Read between the lines of Ehrlich's snub

April 24, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER | MICHAEL OLESKER,SUN STAFF

NOTE TO TV news reporters and radio talk show hosts: Don't look now, but I think the governor of Maryland, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., just called you a bunch of patsies and hoped you didn't notice.

In his current crusade against The Sun and The Washington Post, which he formally accuses of not being nice to him, Ehrlich is telling audiences that he will rely on television and radio now to get his message out. On the last day of the General Assembly, for example, the governor scheduled three hours of one-on-one interviews with TV and radio people.

He says newspapers are "hostile" to him. Asked if he was declaring war on the area's two biggest papers, Ehrlich told The Sun's Tim Craig, "It's not declaring all-out war, it's simply understanding the philosophical bent of the newspapers and dealing with it. I would say the war was declared by the newspapers."

The governor will embrace TV and radio people because he thinks they are nice to him. He seems not to understand this, but he has just indicted them for not doing their jobs. A slight lesson in civics: It is not reporters' business to be nice to public officials; it is our job to look at their work, and analyze it as best we can, and to report what we find as fairly as we can.

Are we critical of Ehrlich? Gee, I hope so.

Is it -- as the governor seems to think -- because he's a conservative Republican?

He should ask Parris Glendening or William Donald Schaefer, who hate each other but happen to have at least two things in common: They are liberal Democrats. And they believe, with considerable justification, that newspapers criticized the hell out of them over the past 16 years.

We criticized Glendening for overspending in a time when the economy was falling apart. Some of us criticized him for blocking slot machines at racetracks. All of us criticized him for trying to disguise illegal money his campaign pocketed from those same racetrack interests. For eight years, we criticized him for his personal hypocrisy and political duplicity.

And, when his lieutenant governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, ran for governor, we criticized her campaign for its ineptitude, just as we had revealed (and criticized) the disastrous juvenile boot camps she was supposed to oversee. And then reluctantly endorsed her despite -- as our own editorial said -- "this newspaper's desire to contribute to a political shake-up in Annapolis by supporting a Republican candidate for the top job."

This newspaper criticized Ehrlich's campaign, and continues to criticize his performance as governor, for the same reason we rapped Glendening and Townsend and Schaefer before them: It's our job.

This is a governor who took office with one plan to balance the budget: Bring in slots. But he had no backup plan. In a late-night revision of his first slots package, he changed the numbers to give more money to track owners and less to schools and dissembled when everybody caught the quarterback sneak he'd attempted. When slots went down, all pledges he made during his campaign -- including full funding of the Thornton school aid package -- became vulnerable to gubernatorial budget cuts. His first General Assembly session was so dreadful that even his own party members, attempting to paint a rosy glow, gave it "a C-plus."

The governor blames the messenger for bringing the bad news. When members of your own tribe give you such grades, it's the job of reporters to offer a little perspective. We don't work for the governor. Without getting too sanctimonious, we work for the same people for whom the governor works -- our readers.

And this gets us to the broadcast people, whom the governor implicitly pats on the head and says he finds so much more reasonable than newspaper types.

With all due respect to local TV reporters, who are smart enough to make their own judgments, they work in a medium that considers any story longer than 90 seconds the equivalent of War and Peace, and likely to send viewers to their remote controls.

What that time frame does -- and every politician knows it like a multiplication table -- is limit the depth of reporting. If the governor's taking a position, there's barely room for an opponent's response (much less objective analysis) within that time framework. For television, merely getting the governor on camera is often considered a "get" in itself -- particularly for stations that choose to cover the governor, and the business of state government, only occasionally.

In such a context, naturally the governor's more comfortable with TV than with newspapers.

As for talk radio, the governor declares, "There is no filter. It's direct and there is no middle entity either friend or foe."

Those of us who live in a community where Rush Limbaugh and squadrons of Limbaugh wannabes dominate the airwaves will keep such a remark in perspective.

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