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The Governor vs. the Sun

Maryland's governor takes a stand against journalists he doesn't like.

11:00 PM, Dec 19, 2004 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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THE PRESS has always assailed politicians, and politicians have retaliated in various ways. Some feed scoops to the competition. Some make jokes or give nonsensical answers in response to a reporter's question. President Bush holds his press conferences few and far between and has been known to abruptly end them if he becomes annoyed. In 1962, JFK's administration asked the New York Times to reassign reporter David Halberstam after his critical coverage of the Vietnam war. Few, though, have retaliated the way Maryland's Republican governor Robert Ehrlich has.

On November 18, the Ehrlich administration sent a memo to all Maryland state officials in the executive branch banning them from talking to two Baltimore Sun journalists, columnist Michael Olesker and statehouse bureau chief David Nitkin, who Ehrlich claims have been "failing to objectively report" on state issues.

"Do not return calls or comply with requests," the governor's press secretary Shareese DeLeaver wrote in the memo.

"We have a grave problem with [the Sun's] editorial page taking over their news division, and apparently that's what's happened," Greg Massoni, another press secretary, wrote.

The order came after Nitkin wrote a series of articles about a secret deal by the state to sell 836 acres of preserved forestland to a developer. A front-page map, that Nitkin did not produce, accompanied his article and incorrectly showed all 450,000 acres of state preservation land as being sold to the developer. A correction ran inside the paper the following day.

Olesker's offense is different. In a November 16 column he described the governor's communications director Paul Schurick as "struggling mightily to keep a straight face" when saying at a hearing that political gain was not a consideration in state tourism commercials that feature the governor. Olesker did not attend the hearing, but said in his defense that the phrase was to be taken metaphorically, not literally. This information was not included in the column.

Ehrlich also pointed to a May 14 column by Olesker which quoted Michael Steele, Maryland's lieutenant governor. Steele says he never spoke with the columnist. Olesker still insists they did. "It's taken Steele six months to realize he has retroactive amnesia," Olesker wrote in his November 24 column.

From the beginning, the editor of the Sun, Timothy A. Franklin, offered to meet with the governor and his press staff to go over their concerns with the paper's reporting. And from the beginning the governor refused.

On November 22, lawyers for the Tribune Co., which owns the Sun, formally asked the governor to lift the ban calling it "unconstitutional on its face." The paper also filed a lawsuit against the governor, asking a federal judge to lift the ban.

DeLeaver said the governor's office received the letter that day, but told reporters that they had no response to the legal points it raised.

Ehrlich also made his first public comments that day on the Chip Franklin Show on WBAL radio. He restated his position that Olesker had made up quotes and accused Nitkin of "halfway reporting."

"When a series of stories is written with incredibly inaccurate innuendo, with false quotes, made-up quotes, dots that do not connect, gotcha stories, sometimes you just have to draw a line. And that's exactly what we've done here, saying enough is enough."

Later that week, Ehrlich asked on WBAL radio "At what point does a monopoly newspaper abuse its privilege, its First Amendment privilege, in making things up, in making quotes up, making context up?"

Ehrlich also demanded an apology for a comment in the Sun's 2002 endorsement of Ehrlich's gubernatorial opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, in which the Sun described Steele, who is black, as, "bring[ing] little to the team but the color of his skin." Dianne Donovan, the paper's editorial page editor, has said the paper will not apologize.

At a lecture at Towson University regarding the dispute Ehrlich said to a class, "I would argue that the elitists [at the Sun ] cannot deal with the fact that Michael Steele is an African American and a Republican."

Former Maryland governor William Donald Schaefer, an Ehrlich ally, who has plenty of experience quarreling with the press, gave Ehrlich some advice on December 1. "You can't beat a group with barrels of ink. My advice to you, from someone who fought the Sunpapers, is you'll never win. Invite them down. Say, 'Fellows it's Christmastime, let's all ring bells together.'"