Sunday, November 28, 2004

Gov. Ehrlich vs. MSM
The Baltimore Sun is having a hissy fit. Governor Ehrlich has issued a ban to state agencies barring them from talking to a reporter and a columnist.
The Ehrlich administration has taken the unusual step of banning all state officials from speaking with two Sun journalists, who they say are "failing to objectively report" on state issues.

The governor's press office sent a memo Thursday to all state public information officers and to the governor's staff ordering them to not speak with State House Bureau Chief David Nitkin or columnist Michael Olesker.

"Do not return calls or comply with any requests," press secretary Shareese N. DeLeaver wrote in the memo. The ban is in effect "until further notice."

"There's no hiding the fact of The Sun's distaste for the results of this past election," said Greg Massoni, also a press secretary to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican. "And they are perfectly entitled to that opinion. We have a grave problem with their editorial page taking over the news division, and apparently that's what's happened."

Sun Editor Timothy A. Franklin, the top newsroom executive, called such a suggestion "ridiculous on its face." He said, "The editorial board and the newsroom are distinctly separate departments of the company, on separate floors of the building. We don't know what they're going to write about, and they don't know what we're going to write about. And that's as it should be."

The Sun is honest enough to list the reasons cited by the Ehrlich administration for its action:
In a column Tuesday, Olesker wrote that at a hearing in Annapolis last week, the governor's communications director, Paul E. Schurick, was "struggling mightily to keep a straight face" when Schurick said that political gain was "not a consideration" in making state pro-tourism commercials that feature the governor.

DeLeaver said Olesker did not attend that hearing and could not have known the expression on Schurick's face. Olesker said he did not need to be there to "know the patent absurdity of the remark" by Schurick.

"What I was clearly intending to say for any discerning reader was that the ads were clearly meant to profit the governor politically, and for anyone to say otherwise, they would have to struggle to keep from smiling," Olesker said yesterday. "Anyone past the age of elementary school could have figured that much out."

The second complaint was with a front-page map the Sun published Wednesday indicating properties across the state that were "being considered" for sale. In fact, the land shown on the map was all 450,000 acres of state-owned preservation land. A correction ran on Page 2A yesterday.

Here's what the Sun's ombudsman has to say about these infractions:
The Sun bears responsibility for the errors that escalated an already contentious relationship. The newspaper's system of checks and balances broke down on deadline, which allowed the incorrect map of state lands to be published.

The other issue is more serious. The decision by Olesker to describe Ehrlich's communications director's facial expression was a major lapse in judgment. Olesker later apologized and explained his actions in a Nov. 24 column. But in a letter to the editor, Rex Rehfeld, who condemned Ehrlich's banning of the two Sun journalists, also said, "I am just as appalled at the information that columnist Michael Olesker made a comment about the facial expressions of the governor's communications director, Paul E. Schurick, at a hearing that Mr. Olesker had not attended."

Actually I would reverse the levels of seriousness. As Olesker himself notes:
Instead, I am specifically taken to task for describing an Ehrlich spokesman, Paul Schurick, as "struggling mightily to keep a straight face" while claiming there was no political intent behind the commercials. No one is supposed to notice that, in the very next sentence, I intentionally describe a Democrat "trying just as mightily to keep a straight face" to describe his own party leaders' ads of previous years.

From the context it certainly seems that Olesker was writing metaphorically. However, I have a bigger problem with the original column that even Olesker seems to understand. The complaint about Ehrlich using state funds to make commercials rings rather hollow. All chief executives seemingly make commercials.
There's nothing particularly new in politicians using the airwaves. Harry Hughes used to pitch vacations in Maryland (while Hughes himself was quietly vacationing in Delaware). William Donald Schaefer did his own TV pitches, and so did Parris Glendening and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Democrats, all of 'em - unlike the Republican Ehrlich.
Yet that there's something untoward about Ehrlich's use of commercials to promote Maryland as a tourist destination has been a theme of the state's Democratic party:
“The truth is,” Leggett continued, “Some of these ad buys are not targeted to potential tourists from other states alone. Additionally, these ads are targeted to Maryland households with Maryland voters, urging them to visit a place where they already live. That leaves only one conclusion: Governor Ehrlich and his team of taxpayer-funded political operatives are using millions in state dollars in an effort to boost his positive name recognition across the state...."
Except that Marylanders often vacation outside of Maryland. I know that I usually do. And I think that the positive message of Ehrlich is preferable to the Glendening commercials that abdicated the state's responsibility for protecting its citizens from crime. (Use a club so that your car won't get stolen.)
But if the Ehrlich administration is correct that the Sun has distorted its coverage of the Governor, as even Paul Moore the paper's ombudsman admits, why does Moore then say:
The governor's ban seeks to limit The Sun's ability to gather and report information. It also is designed to put the paper on the defensive and to plant seeds of doubt among readers about the veracity of The Sun's reporting.

Why doesn't the Sun worry about getting its house in order. The Washington Post, Maryland's largest circulation newspaper has also been very hard on the governor, yet Ehrlich has not issued a ban on talking to that newspaper. It would seem to me that the Sun has a bigger problem than Ehrlich does.
Finally, on the issue of the Sun and the State House I think there are three items to note. These are all old issues, but still worth keeping in mind. When Ehrlich was first elected to Congress (he was elected in 1994), he sat down with an editor who proceeded to compare Ehrlich to David Duke in a column. The column a blatant hatchet job, but it didn't bother anyone at the Sun. While I don't believe that the same editor is still employed by the Sun, I can't believe that Ehrlich's resentment of the paper for having run the column unapologetically doesn't still exist.
1994 was notable in Maryland for having a very close election between Democrat Parris Glendening and Republican Ellen Sauerbrey. Throughout the campaign both the news and editorial departments of the Sun portrayed Glendening as fiscally responsible and Sauerbery as a reckless tax cutter.
A few weeks after the election, the Sun (following the Washington Post which portrayed the campaign in a similar fashion) noted that Glendening had left Prince George's County, where he had previously been Executive, with a $150 million deficit. I find it hard to believe that the Sun (and Post) couldn't have discovered the true record of Glendening prior to the election. (I've heard a rumor that the Post knew of it but spiked the story until after the election was safely decided. But I won't believet that until I hear more than just a rumor. The charge that both papers were lazy is damning enough.) The Sun sent a reporter to New Jersey to show that statewide tax cuts along the lines of those proposed by Sauerbrey would just lead to higher local taxes. But the Sun didn't even check out the story in its back yard.
What if both papers had done their homework and had to be a little less enthusiastic about Glendening? Would it have made a 6000 vote difference? I think that it might have. But what's also important is that Glendening then left the state with a $1 billion deficit. Maryland voters were denied the opportunity to judge Glendening by his full record because neither paper fulfilled their public trust and did the necessary investigation of their favored candidate. It's not the same as hiding information, but an indication that neither was as curious as it should have been.
Skip ahead four years. A man named John Frece, director of communications for Governor Glendening, writes an op-ed in favor of the Governor and against his second time challenger, Ellen Sauerbrey. As Mr. Frece's biography mentions in his current position as Communications Director for Governor Warner of Virgninia:
Mr. Frece joined the Governor’s staff on Jan. 2, 1996, as Communications Director. In that capacity, he was responsible for coordinating the activities of the Governor’s press office and the public information officers in the various state agencies and departments.
Then the bio tells us something very interesting:
Mr. Frece moved to the Governor’s office after a long career in journalism, working first for the weekly Reston Times newspaper in Reston, Va., then the wire service United Press International in both Richmond, Va., and Annapolis, and for 11 years as the Maryland State House bureau chief for The Baltimore Sun. As a reporter, Mr. Frece covered the Fairfax County (Va.) Board of Supervisors, the Virginia General Assembly for one year, and the Maryland General Assembly for 17 years. He covered every election in Maryland from 1978 through 1994, as well as the administrations of acting Gov. Blair Lee III, Gov. Harry R. Hughes, Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the first year of Governor Glendening’s term.
In other words, Frece moved directly from the Baltimore Sun as a reporter to a partisan job in the governor's office. So was Mr. Frece objective and then all of a sudden turned on a switch and become a partisan of the sitting governor? Or did his strong political views color his reporting?
I don't care how professional Mr. Frece was as a reporter, I have a hard time believing the first possibility to be true.
If Mr. Moore, the Sun's ombudsman wishes to to do his job perhaps he could do some research to answer these questions:
1) Why has Gov. Ehrlich limited access to the Sun but not to the Washington Post?
2) Has the Sun ever apologized to Gov. Ehrlich for the disgraceful smear of one of its editors?
3) Did the Sun fail in its most basic duty of uncovering Parris Glendening's record in Prince George's County?
4) To what degree did John Frece's politics influence his reporting?
I don't expect a satisfactory answer on the 4th question. However he should be able to investigate the other three to some degree.

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