Steiner to be MC at governor's installation

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Radio news boss to try to keep up appearances

January 15, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Marc Steiner, a man of great energy, seems intent on adding to his already thick portfolio. His latest responsibility, however, may come as a surprise.

Steiner, you may recall, was the moving force behind the successful effort to take over WJHU-FM two years ago and keep it locally based. At the station, now renamed WYPR-FM, he's the boss of a new news-gathering shop.

He's also the starkly left-of-center talk show host whose program affords Baltimore listeners the rare chance to hear people of widely diverging views discuss matters of public consequence.

And, as of this morning, he's the master of ceremonies at the Annapolis inauguration for Maryland's Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

From a political standpoint, it's yet another small, if mischievous, signal sent by Ehrlich to indicate his inclusiveness. You can easily discern the message. If this conservative Republican suburbanite picks a lefty Baltimorean to walk him through the ceremony granting him official powers of office, then he'll be welcoming to all Marylanders. Right?

"The governor has a tremendous respect for [Steiner's] affinity for public policy," says Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director. "They disagree on an awful lot of things, but the mutual respect runs deep."

Now look at this question a second time through a media prism. Steiner is the host of what is at heart a news program. He draws guests from the worlds of politics, business, foundations and academia, all of whom push their own agendas.

As WYPR's executive vice president for programming, Steiner is overseeing the creation of the news desk at the private, nonprofit station. (See below for more details.) And yet he's acting as the host for an event that confers authority on the state's chief executive - a public figure, yes, but a politician through and through.

What does Steiner's formal role in Ehrlich's inauguration say to someone - a listener, or, more likely, a possible guest - who opposes the new governor's policies? Even if they are not ideologically close, Steiner's presence today suggests at the least a personal coziness.

In January 2001, CNN allowed Larry King to serve as host for a concert celebrating the inauguration of President Bush, a move that the cable network's executives later said they regretted. CNN White House correspondent John King wrote a memo in protest, saying he felt "shame and horror" at the sight of the other King embracing Bush and singer Ricky Martin on stage.

WBAL-TV news director Margaret Cronan says she would not allow one of her station's anchors to perform at a similar function for a politician. "The inauguration itself is a news event," Cronan says. "Whether it's Ehrlich or a Democrat, it's obviously worthy of coverage. To host that event would show partiality. That's a problem in this business."

Steiner says he weighed similar concerns, sharing them with colleagues, before accepting the invitation. He says he would have appeared for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, too. And, Steiner says he is trying to be circumspect about his activities: He will not attend the more exclusive private affairs celebrating the new administration later in the day.

His remarks, he says, are "not in any way an endorsement or slapping Bob on the back." And, he says, he's going to continue to press state officials, including those in the Ehrlich administration, with tough questions. Schurick lauds Steiner's efforts to preserve WYPR, saying, "To me, Marc is a community leader first and a journalist second."

Steiner is entitled to attend today's events as a citizen or a journalist. To do so as a participant may require him to play too many roles.

This challenge is highlighted by the ambitious plans WYPR has for its news desk. Several days ago, Steiner's longtime friend, former Sun and NPR reporter Sunni Khalid, agreed to become acting news director until the station develops its reporting operation more completely. Additionally, frequent Steiner substitute Mindy Mintz and former Sun reporter Melody Simmons are to become producers and reporters for the station.

The station will broadcast commentaries from political analyst and consultant Barry Rascovar, editorial writer C. Fraser Smith of The Sun and Anthony McCarthy, associate publisher of the Baltimore Times. Aaron Henkin will be a producer, while Art Buist will also serve in a news-gathering and delivery role. Buist has returned from a leave he took from the station last fall during his unsuccessful bid for the House of Delegates.

Steiner says he wants to cover the Legislature thoroughly. "The whole idea here is storytelling and analysis," Steiner says.

Pieces are to run four to eight minutes, and are likely to be broadcast within major NPR news programs in the morning and evening. "It's going to change the dynamic and sound of the station," Steiner says.

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