Articles focus serious scrutiny on four officials

Public Editor

February 19, 2006|By PAUL MOORE | PAUL MOORE,PUBLIC EDITOR

Those who hold or are running for public office should receive close media scrutiny. And where the public interest is vital, that scrutiny should be intense.

In the past several weeks, The Sun has published a number of incisive articles about four of Maryland's most notable public officials: Lt. Gov Michael S. Steele, who is seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate; Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor; Sheila Dixon, Democratic Baltimore City Council president who would become mayor if O'Malley wins the gubernatorial race; and Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is seeking re-election.

On Feb. 10, Jennifer Skalka reported in a front-page article that during a discussion with Baltimore Jewish Council board members, Steele compared embryonic stem cell research to experiments performed on Jews during the Holocaust.

Skalka, the only journalist covering the meeting, quoted Steele as saying: "You of all folks know what happens when people decide they want to experiment on human beings, when they want to take your life and use it as a tool."

The next day, Skalka reported that Steele had apologized, saying he "made an unfortunate, irresponsible inference."

Several readers said the stories were overplayed and showed bias, but in my view Skalka's reporting was fair and thorough.

Skalka interviewed Jewish Council board members who were highly critical of Steele's remarks, but she also talked to scientists, ethicists and a number of politicians with differing views on the matter.

In my view, the two stories deserved prominent display because they centered on the candidate's judgment as well as what he said. Skalka tackled legitimate issues and raised questions that are relevant to readers.

Unfortunately, a headline accompanying Skalka's Feb. 12 analytical piece about Steele's Senate campaign failed the fairness test. "Comments to Jewish council and general policy of staying mum lead critics to wonder if he's ready for Senate," it said.

Reader Douglas Desmarais said: "Isn't it axiomatic that critics of political figures believe that the objects of their criticism are not ready for the office at issue? To make a headline out of the fact that critics of Mr. Steele doubt he is ready for the Senate makes an impressive `Exhibit A' for those who contend that The Sun is out to get the Republicans."

During the week of Feb. 7, reporter Doug Donovan wrote five articles about Dixon's official participation in a council hearing and three Board of Estimates votes that involved the employer of her sister, Janice Dixon.

At issue is the city's ethics law, which requires officials to recuse themselves from actions that benefit relatives and to disclose when family members, including siblings, work for companies that do business with the city or are regulated by the city.

Donovan showed that Dixon never mentioned her sister's job at the hearing where that information was relevant and that, despite assertions to the contrary, she did not abstain from Board of Estimates votes on city contracts with her sister's employer, Union Technologies.

As a result of these articles, the city's Board of Ethics will investigate all these recent situations involving Dixon.

Donovan also wrote a Feb. 11 front-page story with the headline, "Doubts arise about mayor's crime statistics." This investigative article details how several criminologists question the calculations used to arrive at numbers employed by O'Malley to claim that violent crime in Baltimore has declined 40 percent since he took office in 1999.

Donovan reported that comparing the 1999 statistics, which underwent an extensive audit that increased the reported incidents of violence, with the 2004 statistics, which were not audited, raises questions about the mayor's claim. O'Malley's political rivals have challenged the veracity of the statistics and the mayor's credibility. Ehrlich's office also has authorized an audit of the city's crime statistics.

But Ehrlich was also feeling some journalistic heat. A Feb. 13 front-page article by Andrew Green, "Septic fee angers Ehrlich's rural base," described how a 2004 law requiring annual fees on municipal sewer hookups and septic tanks could cost the governor votes of people who strongly backed him in 2002.

Green's reporting put into context the anger and frustration of many of these rural voters, along with Ehrlich's efforts to explain why he supported and signed the bill. Like the O'Malley articles, the story moved readers beyond political rhetoric.

At a time when partisan emotions run high and newspapers frequently receive complaints about bias in reporting, it is worth noting that these articles closely examined the actions of public officials on both sides of the political spectrum.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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