Take a cue from newsmen and politicos of years gone by

December 05, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III

ONCE UPON A time in Annapolis, The Sun was a mighty force, and the newspaper's chief representative in the state capital was a mighty force, too, possibly more influential than any other single individual, even the governor at one time or another.

The Sun's man in Annapolis was Charles G. Whiteford. He reigned in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. Charlie's sheer size was enough to get your attention. He was way over 6 feet tall and walked with a head-first lope. And what a head it was - flat with a broken nose set off by a couple of dolorous eyes rolling over the rest that hung like the face of a bloodhound in repose. For all his size and importance, Charlie was not a bully. But he certainly was not to be bullied, either.

It's practically impossible to imagine that in his time, any member of the General Assembly, any governor, any staffer would have banned talking to Mr. Whiteford, much less make such a ban public. This is what Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has done to David Nitkin, The Sun's present State House bureau chief, and Sun columnist Michael Olesker.

What are we to think of a governor who chats easily and enthusiastically with a ranting buffoon on AM radio but will not speak to a reporter from this newspaper? Mr. Whiteford might have responded by not talking to them for a while, just to prove who mattered more.

But times change. As Bradford Jacobs, the former Evening Sun editorial page editor, put it in an interview for Mr. Whiteford's obituary in 1982, "Things were different than they are now. Whoever was political reporter for The Sun was the voice. There was no television. People would say, `It's what The Sun says, and it's what Whiteford says, so it's probably true.'"

Things were different in many other ways, too.

For one, politicians did not regard reporters as the enemy. They did not hold reporters responsible for the pronouncements and opinions of the newspaper's editorial page. And reporters did not view politicians quite as suspiciously as they do today. Of course, there were plenty of crooks in politics, but reporters were as likely to be drinking with them as uncovering their sins. And if they were drinking together, the reporter was just as likely to be laughing at the pomposity of the editorial page as the politician was.

Mr. Whiteford was a compleat Marylander, from his Baltimore birthplace to his passion for crabs and beer. His forte was that he knew how the political system worked at a time when the system was very organized by bosses and their clubs. He knew all of the players. They all talked to him because if they didn't they'd have no influence on events, and they probably wouldn't be let in on what the others were saying.

Mr. Whiteford was such a force among these people that he became known as the 146th member of the 145-member General Assembly. Not only did politicians talk to him, but he decided where and when. So it was not unusual for him to intrude on the precious decorum of the legislature to get what he wanted.

As Peter Jay, a former Sun columnist, recalled in Mr. Whiteford's 1982 obituary, "Few reporters could match Charlie's ability to march up to the rostrum while the House of Delegates or the state Senate was in full sonorous session, settle into a chair and unceremoniously tug the presiding officer down by the coattails to respond to a question."

My first year reporting at the State House was Mr. Whiteford's last as chief there. At the time, reporters assigned to the General Assembly session lived at the Maryland Inn, where Mr. Whiteford had established a sort of club of newshounds, politicos and factotums who drank and palavered late into the night with an unspoken understanding that everything was off the record. A Sun reporter was expected to turn in expense accounts for these late-night excesses almost as if it were to prove he was doing his job.

Everyone at those late boozy nights would have guffawed at Governor Ehrlich's selective gag order. They also probably would have laughed at The Sun's litigious reaction. In the name of Charles G. Whiteford, here's my suggestion: Get a drink together, my b'hoys - all of you - and work this out so we don't have to waste any more time on it.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former editor and foreign correspondent for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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