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Hack Job

By Russ Smith | Posted 7/19/2006

It may be true that in mid-July not many potential voters in Maryland are paying attention to September's Democratic primary and the general election two months later, but is that any reason for The Sun to offer its readers obvious and sometimes sloppy political reporting?

This is the first election cycle in a generation where the GOP candidates have an opportunity to chip away at the state's traditional Democratic advantage in U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races, a situation that has drawn consistent notice from Washington reporters working for dailies and opinion journals as politically diverse as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, and National Review. A pair of stories by The Sun's Jennifer Skalka earlier this month makes me wonder why Baltimore's dominant daily isn't providing more incisive coverage.

Skalka's July 9 article, "GOP seems to push for Mfume-Steele Senate race," added nothing to the debate, since it's been clear all year that of course Steele would rather face Mfume than Ben Cardin. As The Washington Post reported July 2, Mfume has a six-point lead over Cardin according to its most recent poll, and while the latter is preferred over Steele by respondents by a 10-point margin, the lieutenant governor is just three points behind Mfume.

Although virtually no reporter or analyst will acknowledge the delicate issue of race in the election, that's the reason why Democratic officials prefer Cardin while their GOP counterparts are pulling for Mfume as an opponent to Steele. If voters are given the choice of two black candidates, who are diametrically opposed on most issues, there's no possibility of secretive racism as a factor. Skalka quoted Audra Miller, Maryland's GOP spokeswoman, as saying recently on WBAL Radio, "The good old boys in the Democratic Party have made these decisions [to back Cardin over Mfume], and basically they feel the voters are irrelevant. . . . It's unfortunate. I think the people are robbed of a great voice. Mr. Mfume has been treated terribly by his own party."

It's true that the party establishment prefers Cardin, not only for his fundraising ability and lack of personal baggage, but Miller's disingenuous sympathy for Mfume is laughable. Skalka, who is a news reporter, not a columnist, can't be expected to blatantly ridicule Miller for her transparent remarks, but she could've found a Democrat to offer a more truthful assessment.

When former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani was the star attraction at Gov. Robert Ehrlich's latest high-profile fundraiser in Baltimore on July 12, Skalka's story the next day once again delivered old news. Headlined "Maryland becomes a magnet for GOP," Skalka noted that in addition to Giuliani, senators John McCain and Bill Frist, both likely presidential candidates in 2008, have also come to Maryland on behalf of GOP candidates (both stumped for Steele, as did Bush political adviser Karl Rove last year), and reported Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson's observation that "It does help the Republican ticket here especially for people like Giuliani and McCain to come because they are perceived as moderates."

No kidding.

Skalka's contention that Maryland isn't as predominantly Democratic as imagined isn't supported by the following example: "[T]he state is less one-sided than its reputation would indicate. Maryland delivered its electoral votes to a Republican presidential nominee as recently as 1988, choosing the elder George Bush over Michael S. Dukakis. The state backed Ronald Reagan in 1984, Richard Nixon in 1972 and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Thomas E. Dewey defeated Harry S. Truman here in 1948."

She doesn't mention that in '84 and '72 Reagan and Nixon both won 49 states, and that Eisenhower, half a century ago, also won landslide victories. Maryland was one of the few states to choose Jimmy Carter over Reagan in 1980, and of course went for Bill Clinton twice, as well as Al Gore and John Kerry. That sounds fairly "one-sided" to me.

It's not my intention to single out Skalka, for The Sun's Arthur Hirsch was sloppy in his July 13 article about the efforts of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) to register new voters. Hirsch reports that since 2002, when Ehrlich defeated Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for governor, the voter registration rolls have grown by 300,000, from 2.7 million to 3 million, with barely any difference in party affiliation. He then quotes UMBC professor Thomas Schaller (just as ubiquitous as Crenson in Sun and Post political stories) as saying, "The needle has not moved since Ehrlich became governor, and that is a surprising, empirical fact." It doesn't really surprise me, since Ehrlich's upset victory was a function of Townsend's inept campaign, but Hirsch's real sin is not acknowledging that Schaller is an unabashed supporter of Mayor Martin O'Malley. (To be fair, Schaller's preference is usually mentioned in the articles of other Sun reporters.)

In fact, O'Malley posted a June 27 Washington Post article by John Wagner--an excellent reporter--on his web site. In the piece, "O'Malley, Ehrlich Get a Jump on Fall Contest," Schaller tells Wagner, "The whole education and crime story line has been put out there, discussed and defended. O'Malley certainly won't get a free pass on those issues, but the news will be more stale. There will be a lack of novelty." Wagner, unlike Hirsch, notes that Schaller favors O'Malley in the contest.

Schaller may actually think that Baltimore's crime rate and educational crisis will be "stale" when Ehrlich debates O'Malley--although I believe that's rather naive--but Hirsch's omission of the professor's support for the mayor is misleading. It's time for Sun editors to wake up.

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