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Daily Drubbing

By Russ Smith | Posted 5/11/2005

Near the end of 2004, after Gov. Robert Ehrlich rather ostentatiously barred state employees from speaking to the Sun’s David Nitkin and Michael Olesker, I wrote in this space that while Baltimore’s only daily newspaper was playing up the feud for all it was worth, the governor made a strategic goof in alienating himself from the print media. I also predicted that the ban would be lifted in a matter of weeks.

Wrong on both counts. Ehrlich, as it turns out, was ahead of the curve, or at least more prescient than yours truly. My thinking at the time was that even Republican elected officials who faced consistently negative coverage had to at least put on a facade of cooperation with media scolds or risk a backlash from the public. As is obvious today, that mind-set was myopically rooted in a vanished political era.

Earlier this year, The Sun devoted a great deal of space and energy to its fight with Ehrlich, explaining to readers that the First Amendment was at risk if the governor wouldn’t back down and, not surprisingly, received a lot of sympathy from colleagues in the industry. Editor and Publisher’s Joe Strupp wrote on Jan. 14, “I know 2005 is only two weeks old, but I’m already convinced that the Crybaby of the Year Award should go to [Ehrlich].”

Ehrlich ratcheted up the often adversarial relationship between politicians and the media by publicizing this mandate. In the past, Maryland’s governors have simply ignored the questions of reporters they perceive as hostile; Ehrlich gave them, and The Sun, the finger, in effect saying that since the press was irrelevant to his success or failure as governor, why keep up pretenses. He probably lost no sleep over the recently released Audit Bureau of Circulation report that the Sun’s weekday circulation declined 11.3 percent from October 2004 to March 2005.

Six months have now passed since Ehrlich’s strike against The Sun, and not much has changed: Nitkin, a good reporter, still files almost daily articles about state government in the paper, and columnist Olesker has continued his sniping at the governor, even without access to Ehrlich’s employees. The Sun’s editorial page, which, like most of its counterparts across the country, has increasingly less influence with readers, treats Ehrlich as a punching bag, its local version of George W. Bush. Meanwhile, the bouquets tossed to Mayor Martin O’Malley by Sun editors mount month by month, and the only question in doubt is when The Sun will officially endorse the mayor for Ehrlich’s job.

In a March 20 editorial about O’Malley’s retirement from the amateur music world, the writer said, trying to connect with younger readers, I suppose: “We hope Mr. O’Malley’s decision to leave the band doesn’t signal the start of a boring and safe political stretch for City Hall’s troubadour. He’s clearly interested in rocking [Ehrlich’s] world. But playing fund-raisers for the fat cats? That’s not living the dream, Dude. Rock on.”

On April 15, commenting about the city’s budget surplus (achieved by higher transfer taxes tied to the still-vibrant real estate market), a Sun editorialist applauded O’Malley for pledging to spend some of that money on a “precious resource,” the city’s children. “Budget Bliss” concluded with this beauty: “Call it the luck of the Irish—or an Irishman with sights on the State House.”

O’Malley threw The Sun a curve ball on May 5 when he came out of the weeds on the issue of legalized slot machines at racetracks and, at a widely covered promotion of the upcoming Preakness at the Walters Art Museum, said, “Some people question the morality of slots, but where’s the morality in doing away with 18,000 racing jobs [at Pimlico]?” Ehrlich’s aides immediately accused the potential gubernatorial challenger of flip-flopping on the issue, but that’s not really true: O’Malley, until now hedging his bets, hasn’t sought headlines for this particular position, but he’s on the record as favoring slots to help the ailing Pimlico racetrack.

What’s curious, however, is O’Malley evoking the word “morality,” knowing it might tick off his benefactors at The Sun, but more importantly co-opt some of Ehrlich’s lukewarm supporters. The paper can be expected to give its favorite “Irishman” a light spanking, but nothing more.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that Bill Clinton had a 90-minute meeting with O’Malley recently when the former president was in town to give a keynote address at a health-care conference. As Nitkin reported on May 6, O’Malley’s spokesman Steve Kearney “did not know whether Clinton, a former governor of Arkansas, gave O’Malley strategic advice on the mayor’s all-but-certain-race for governor next year.”

This is what Ehrlich is up against: He’s a Republican governor in a Democratic state that’s serviced by two daily newspapers (The Washington Post being the other) committed to his defeat next year. No wonder he’s not playing by the “rules.”

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