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Keeping the Dailies Away

By Russ Smith | Posted 8/24/2005

Last week, in a Cross Keys office, I had a lively conversation with a doctor who was examining my younger son. A lifelong liberal, this genial fellow said he thought “Ehrlich might have a slim chance of beating O’Malley” in the 2006 governor’s race, “but even that’s doubtful.”

This opinion isn’t unusual taken at face value—what else would you expect from a staunch Martin O’Malley supporter more than a year before the election?—but it was his rationale that I found noteworthy, and perhaps typical of Baltimoreans over the age of 50. “The mayor will be a minor player,” he said, “because the real battle will be between Ehrlich and the Sunpapers.” It was the doctor’s quaint, if understandable, reference to Baltimore’s only daily as “the Sunpapers” that reaffirmed my opinion that the print media will have a diminished role in what, at least at this juncture, promises to be an extremely expensive and nasty battle for the governorship.

There are no “Sunpapers” anymore—or News-American for that matter—and the political power once wielded by the Ivory Tower editorialists and columnists at Calvert Street has gone the way of the Evening Sun, local ownership of the company, and the typewriter. In 1978, for example, it was a different story: When The Sun endorsed presumed gubernatorial also-ran Harry Hughes just before that year’s Democratic primary, choosing him over Ted Venetoulis, acting Gov. Blair Lee III, and Wally Orlinsky, Hughes’ lackadaisical campaign was energized and he easily won both the primary and election.

That sort of old-fashioned, blue-blood clout doesn’t exist anymore, in Baltimore or in most cities across the nation. The reality of an explosive new world of media, one in which talk radio and the internet bear genuine political prominence, has no doubt contributed to the Sun’s (and Washington Post’s) often petty squabbles with Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who wisely ignores the press as much as possible. The governor, opposed by both of those dailies in 2002 and the recipient of consistently negative coverage, has flipped the bird to the men and women who once were courted by political candidates.

Both The Sun and Post have been shameless in ridiculing Ehrlich at regular intervals. As I’ve written before, this governor is no workaholic, and is guilty of doing too little to build up Maryland’s Republican Party, but the nitpicking by the dailies—particularly The Sun, which gives O’Malley a free pass on almost any issue of relevance—is petty.

An Aug. 19 Sun article about Ehrlich stalling on naming his golf partners, as requested by Common Cause/Maryland, was typical. Reporter Jennifer Skalka dutifully relayed the concerns of Common Cause that Ehrlich might be running afoul of ethics laws by playing golf with potential financial supporters who are paying the greens fees. Democratic Party spokesman Derek Walker told Skalka, “The golf course is Bob Ehrlich’s Crawford. If they won’t talk about it [possible ethics violations], they’re hiding something.”

Walker probably thought he was clever associating Ehrlich with President Bush by invoking the latter’s Texas ranch, but it’s pretty thin gruel. It would be interesting to learn whether Common Cause has the same concerns about whom O’Malley spends his leisure time with, but I don’t expect to see that in The Sun.

Post staff writer Paul Farhi, in the paper’s Aug. 19 Style section, tackled Ehrlich’s frequent appearances on WBAL’s radio talk shows, hardly an original topic. Recounting the governor’s edict that state employees can’t talk to the Sun’s David Nitkin and Michael Olesker, Farhi gets in the following dig: “Talk radio, on the other hand, enables Ehrlich to bypass reporters and take his message straight to the people, or at least the people who listen to WBAL and a few other talk stations he favors in the state.” Reliable Democrat Walker is called upon to say WBAL is “a wholly owned subsidiary of the Ehrlich administration.”

Walker’s predilection for hyperbole aside, what exactly is wrong with Ehrlich choosing media outlets to “break” news? It’s just a matter of smart politics: He’s Maryland’s first Republican governor in a generation and, displeased with coverage of his administration by the dominant daily newspapers, has decided to ignore them as much as possible. As recently as a decade ago, Ehrlich wouldn’t have that option; now that he does, print reporters and pundits are crying foul.

An Aug. 21 Sun editorial, on the subject of national Democrats failing to concoct a “positive” platform in response to the GOP, unintentionally indicted its own staff by making this grand statement: “Voters simply aren’t inspired by criticism, complaints, and name-calling.” That’s precisely what Ehrlich objects to about The Sun—whether it’s sniping about slots, the governor’s hair, or his stubbornness—and it’s just one of the reasons, my son’s doctor’s opinions notwithstanding, that it’s unlikely O’Malley will have an easy time moving to Annapolis.

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