But, governor, who's to tell us why you did it?

MICHAEL OLESKER

July 14, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Yesterday morning, with a delicate question in my head and mischief in my soul, I telephone an official of the state of Maryland with whom I have had a cordial working relationship for more than a decade.

"How are you?" I ask, comfortable in the knowledge that, at last glance, this is considered classified information by absolutely no one in America.

The response is a pause on the line that feels like Nixon's 18-minute gap.

"Hello?" I say, wondering if we've been cut off.

"Uh, yeeees," says this official, stretching the word uneasily while he ponders a new job to seek or an outpost in South America in which to change identity and hide.

"How are you?" I say again.

Another pause, and then:

"I can't tell you," says the official.

"You can't tell me?"

"Wait," says this official, "I'm turning on my recording device right now. Let me repeat that: I can't tell you."

Then the two of us chuckle a little self-consciously, because we each know what it is we are not actually talking about here. We are not talking about the fact that no one in state government is supposed to talk any more, not since the latest lunatic edict from the office of the governor of Maryland.

If no news is good news, then William Donald Schaefer has cornered the market on bliss. He has slapped a gag order on all who labor for the state of Maryland that is as bizarre as anything ever perpetrated by this man, whose track record includes loopy letters to private citizens, showing up unannounced at their houses, and a 20-year record of temper tantrums too numerous to tally.

Twelve days ago, Schaefer told his Cabinet secretaries that no one in state government is to talk with reporters, or with legislators, without first clearing it with him personally.

Immediately, a couple of things happened: A large conference call hookup was arranged between Schaefer's press secretary, Frank Traynor, and the various state public information officers.

Questions about state government, they were told during a one-hour hookup, were to be cut off. Forms were to be filled out, which would go to the governor.

While this was happening, state employees were being summoned to meetings. At the state office complex on West Preston Street, about a hundred employees were told: "You're not talk to talk to anyone about anything. Not statistics, not anything. If you do, you'll be fired. If you explain why you can't talk, you'll be fired."

"I'll be afraid to answer the phone," said one employee.

"Tell them you'll call back," said this employee's supervisor. "Take a name and phone number. But don't call back."

We are told that, since issuing the order, the governor of Maryland has spent part of his days reviewing press releases before they are issued by state agencies, or giving his personal OK before public information officers can answer all but the most basic questions.

Such as: "How are you?"

"Actually," says the state official to whom I initially directed the question, "lousy."

It's a condition based on the governor's order. Questions arrive each day, which once were handled in a matter of minutes. Now they take days.

"A reporter called last Monday," the official says, "who wanted information on a state program. This reporter had been told something that was 180 degrees from the truth. I could have cleared it up in a few moments.

"Instead, I had to take the information, fill out a form that the governor's office supplied to us, send it to the governor's press office and wait for them to give it to the governor and get his response. I finally got it on Friday, four days after the initial inquiry."

Yesterday, with his office still catching flak nearly two weeks after the order was first issued, Schaefer press secretary Frank Traynor blamed himself for the new procedure, claiming that reporters at an Associated Press convention in Ocean City told him they were getting copies of the same information from several different state agencies.

"So," Traynor said yesterday, "I said to the governor, 'Let's get ......TC draft of all releases before they go out.' I said, 'You're like our managing editor. Let's make the public information officers the writers, and they'll send the information here, but can we lean on you [to coordinate] the information.' "

"How many state employees are there?" I asked Traynor.

"I think 70,000," Traynor said. "Or maybe it's 77,000."

And so, under the new system, any significant query that goes to any of these 70,000 employees must now be sent to a public information officer who must send it to the governor before it can be released back to the original public information officer who can release it to a reporter, who can write the story for citizens of this state.

Except, in fact, it doesn't work this way.

Instead of an information system, it's a non-information system. The needs of daily journalism grow cold after a while; reporters drift away as events drift past. Sources dry up.

Many in state government, pointing to Schaefer's long-time antagonism toward reporters, say that's precisely the idea. Remember five years ago, when Schaefer tried a variation on this?

His press office sent out a memo listing "stringent requirements" that all good news was to be announced by the governor, while all bad news was to be announced by departmental secretaries.

The latest edict is just a variation on a theme. It's not news, it's the blockage of news. If no news is good news, the governor of Maryland must be wallowing in the silence.

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