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By Russ Smith | Posted 8/18/2004

Last week, after reading Sun reporter Scott Shane’s comments about the paper he’s leaving for The New York Times in Brendan Coyne’s City Paper story, I had a mini-epiphany. When thinking about Baltimore’s only daily, it was suddenly clear that this reader is like a Democrat who supports John Kerry: There’s not much to get excited about, but the alternative is far worse—in this case, no local daily at all.

Shane, free to speak out since his new post at the Times begins in October, said that Tribune Co.’s financial cutbacks at its newspaper properties is part of a “race to the bottom,” one that will inevitably gut the paper’s already threadbare editorial staff. Additionally, an anonymous Sun source told Coyne that some people—“live wood,” as opposed to old-timers taking buyouts from the company—are “moving up to bigger papers than The Sun.”

I’d argue that talented reporters have used The Sun as a steppingstone for decades and is explained more by career advancement than Tribune’s rapacious accountants. People like Steve Luxenberg (Washington Post), Bill Carter (New York Times), Tracie Rozhon (Times), Stephen Hunter (Post), and Adam Clymer (Times) are just a few who stick out.

I can’t figure out why the Sun’s Dan Rodricks, who’s written a “street” column for a generation now, starting in his 20s, hasn’t also defected to a major newspaper, or at least demanded a twice-weekly slot on the op-ed pages.

But let’s make lemonade out of bitter lemons. Except on weekends, The Sun arrives on my front lawn before 7 a.m., and is useful for checking movie schedules and box scores from the previous day’s baseball games. That alone isn’t bad for half a buck. And when you don’t expect much editorial enlightenment, the exceptions stand out. For example, I usually get at least one chuckle reading Peter Schmuck’s new sports column, a grab bag of offhand observations.

On Aug. 5, Schmuck lashed out at ESPN contributor Tom Friend, who recently attacked Baltimore as a lousy sports town. Friend, in arguing that his native Washington, D.C., is a natural location for the Montreal Expos, wrote that as a youth he’d “hold [his] nose” when driving through this city on the way to New York. “I don’t know if it was the factories or the smokestacks or the Chesapeake Bay, but Baltimore literally smelled back then. And, based on what I’m hearing now, it still smells.”

“Everyone’s entitled to an opinion,” Schmuck writes, “but it’s hard to see where Friend suddenly comes by all this civic loyalty. I knew him when we were both young sportswriters in Southern California, and the guy has worked more towns than Xaviera Hollander.”

Never mind that Schmuck, in the next item, becomes the 257th honorary vice president of the Cal Ripken Fan Club. Reacting to Roy Neel’s claim, also on ESPN.com, that Ripken was a “selfish” and “dishonest” player and that his consecutive game record is overrated, Schmuck sounds like William Donald Schaefer when he was mayor and still sentient. “Well, there was one other guy,” Schmuck counters. “His name was Lou Gehrig. He was probably a fraud, too.”

Aside from Gregory Kane, The Sun doesn’t have any nonsyndicated conservative columnists, so when it comes to Rodricks and Michael Olesker, you pick through their articles like a hard-shell crab, looking for that one sweet piece of backfin. Rodricks, on Aug. 1, lamented that his candidate of choice, Kerry, hasn’t given sufficient attention to the fact that he was both a Vietnam veteran and then leading protester of the war. He says, “In 2004, with Americans dying in Iraq, Kerry should not dance around that other part of his past [as a ‘voice of conscience’ trying to stop the war] as if it were some youthful fling he’d rather people in the red states not know too much about. Mistake.”

Kerry probably is proud of his dual role during the Vietnam era, but he also wants to get elected.

But Rodricks can also toss off a blurb that compels me to keep reading his column. His June 24 piece led off: “Nine-hundred fifty-seven pages of Bill Clinton? I’d rather spend the summer making folk art out of dead cicadas. Or reading Moby Dick again. Or watching a Pauly Shore movie marathon.”

I also don’t care for much of what Olesker writes, whether it’s nostalgia for 1950s-era Baltimore or standard Democratic criticism of George W. Bush and Robert Ehrlich. But his June 15 column was a gem, a laudatory portrait of Michael Milken, who’d just been in town to raise money for researching ways to fight prostate cancer. Sure, there was the obligatory slam at Milken’s financial past, when, according to Olesker, he was “one of the most disparaged men in the country, a public symbol of the era’s greed.” That Milken, a victim of Rudy Giuliani’s political aspirations, was an innovative financier who helped companies, and the economy, grow isn’t mentioned, of course. Still, at a time when most journalists won’t touch Milken, Olesker gives the man his due. Better late than never.

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