Historic, hideous and essential

Dingy State House press room offer a front-row seat to democracy - and a beer for the gov

Observations

July 04, 2004|By Tom Waldron | Tom Waldron,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's an awful place, really, a dusty ground-floor suite of offices next to a noisy print shop. Beat-up desks are crammed together with no pretense of privacy, and the fluorescent lights are stark and depressing.

But for 90 days each year, when the General Assembly session begins in Annapolis, the press offices in the State House hum with life, as reporters try, sometimes successfully, to make sense of the legislative maneuvers taking place all around them.

The conditions could be more elegant, but a reporter could not ask for a more convenient place to plug in a computer. The offices are just steps from the floor of the Senate and House of Delegates, and a quick walk from the governor's offices on the second floor. It's like covering the circus from inside the center ring.

Word now comes, though, that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is trying to evict the State House press corps from these offices they have had for decades - to accommodate, supposedly, repairs elsewhere in the building.

Messing with history

It's hard to imagine that the public will rally in protest; this is about reporters, after all. Nobody outside the press corps seems to care that the governor already doesn't talk to some reporters, proudly declares he doesn't read newspapers, or that he's had newspaper boxes removed from the capitol (ostensibly for security reasons).

But this time, Ehrlich also is messing with history. State capitols around the country - and the U.S. Capitol - have traditionally set aside offices for reporters. It is the people's building, after all, and the press is, at least nominally, the people's representative to the proceedings.

I remember visiting my father, a reporter, in his office in the old Florida capitol in Tallahassee in the early 1960s. Teletype machines clattered, and the room was suffused in cigarette smoke and the smell of newsprint. Instead of a chair, my father perched on a stack of thick Florida law books while he typed on a manual typewriter.

The teletypes and cigarette smoke are gone. But in many cases, state house press offices remain just as vital, throwbacks in a modern media world. Cop reporters rarely prowl the district station houses to look over booking sheets these days. And you'll have to rent a movie to see a courthouse pressroom stocked with jaded, poker-playing reporters waiting for the next verdict.

I don't remember much poker being played in the State House, but there was the occasional drink-fest. One year, Gov. Parris N. Glendening stopped by a few minutes after the legislature's midnight adjournment to drink beer - the reporters' beer. As he told a slightly off-color joke, an aide deftly replaced his two-thirds-empty beer with a fresh one, sparing him, I suppose, from having to swallow the last warm bit.

On the last day of a legislative session in the 1980s, we gathered in the big press room known as The Pit to draw slips of paper out of a hat. On each was a familiar State House cliche - "smoke-filled room" or "11th-hour agreement." The challenge was to work the cliche as prominently as possible into stories in the next day's papers. (Of course, some may say we didn't need a contest to accomplish that.)

Fewer media outlets have reporters in Maryland's State House than did 20 years ago. The News American and The Evening Sun are long gone, and The Washington Post operates mainly out of a comfortable office - with windows! - a block away.

But The Sun, the Associated Press and a handful of other newspapers have reporters in the building year-round. Many more media outlets send reporters to cover the 90-day legislative session that begins every January. These smaller papers are crammed into The Pit, tastefully decorated with a huge photograph of former Gov. Marvin Mandel.

Value of proximity

Having reporters in the building seems to serve everyone's purposes. Lawmakers know exactly how to find the press, and for reporters, the value of being so close to the news cannot be overstated.

One reporter for The Evening Sun - not me - latched onto a particularly good story after finding a copy of a memo in a trash can next to one of the state copiers.

And I couldn't begin to count the number of times reporters stumbled onto stories after seeing someone walk into the State House and head up toward the legislative area or the governor's office. "Why the heck is Peter Angelos here?" we'd ask.

If, as Woody Allen says, 90 percent of life is showing up, at least half of being a good reporter is showing up in the right place.

Of course, being so close by can have drawbacks. Annoyed activists storm in and accost reporters for not covering their painstakingly planned demonstrations; lawmakers who wouldn't bother to walk a couple of blocks to see a reporter stop in to complain about that day's coverage.

And there was always the uneasy (and admittedly slightly paranoid) realization that someone on the governor's staff could very easily open the press offices in the middle of the night and have a run through the files.

Whether or not the governor has the power to take over the offices is unclear; his unilateral decision may have been made prematurely, and both the press and some legislators are questioning it.

I certainly hope Gov. Ehrlich takes another course. The press offices, as cramped and dingy as they may be, make an important statement: that the capitol is very much open to the public. They are also a slice of living history, something always worth preserving.

And besides, where is the governor going to go for a free beer the next time the legislature adjourns?

Tom Waldron worked as a reporter in the State House for 11 years and served as State House bureau chief for The Sun from 1996 to 2001.

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