
When I started here, and William Donald Schaefer was mayor, there was a corporate civic core that was very strong. He had his whole kitchen cabinet of corporate leaders, and that’s all gone.
BFB: If you weren’t a journalist, what different career path might you have taken?
Jayne Miller: My brother’s a lawyer, and I would probably have been a lawyer, but what I’ve been thinking about more recently, and what I’m really interested in, is urban planning. Cities that succeed seem to have strong planning, and stick to it.
For example, I’m working on a story right now….about how this is the 20th year since the start of the redevelopment of the East Baltimore area that is just north and west of Hopkins. The Hopkins East Baltimore Development Initiative has had a transformational impact. It’s been long and tedious and somewhat painful and fits and starts, but they are completing now their 20th year and they have renovated about 190 properties, they have shrunk the vacancy rate substantially.
When you map homicides, you can see what is changing on the east side of Baltimore and you can start to see the pattern of violence changing. It’s still very concentrated on the west side. But that concentration on the east side is really starting now to disperse. And that’s redevelopment.
I think that the one of the things that we don’t seem to have a plan for in Baltimore is what to do, really, with 15,000 vacant properties. We have areas where there’s been scattered redevelopment – a couple of houses here and there. But then the rest of the block never happens. So what happens when those other ones go vacant, too, because nobody wants to live in a place like that.
And you have to be bold. Some cities have literally warehoused space, taken properties and fenced them off — don’t provide services…And you’re literally warehousing space land, so that when there might be a use for it at some point down the road, and other things may happen….So when I say urban planning, that’s what I mean.
BFB: You have an interesting philosophy about journalists becoming involved in their communities. Tell us about it.
Jayne Miller: I’ve been a resident most of my time in Maryland. I’ve been a homeowner since 1990. I firmly believe in the journalists should get involved in civic affairs. And I do serve on boards, etc. I always say there’s more to life than news, weather and sports.
And that the more you get involved in your community, the more you can share the pain of communities and the accomplishment of communities. One thing I have found over the years is that the human spirit is very strong. And people go through horrible situations and taxing stressful situations, and yet at the end, come out strong.
I think we need to tell those stories more. But I think the other thing we need to talk about is to really dig deep and look at how Baltimore City was mapped to be racist….And I think the more that we recognize that and understand that, the better we are, because then it helps guide policy and guides decision making.