Jayne Miller, the most respected and feared television journalist in Baltimore, is calling it a career.

After more than 40 years at WBAL-TV, Miller confirmed to The Baltimore Banner that she is stepping down later this month.

In an interview, Miller, who turned 68 in April, talked about her concerns about the news business as well as the future of the city. She confirmed that she was approached about running for mayor in 2020, believes the media gave Gov. Larry Hogan a “free pass,” and said she intends to get involved in political causes. She’s also working on a documentary.

Miller grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, where at an early age she rushed outside when the volunteer fire department’s siren went off. After starting at local stations in her home state, including covering the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, she joined WBAL in 1979. Miller left briefly for a Washington, D.C. bureau job with CBS News, but returned in 1983.

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In a market where television stations are largely driven by anchor personalities, Miller has been well respected on Baltimore television for her tenacious reporting. In February, she received a lifetime achievement award from the Radio Television Digital News Foundation.

“There is nobody of her stature in local TV news, and she gained that stature mainly through doing what a real reporter is supposed to do,” said David Zurawik, a media analyst for CNN and professor at Goucher College. “She was hard-nosed, she was tenacious, she pushed for stories, and really squeezed public officials, which … there’s not enough of.”

Miller encountered health challenges, including undergoing brain surgery in 2008 for a blood clot, and came down with long COVID-19 in early 2021. The latter caused her to take on a less-grueling reporting schedule, working three days a week.

The following is a transcript of a conversation near her home in Canton, edited for clarity and length.

BB: There were a couple of things you were eager to talk about, and one of them was the state of journalism.

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JM: I think that journalists and media have to figure out how to operate in this climate in this country. There’s so much being said and written about what 2024 might look like, and I just think that there has to be some really serious thinking about, “What is the role of journalism?” The problem is that institution has been so weakened. And we have huge areas in the country that have no local news, have very little coverage, and therefore it’s left to a couple of people on a social media page or whatever to go to the local council meeting or whatever. This is a real crisis, that an institution as important as a free press has been so weakened.

The last four years — there’s no question — have changed the discourse in this country dramatically. And you amplify that with social media. But I think that across the country, a daily challenge in journalism is to fend off misinformation and to try to convey information that is accurate, to the best of your ability, and research, without it being diverted and swamped by misinformation campaigns. It’s a real challenge.

BB: That’s clearly an issue on the national level; you pride yourself on being a local journalist — you went to Washington, you chose to come back and stayed. Do you feel like that’s an issue locally as well?

JM: Yes, I do think it is. Now, granted, we are living in a bluer [state]. We’re operating in a city and in a region where, you know, it’s a little bit more progressive. Where I really saw this was covering COVID, for a full year, daily, when the vaccine campaign started, you could really see it, and you could see the impact of it. The pushback was so great. You have to have a pretty thick skin these days to be in journalism. Because it’s no longer just a matter of, oh, we don’t like the information. It’s, “We don’t like you.” It becomes a very personal attack in many cases. You have to kind of let it roll off. But there is an impact of that, that makes it much harder to operate ... without this kind of interference being thrown at you.

BB: You’ve said you’re also concerned about the future of the city.

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JM: When you think about the history of Baltimore, it was mapped to be racially segregated. That’s its DNA, from the ordinances of the early 1900s that prevented Black and white people from living in the same neighborhood, to redlining. To me, the challenges of Baltimore aren’t new. They’re just unattended, and they have been unattended decade after decade after decade.

BB: I had a conversation with [a former city official] recently, and he said, [Mayor] Brandon Scott’s going to need time. And that’s true. And yet everybody says that.

JM: And they won’t give them time. Right? The city’s putting a lot of eggs in the basket of community violence intervention, and it’s going to take years to see that impact. And there’s never been patience in this city and in this region for that. I mean, look, one of the biggest things that Baltimore has to overcome is the attitude about it from outside. It is toxic. It prevents people from living here, it prevents people from investing here. And how do you start to change that narrative when you still have a very high violent crime rate, which you’ve had for decades? If I were king or queen, I really think that where we have to start is with children. If you use the school system as an anchor, and then support it with a well-funded school system with robust universal pre-K, robust in-school programming, after-school programming, athletic programs, you can really use the school as an anchor in a community to serve the community and for youth. I grew up in a rural area — we used that school for everything. It occupied everybody all day and all evening.

BB: So how did you make the decision to retire?

JM: Actually, this was a two-year plan. I was thinking about retiring early in 2020. We have contracts, and I was coming up on the conclusion of a contract, expiring in July of 2020. This was pre-COVID; I was really seriously thinking about it. And the company said, “Oh, let’s give it another two years.” Now, I had no idea what was coming. And then, I mean, I haven’t worked as hard in 30 years [as I did] covering the pandemic, because it was a steep learning curve. [Having to learn about] virology, I’ve gotten to know dozens of people very well that I never had really much dealings with before. But I think it was also the political side of ... you could see what was happening with the resistance to this by the Trump administration. We’ll never know how that set us on this course to where we are today. We’re now, what, two and a half years into this, and our positivity rate’s almost 9%. We have lots of people sick. I had an appointment on Tuesday with the long COVID clinic at Hopkins, and the doctor said we’re now seeing it’s a 12- to 18-month course with people who have longer running symptoms of COVID and effects.

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BB: When did you come down with it?

JM: February of ’21. I was supposed to get a routine test, and they called that afternoon and said, “You’re positive for COVID.” I took every precaution. I never had the respiratory side of it. I always describe it as somewhere between mononucleosis and shingles. Between the fatigue, the body aches, the headache, the complete feeling of malaise. I tried to come back after the two-week quarantine period and it just kicked my butt, so I took some more time off. I never went back to my full 70 miles an hour. I was an unvaccinated COVID patient; I was in that group when the vaccine campaign was “The Hunger Games.” I didn’t get my shot until nine days after. I have definitely recovered. But in January, I dropped down to three days a week. That’s how I’ve been able to start to recover and to feel more like normal.

BB: TV news seems very anchor-driven, and you were able to become a mainstay as a reporter.

JM: I did some anchoring in the ’90s. And I was weekend anchor in the late ’80s. But I was still reporting. Honestly, I mean, anchoring is fine, but you don’t get your hands dirty anchoring. The best thing about being a journalist is a front-row seat to history, and I have had enormous opportunity to witness history. And you don’t get that sitting in the anchor chair.

BB: Can you tell me about this documentary you’re working on?

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JM: Let’s put it this way: I’m working on a documentary, independently, that involves something that happened in Baltimore in the mid 2000s. And we’re kind of three-quarters of the way through the research on it. And we’ve been doing some shooting, but more to come about that.

BB: I heard that you had explored running for public office. Is there any truth to that?

JM: Well, I guess, in running up to the 2020 campaign for mayor, I was approached by some folks, pretty serious people, about whether I would be interested in running for mayor. Yeah. And at that time, I was not ready to step away from journalism. It was really just a timing thing. If it had happened a year or two later, I may have thought about that.

BB: That’s an intriguing answer, because you’re not saying, “That’s a crazy idea. I wouldn’t do it.” You’re saying the timing was off? So you might run in the future?

JM: Probably not. Now? I don’t think so. I’ll be honest with you, I am more interested in finally being able to work politically. With political organizing, and community organizing, because I’ve never been able to do that, obviously. That’s what I mean about what’s ahead of us as a country, that I’m really interested in exploring that. Because where the rubber meets the road is voting and participation in politics.

BB: On candidate campaigns or on issues?

JM: I think that’s a good question. We’re certainly going to have some issues ahead of us. And I’m actually meeting with someone over the weekend to have a further conversation about that. I probably would be a great political consultant! I’m really interested in doing real work in that kind of effort and organizing. Our turnout in the city of Baltimore in 2018, which was the gubernatorial primary, was 26%. With a good race on the ballot; the state attorney’s race was on the ballot, the governor’s race was on the ballot.

WBAL-TV reporter Jayne Miller discusses her career in an interview with The Baltimore Banner. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

BB: I think this transitions into this next question. What has it been like having a spouse working in a prominent role in a public, controversial office? [Miller is married to Janice Bledsoe, who is the top deputy to State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, and who personally tried the case against the six officers charged with killing Freddie Gray — a case Miller covered initially.]

JM: Look, someone once told me, everybody has conflicts, and people who have character manage them. So what I have tried to do, in this regard, is to manage that. It’s to manage the perception, sure. I have no interest in covering, you know, someone that close to me. I think I’ve done it as well as I can do, and I never want to be perceived as being for or against something because of that. And so you just kind of leave it alone. There are a number of journalists in the same situation.

I was never going to cover it had it gone to [trial]. I was really covering the death of a young man. What happened, how did it happen. And that’s it. I think that I’ve tried to manage that as best I can. I’ve looked at the model of others, as well, who have been in the same situation with very prominent relationships. If reporters really looked at themselves, they probably have some situations in their own lives that they probably ought to step back from covering something. I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.

There’s plenty of people covering Marilyn Mosby, let’s put it that way.

BB: What work are you most proud of? Is there one?

JM: Well, I think the story that has had the most impact, and is still very much part of the conversation, is the Kirk Bloodsworth story. We did a very lengthy investigation of the prosecution of Kirk in 1988. And it was after he had been convicted a second time for rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl, and it kind of cleared the way for him to get outside counsel. And to make a long story short, it led to DNA testing, which hadn’t been done before. And we all know the rest of the story. He was exonerated by DNA, someone else has now been convicted of a crime because of DNA. Kirk became a very real advocate for innocence work, and he’s really the main reason we don’t have a death penalty. There’s no question Kirk would be dead in other states. And so I think that probably has had the most impact.

But there’s other stuff. I mean, BWI got an ambulance and paramedic in the mid-’80s because of work we did. More recently, in the 2000s, I did a lot of work on the mortgage servicing industry that led to some changes. And I think that has benefited a lot of people because it was the Wild, Wild West in that industry. And then, even during COVID, we tried to do a lot of work to hold people to account. There was stuff going on, the spending, oh my God, I mean, emergency contracts, that just ballooned over time.

This is what I mean about journalism thinning out. I mean, Annapolis gets like, no coverage. [Gov. Larry] Hogan has gotten a free ride, in my opinion, over the last seven years, because there’s just been shrinkage in the coverage of state government. And he’s pretty good, too, at media. He’s really very good at media.

Why do you think [Hogan] killed the Red Line so quickly? … It was a total political calculation — he knows that everybody else thinks the worst of Baltimore City. So it would do no damage.

BB: Will we see you on TV again? Or, it sounds like with the plans you’re making, that this is going to be a clean break?

JM: There’s lots of stuff going on in the corporation and Hearst, and everybody’s moving to streaming. And so I have no idea what might be coming down the road. I was talking the other day to one of my old general managers who retired, and he said, “The first thing you want to do when you retire is nothing. Six months, things will come your way.” And that’s already happened. I’ve had people mention things to me, and not necessarily in journalism. My heart is in Baltimore City, big time, and I really would entertain a lot of things to get involved in.

justin.fenton@thebaltimorebanner.com

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