Henson's attack on media misguided

February 17, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

Dear Baltimore residents: What do you consider your greatest problem? If you listen to some of your city leaders -- specifically Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III and those City Council members hankering to reconfirm him -- it's the media.

Not crime. Not the property tax rate. Not poor housing or boarded-up and vacant housing or the deterioration of the city. The media. Henson didn't name names, but I get the feeling he was talking about The Sun.

"We live in a one-paper town," Henson groused at his reconfirmation hearing Wednesday evening. That paper "misquotes all of us. I've stopped reading it."

Henson further charged that The Sun's agenda was to give readers a negative portrayal of Baltimore and make "us [city officials] look like idiots." The commissioner said this as his supporters applauded and some council members nodded in agreement. There really was nothing wrong with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City's $25.6 million no-bid emergency renovation program. Any perceived misdeeds are all the fault of us reporter and editor varmints at The Sun -- what with our poking around and asking how taxpayers' dollars were spent.

Henson, the man who appointed him -- Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- and their supporters are in for at least two shocks should they ever return to the real world. The first shock is that Baltimore is not a "one-paper" town. There are at least five other papers: the Baltimore Afro-American, the Jewish Times, the Baltimore Business Journal, the Baltimore Times and the City Paper. These five are weekly papers. So it might be more accurate to call Baltimore a "one-daily" town. (And even that characterization is not accurate. A colleague reminded me that The Daily Record also publishes daily.)

Now for the second shock: of the five weeklies, two have been just as critical of the $25.6 million renovation program as The Sun. Peter Bramble of the Baltimore Times -- a black-owned newspaper, in case anyone wants to raise the race flag -- excoriated Schmoke for it, accusing him of using inexperienced minority contractors on the renovation project as a way to punish the state association of minority contractors for not supporting him. The Times was just as critical of the latest revelation that some city housing inspectors themselves owned substandard housing. In an editorial titled "Another Housing Scandal," the paper said:

"The housing department of this city does not take its role of building code enforcement very seriously."

Our friends at the City Paper pride themselves on being far more progressive than The Sun. But let's see what Brian Wendell Morton, a columnist at the Non-Paper (that's what it must be, if The Sun is the only one in town) says about Henson's being reconfirmed:

"If Henson can justify his reconfirmation after the conviction of 13 people in connection with the no-bid housing repair program, his stonewalling of the council's Legislative Investigation Committee and now the revelations about his own inspectors' substandard rental housing, then perhaps he would be better suited for another city office -- say, director of public relations."

So should The Sun fold tomorrow and the Schmoke-Henson regime not have us to kick around anymore, it would still have to contend with the Baltimore Times and the City Paper -- which, oddly enough, seem to be saying the same things that we are.

After Henson's anti-Sun tirade, 1st District Councilman John L. Cain said his only criticism of the media was that we don't do our jobs as diligently as we should.

"They're not poking around enough looking under rocks," Cain observed. He understands almost innately what the function of the media is. Cain is cut from a different cloth than some of his council colleagues and Henson. Television cameras were riveted on 3rd District Councilman Martin O'Malley as he gave the commissioner what must have been the grilling of the century. Later, 6th District Councilman Melvin L. Stukes offered some sneering comments about the media and asked Henson a nonquestion clearly intended to be a compliment. Then Stukes launched into a Biblical sermon about "putting away childish things."

"Why weren't the cameras focused on you?" 4th District Councilwoman Sheila Dixon wanted to know after Stukes mercifully surrendered the floor. Because O'Malley was asking tough, pertinent questions and Stukes clearly was driveling, Sheila dear.

O'Malley, Cain, Anthony J. Ambridge, Joan Carter Conway and Council President Lawrence A. Bell also seem to know the proper role of a legislator. It's not to rubber-stamp mayoral nominees but to question them thoroughly and vigorously. But come Feb. 26, Henson will no doubt be reconfirmed and the city can return to its hallowed tradition of a strong mayor allowed to run roughshod over a City Council with no backbone.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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