Ehrlich tries to use clock to his advantage

TV/RADIO COLUMN

March 12, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Of all the numbers thrown around at Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s announcement on slot machines last Wednesday night, one meant the most to the media: Nine, as in 9 p.m.

That was the hour the news conference started.

It's been years since a formal gubernatorial news conference was scheduled that late, reporters and editors say. "I thought it was a typo when I first read the e-mail," says Scott Livingston, news director for WBFF-TV.

But the Ehrlich administration's sense of timing enabled it to define that night's coverage of complex plans for divvying up revenue from several thousand proposed slot machines. The region's television reporters had little time to digest the new plans before their deadlines hit. Most went straight to air with the figures exactly as they were presented by Ehrlich.

The new Republican governor has received a bumpy ride from the press in his first months in office, as stories have tracked his evolving relationship with the Democrat-controlled legislature. Ehrlich is relying on the introduction of legalized slot machines to bring new funds to pay for school initiatives, buoy the sinking racetrack industry and help close a yawning budget gap.

Ehrlich's aides cannily figured that the news conference's late starting time would lead the television stations to kick off their newscasts with reports on his revised proposal, largely unadorned by dissenting views. They were right.

"No question - we were fully aware of the various daily news cycles," says Paul Schurick, the governor's communications director. He says the news conference arrived at the end of a long day of crunching numbers and informing legislators about the change in the proposal to bring slots to Maryland.

But most TV reporters missed a pivotal point tucked in the fine print. Ehrlich had claimed his revisions would involve a relatively modest shift in the breakdown of spending. But the calculations had not included $351 million taken off the top to compensate track owners for the expense of operating the slot machines.

So, while Ehrlich said the share of the money directed toward schools had declined slightly, to 58 percent from 64 percent, The Sun and the Washington Post later that night calculated the new figure at roughly 42 percent. Similarly, the newspapers reported the next morning that the share for the tracks rose to about 44 percent - not the 28 percent cited by Ehrlich - from 24 percent.

Reporters for Baltimore and Washington stations with 11 p.m. newscasts had just over an hour to produce stories. WBFF's John Rydell had less than 15 minutes. Save WMAR-TV, all of Baltimore's TV stations relied exclusively on Ehrlich's numbers.

On that night, Livingston says, "We're in a situation of regurgitating the information." He and WBAL-TV news director Margaret Cronan characterized the Ehrlich explanations as incomplete, but not wrong.

Schurick and budget secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula acknowledged the change in calculating the figures when reporters pressed them after the nocturnal news conference. The dollar amounts were also accurately depicted. And Schurick points to the press release to show that the shift was set out for all to see.

Some weren't wholly convinced. "I confronted [state officials] with it the next day," says Lou Davis of WMAR-TV. "It was one line in the news release. They buried their lead." Several stations assigned subsequent stories that presented competing analyses of the administration's figures.

Schurick takes issue with the suggestion that anyone was misled. "Give me five minutes, I'll show you four ways of skinning this cat, all of them accurate," Schurick says. "There are reporters who are hostile to our program - legislators who oppose this program - and they took this as an opportunity to further their anti-Ehrlich agenda."

He declined to specify which media outlets or reporters he considers hostile to the Ehrlich administration.

Both major newspapers put several reporters on the story. The article for The Sun's first edition was due by 10:45 p.m., although it was updated for later editions throughout the night. Davis, who has covered state politics for WMAR-TV for more than two decades, caught the formula switch only when running into print reporters arguing in the halls of the State House.

"It was a bit annoying," says WBAL-TV's Cronan. "This issue is so important to the state, and to our viewers right now. ... Nothing we reported was incorrect. It just wasn't as thorough as we would have liked."

But her staffers - and others in Baltimore - may soon have more experience reporting on the fly after late-at-night news conferences. Schurick says there may be more on the way.

All male, all the time

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