Good press for a free ride


August 13, 2008|By LAURA VOZZELLA

Turns out the Bush administration hasn't cornered the market on pay-for-puff journalism.

The city of Baltimore has offered free trips to Portland, Ore., Los Angeles, Phoenix and Seattle to reporters willing to write positive stories about public transit projects there.

"The city wants a total of 4 freelance journalists and/or bloggers (one person per trip) to accompany them on an expense-paid trip (air fare, hotel and meals) in exchange for positive stories in local newspapers or blogs about the transit tours before, during and after," wrote Sandra L. Harley, president of Sahara Communications, a city subcontractor.

Harley sent the message to a reporter at a small local paper, asking for a list of potentially on-the-take journalists. Not that Harley saw it that way.

She told The Sun's John Fritze that she saw nothing unethical about offering junkets for good news coverage - particularly since she claims she was really aiming for bloggers, not traditional newspaper reporters.

"For me, bloggers are the new journalists," she said. "They have lots of sources. That's what we're hoping to get out of it. We're trying to get a whole lot of sources."

But Jamie Kendrick, deputy director for administration for the city's Transportation Department, opted against the blogger defense. He said the city was trying to get transit coverage in small papers that don't have the means to send reporters.

"I'm not looking to buy a story," Kendrick said. "The point was to provide small, neighborhood papers the opportunity to participate."

City transportation officials seemed unable to decide if they'd authorized Sahara's solicitation - or if the offer was still on the table.

When Fritze first inquired about it, transportation spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes put him in touch with Sahara. Later, Barnes said the department "did not authorize or sanction the release of the information by Sahara." Sahara later retracted the message, calling the whole thing "an honest mistake."

So the junket's off?

"We're not going to do it," Barnes said. "That's not going to happen. Period."

Five minutes later, Barnes called back and said an entity other than the city - perhaps the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a pro-public-transit coalition of business and nonprofit types - might pay reporters' way instead.

Gee, that'll make it all on the up-and-up. Why doesn't Ron Lipscomb just pick up the tab?

For the record, the Alliance's Tasha Brinkley-McNutt said she was unaware of any plans to fund friendly-journo junkets, though they intend to have a videographer tag along.

Loose lips reveal judgeships

Note to the newest judge on the state's highest court: It's a good idea to observe those "No Cell Phone Use" signs in medical waiting rooms. Especially if you're chatting about something that's "on the QT."

There's always a chance that someone - a newspaper reporter, even - will overhear.

The Sun's Stephanie Desmon was really trying to concentrate on a Newsweek article on acai berries while waiting for her own turn at American Radiology in Columbia last week. But her ears perked up when the cell-phone scofflaw sitting nearby called someone to say, "The governor called last night. I got it."

Mary Ellen Barbera phoned several people to share the news, cautioning that it was "on the QT." She'd tried somebody named Sally earlier, then left a second message to make sure she'd gotten the news.

I don't know if Sally got word before the rest of the world, but it didn't take long for it to spread. Desmon went to the office and passed on the tip that somebody named Barbera - HIPAA rules aside, they still call out your name in waiting rooms - had just gotten something from the governor. Reporter Gadi Dechter Googled the judge, then rang up the governor's office. The news release was out by day's end.

Connect the dots ...

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