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Baltimore Sun’s toodle — oo

Roy Meachum

March 4, 2005

(Editor’s note: While Roy Meachum’s a registered Democrat, he professionally supported Republicans Anita Stup, Ellen Sauerbrey, Roscoe Bartlett, Bill Brock and Jim Grimes against candidates from his own party.)

As expected, the nation’s major media, led by the august New York Times, have thundered indignation over Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s edict forbidding state employees to talk to two Baltimore Sun employees.

On the other side, conservative columnists and talk show hosts have rallied to the governor’s side, claiming the Sun’s counterattack is both misguided and excessive. Not for the first time, I find myself agreeing with the political far right. Make no mistake: Mr. Ehrlich’s ban strikes me as abhorrent; since one of them is a columnist, his action must also be considered downright dumb. After all, columnists do not need to talk to officials.

In some two decades as the principal columnist for Frederick’s daily paper, I felt no constraint to chat up elected or appointed poobahs. My opinions were based on the public record. (Most of all, I relied on the integrity of reporters and their editors, which was not always there. Nevertheless, I tried with general success not to intrude on the men and women responsible for getting out the “correct” story.)

The other target of Mr. Ehrlich’s ire was The Sun’s Annapolis bureau chief. No one can occupy that key position without acquiring numerous contacts more than willing to talk to the press, with or without their bosses’ approval. While more than several mayors and commissioners tried to cut off sources, I never had difficulty finding out what was going on in Frederick’s corridors of power.

Despite the lack of serious consequences to its professional performance, Maryland’s largest newspaper acted properly in taking the governor’s command into court.

The notion that officials can ban journalists runs counter to Founding Father Tom Jefferson’s famous quote that starts: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people…” and continues: “…were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter (newspapers over government).”

Mr. Jefferson suffered attacks in that era’s politically poisonous press that make valentines out of all the criticism directed at Governor Ehrlich. As a matter of fact every public figure, not just politicians, must learn to live with rumor, innuendo and downright lies. The Sun dallied in none of these.

Indeed, compared to his immediate predecessors, the current governor has enjoyed a prolonged honeymoon in the media.

Don Schaefer, in particular, suffered continuing and satirical ridicule by Sun cartoonists and columnists. Parris Glendening received rougher treatment: accuracy in reporting his machinations, peccadilloes and transparent abrogation of power. Neither Governor Schaefer nor Governor Glendening attempted an edict comparable to Mr. Ehrlich’s. They had better sense.

While The Sun lacks the capability of orchestrating the national media crusade on its behalf, the newspaper must accept responsibility for defensive excesses in its pages. Publishing two former staffers’ columns castigating the governor was entirely unnecessary, especially coming after the decision to lay the matter before the court. In both instances, even colleagues had solid bases for believing they each “protested too much.”

Even worse was the attack in news columns, supposedly objective or, at least, balanced, that castigated a radio talk show host for allegedly taking Governor Ehrlich’s gold to betray his fellow journalists. In truth the man had been hired by an advertising agency; his “name” and talents have been used to promote the state lottery.

Furthermore, despite academic sniffing, published by The Sun, talk show hosts are not journalists; they are entertainers who use current events and prominent personalities to boost their ratings. Under ordinary circumstances, the so-called investigation might never have seen print; the purported “payoff” was much too small and reporting turned up few connections between the governor and the radio station employee.

The Sun’s brass would be much better advised to publish strictly the facts as the confrontation develops, leaving final judgment not solely to the courts but also that higher authority – public opinion.

Silence and solid performance remain the best defense any journalist can make when unfairly accused, as I was told years ago when hit by allegations that reflected neither what I had written nor my private opinion.

Above all, The Sun must take particular care not to provide ammunition for Governor Ehrlich’s apologists who delight in pointing to others’ examples to justify the governor’s excesses.

In the latest example, despite praise by former Republican Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley as the best thing to happen to Baltimore port’s complex operations in modern times, the director felt compelled to resign.

He was driven out, his proponents say, by statehouse insistence on appointing staff based solely on political qualifications. None of the port’s new executives, we are told, brought to their posts either experience or interest in learning how to run a port that generates millions for the state economy.

Of course, I learned these details by reading Baltimore’s Sun, which does a thoroughly professional job when not attempting to mount a defense against a petulantly arbitrary, capriciously arrogant and essentially dumb caprice by Maryland’s current chief executive.

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