Gifts for Ehrlich baby raise ethical questions

May 17, 2004|By Paul Moore

THE SUN recently published a whimsical front-page article about the variety of gifts that Joshua Ehrlich, the infant son of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his wife, Kendel, received upon his birth. A public records request by Sun reporter David Nitkin produced a 22-page list of presents that arrived at the governor's mansion this spring.

Mr. Nitkin reported that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, had sent balloons and that many of Mr. Ehrlich's Cabinet chiefs had sent personal gifts. The story also noted that some presents received from registered lobbyists were returned because of Maryland state ethics law restrictions.

Near the end of the article, Mr. Nitkin noted that among gifts from members of the news media was a baby bib from Sun staff writer Pat Meisol, who has written stories about Kendel Ehrlich and state government officials. Also, Sun editorial writer Karen Hosler, with her husband -- who works in the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention -- had trees planted in the baby's honor.

FOR THE RECORD - The original published version of this story had the incorrect middle initial for Anthony Barbieri. This archived version has been corrected.

"I certainly was surprised," Mr. Nitkin said in an interview. "I didn't expect to see this."

He wasn't the only one.

Adherence to a code of ethics is the clearest sign of a newspaper's responsibility to its readers. The Sun's unwritten ethics code prohibits staff members from accepting any gifts from news sources or making contributions to any political or advocacy groups. Implicit in the code is a prohibition on giving gifts to public figures, which could create the appearance of a conflict of interest.

After Mr. Nitkin's story ran on April 23, The Sun's managing editor, Anthony F. Barbieri, decided that Ms. Meisol would no longer write about the Ehrlich administration or state government. "We concluded that to ensure that our readers believe that we are truly independent, this had to be done," Mr. Barbieri said. He added that senior editors are confident that Ms. Meisol would be fair and objective, "but I think this helps square things with our readers."

Editorial Page Editor Dianne Donovan, Ms. Hosler's supervisor, had known previously about the friendship between Ms. Hosler and her husband and the Ehrlichs. After Mr. Ehrlich was elected, Ms. Donovan and Ms. Hosler agreed that Ms. Hosler would not write editorials about the governor or state politics. Following Mr. Nitkin's baby gift story, Ms. Donovan ruled that Ms. Hosler would not write anything at all regarding Maryland politics or policies. This means Ms. Hosler cannot cover two of her specialties, environment and health issues. "We simply can't give the impression of the expectation of favored treatment," Ms. Donovan said.

Are these restrictions too harsh? Are senior editors making a mountain out of a molehill?

Ms. Meisol calls the decision to bar her reporting about state government "dramatic, broad and severe."

"I have worked hard for two years to develop contacts with some of the highest-level people in the Maryland state government," she said. "It seems a big leap and an injury to me to imply to readers that I can no longer be objective on these topics because I gave somebody a baby bib."

Ms. Hosler said her decision to join her husband in sending a gift was an offhand thing. "It was thoughtless, because I certainly would not purposely give the governor and his wife a personal gift," she said.

Bob Steele, an authority on ethics codes at the Poynter Institute, the journalism center in St. Petersburg, Fla., says the baby gifts do not represent a "mortal sin" but can be seen as an example of competing loyalties. "Credibility is built on the platform of independence, and coverage can't seem to be affected by personal connections," he said.

Some in the newsroom argue that cultivating personal relationships with sources and subjects -- such as having lunch or dinner together -- is part of a reporter's job. That's true, says Deputy Managing Editor Sandra A. Banisky, but it is possible to interact with a source and avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. She cited the difference between a reporter paying personally for a meal and The Sun picking up the tab: "It's the institution vs. the individual, that's the distinction."

Mr. Steele believes ethics codes need to be specific to protect both the newspaper and the employee. "It should be about practices that work for professionals but not moral absolutes," he said. Ms. Meisol said that she always saw herself as acting on behalf of The Sun and believed that sending a bib was simply a nice personal touch.

"I wish I had just sent a card," she said.

Paul Moore's column regularly appears Sundays.

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