After a stumble, Elkridge Club coverage adds up

July 31, 2005|By Paul Moore

SINCE THE Sun reported July 2 that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had held a fundraiser last month at the all-white Elkridge Country Club, the newspaper has published seven additional articles, three columns and one editorial on the topic.

As the story extended into late July, The Sun has chronicled denunciations, explanations, charges of double standards, and changes in stated positions. Metro columnists Michael Olesker and Gregory Kane weighed in, Fraser Smith wrote an Opinion/Commentary page column and the editorial page made its case also.

Through it all, a number of readers complained that the newspaper had devoted too much coverage to the story.

"I have read so much about the Elkridge Country Club that it's starting to sound like a long-running broken record in The Sun," said reader Tom Lawson. "My goodness, there are many more important issues that need surfacing than the affairs of private clubs that don't affect most of us."

WBAL talk-show host Ron Smith represented the views of some when he called the coverage "manufactured outrage" and said, "As a political issue in the 2006 campaign, this will matter not."

Reader Bill Schaffer said: "Enough stories about Elkridge. Please report the news like a responsible newspaper. Your blatant campaign against Elkridge is an embarrassment to journalism."

In my view, The Sun's early reporting was not as complete as it could have been, but the coverage touched on issues that needed to be raised. The newspaper also correctly played the stories on the Metro section front and not on the front page.

The first article, written by David Nitkin, focused on reaction to the Republican governor's holding an event at a place from which Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, an African-American, would be excluded. (Nitkin spent days confirming that Elkridge has not had not any black members in its 127-year history.) The story, however, did not provide information about whether any Democratic office holders had ever held events at Elkridge. On July 6, The Sun confirmed in a follow-up article that Baltimore County executive Jim Smith had held a fundraiser at Elkridge in May. Smith said he was unaware of Elkridge's membership composition and apologized for having had an event there. Despite rumors to the contrary, no other fundraiser for a Democrat at Elkridge has been confirmed.

Some readers complained that not mentioning the Smith event in the first article was deliberate. For its part, the Ehrlich administration accused The Sun of having a double standard for not initially reporting on the Democrats.

Nitkin actually had explored whether Democrats had ever held fundraisers at Elkridge. He talked to a number of elected officials and party members, but they told him they knew of no Democratic fundraisers there. He also checked the state's Board of Elections campaign finance database, but Ehrlich and Smith's events were too recent to be recorded.

"My stomach churned, and I broke out in a cold sweat when I learned on July 5 about the Smith event," Nitkin said. "The first story would have been stronger with it. But I did try to check about Democrats. I am chagrined that part of the discussion is that The Sun purposely omitted information about Jim Smith. That is untrue."

Soon the story became more about Ehrlich's and Steele's reactions than about the event itself.

After the first story about the Elkridge fundraiser, the governor said on WBAL: "I don't know what their membership is, and guess what? It's not my business." Steele told the Associated Press, "I don't know that much about the club, the membership, nor do I care, quite frankly, because I don't play golf."

But later in the month, Steele offered a very different perspective when he acknowledged that his comments were flippant, and called on Elkridge to change its membership practices. Three days later, Ehrlich said he supported Steele's position about integration at Elkridge and that he would now check the membership policies of any organizations before scheduling future events.

Columnist Kane wrote on July 20 that Elkridge's policies were not the business of politicians. "Democrats are primarily the one who support racial preferences that they have the nerve to call `affirmative action,'" Kane wrote. "Until they change their tune about that ... the party should leave the Elkridge club alone. And, so should ... Steele and Ehrlich."

Many readers applauded Kane. But, reader Stephen Goodman had a different perspective: "While I agree with Mr. Kane that private organizations have (and should have) the right to privacy and exclusivity, I think his column obfuscates what justice and fairness really mean."

A July 21 article by Nitkin brought the story full circle when the president of Elkridge - who had been completely silent up to then - said the club had been actively seeking black members for a decade, without success.

By then, readers knew a lot more than they did at the beginning of the month.

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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