Ehrlich takes on challenge of TV

Commentary role for WMAR news draws criticism

December 26, 2007|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Reporter

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had some well-publicized tussles with the media (notably this medium) during his four years in office. But he sees nothing ironic about his gig as a news analyst and commentator for Baltimore's WMAR-TV, Channel 2.

"My commentary is a function of my views, my philosophy, my observations," says Ehrlich, who offered his perspective to WMAR viewers during last month's special session in Annapolis and will return once the regular assembly session begins Jan. 9. "It's just me being me. It's just giving opinions, as I always have and always will. It's not terribly difficult to do."

Still, some analysts see potential challenges in the Republican former governor's newfound role as interpreter of the news, with concerns that his commentary will be unduly colored by partisanship.

Putting any politician onto a news program can put its credibility at risk, and "in order to offset that cost, the product has to be pretty darn good," says Kelly McBride, a member of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "The audience still has an expectation that there will be some mechanism to make sure the work is up to journalistic standards."

Adds Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, "It would be egregious to have him reporting. But even as a commentator, I guess I just don't see the point. ... Why not get somebody who is knowledgeable and who will have some sort of independent judgment?"

Ehrlich is set to appear Thursdays on WMAR's hourlong 5 p.m. newscast, says station news director David Silverstein. "He's going to try to make sense of things in plain English," says Silverstein. "He knows how things get done there, and he offers the viewer a real benefit.

"Even though he has his views, the goal here is for him to explain things clearly," Silverstein adds. "The goal here is, he can't go too far one way or the other, because I think people will see right through that. It's best for him just to explain the issues."

WMAR general manager William Hooper says the station has a standing offer to Gov. Martin O'Malley to appear on its newscasts and has extended similar offers to other high-ranking Democrats and administration officials. "We will try to get good, balanced information from both sides," he says.

Former Ehrlich aide Greg Massoni, who now works alongside him at the law firm of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, helped broker the deal with WMAR. He says the former governor's hiring could give the perennially third-place station's news operation a leg up on the competition.

"This will go a long way to helping them, by having a really credible source to talk politics," says Massoni, who worked at WMAR from 1980 to 1995.

Ehrlich, who will be paid for his appearances and will continue his Saturday-morning program on WBAL-AM Radio, promises that he and WMAR will be upfront about his party affiliation and loyalties. When discussion turns to the 2008 presidential race, as the former governor assumes it often will, viewers will be reminded that he is Mid-Atlantic chairman for former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's campaign.

During his tenure as governor, Ehrlich had an often-contentious relationship with The Sun. In a Nov. 18, 2004, order, he barred state executive branch employees from talking to then-State House bureau chief David Nitkin or former columnist Michael Olesker. He contended that the two journalists were biased in their reporting. The Sun unsuccessfully filed suit to void that directive on First Amendment grounds.

Ehrlich plays down any suggestion that he had an unduly adversarial relationship with the press.

"Obviously, I have excellent relations with the radio press," he says. "I would characterize as excellent relations with the TV press. And my relations with the newspapers couldn't have been too bad, since every newspaper in the state endorsed us, except for The Sun."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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