Some perils of shooting the messenger

December 05, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

SO, THERE'S this candidate who's being urged to attend a meeting on the other side of his state.

"You've got to get over here," an aide tells him. The candidate says he can't make it.

"You don't understand," the aide says. "They're telling lies about you over here."

"No," says the candidate, "you don't understand. Over here they're telling the truth about me."

It was, no doubt, an unpleasant truth and, therefore, a more compelling problem for the candidate to confront. If you've done something controversial in politics, eventually you have to face it. Maybe people don't understand. You have to explain it. That's what leaders do. If you've made a mistake, you'd better embrace it. To quote a recent candidate for president, "You can run but you can't hide."

Which brings us to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. An affable, earnest and reasonably astute politician, he apparently has decided to create a diversion rather than address a situation his administration created. He wants to ban two newspapermen for doing their job.

The Sun's David Nitkin broke a story about the Ehrlich administration's plan to sell 836 acres of state land to a campaign contributor, a transaction that might have brought millions in tax savings to the contributor, a friend of former Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Mr. Ehrlich needs Mr. Schaefer's vote on the Board of Public Works and the votes Mr. Schaefer might be able to swing the governor's way in the 2006 election.

Fair enough in politics, but a number of important procedural steps designed to safeguard the public purse and to ensure fairness were skipped. In further explorations of the issue, Mr. Nitkin uncovered a plan to sell even more state land. Who would have known?

The story, as they say, has had legs. It keeps running and running and running. Mr. Ehrlich's diversion has, in effect, given it fresh batteries. Apparently thinking he can change the subject, he instructed his team to deny Mr. Nitkin's requests for information. Or, some suggest, he thinks the press is in such bad odor that bashing it for just about anything is good politics. For good measure, the governor throws in Michael Olesker, the veteran columnist.

The governor's administration embarked on a low-rent version of the classic politician's tactic. Having urged Maryland business to get dangerous with its political enemies (denying them campaign cash), he's gotten dangerous himself. But even Comptroller Schaefer, constantly at war with the press, never banned his tormenters. (OK, maybe he did, but he didn't announce it.) He came up with funny names for them or deliberately mispronounced their names. He growled and scowled and ranted. He complained to editors and publishers and anyone he could think of. But he knew a ban wouldn't work, and probably didn't want one because he knew he could use the press when he had an idea or a project or a plan to promote.

He knew all the bromides: Never fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel. Don't get in an (expletive deleted) match with a skunk. Mr. Ehrlich says ink in quantity and skunks don't matter because people don't read newspapers anymore. If that's so, why the ban? But, of course, people do read. They will be wary of those who seem to think they can't make up their own minds.

The Ehrlich administration says it is punishing Mr. Nitkin and Mr. Olesker for getting it wrong. Actually, the real problem is just the opposite. They've been getting it right.

Does the Ehrlich administration believe land deals should be done secretly with buyers identified only as "benefactors"? That's what happened in the Willard J. Hackerman land deal. Does he think Marylanders don't want to know that high rollers are getting government bonbons?

If the administration wants accuracy, it should be more open than it has been on some occasions. It needs to comment on what it's doing - not to help reporters or newspapers but to be transparent.

Finally, it's better to confront your problems. It's your job. You have to be accountable. Lay it out there. Someone will get it right. Being forthright and open will be refreshing. It might minimize the pain, and people will respect you for it.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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