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Media Circus

Sticks and Stones

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 7/27/2005

“This is being portrayed as Greg [Kane] being tethered to his desk, surrounded by armed guards, with duct tape over his mouth, not being able to go on the WBAL radio station,” Sun editor Tim Franklin said July 21. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Franklin was responding to a flood of accusations—made by hosts, guests, and listeners of the talk-radio station—that the newspaper’s decision to temporarily restrict its news journalists from appearing on WBAL (1090 AM) was an attempt to censor Gregory Kane, the daily’s conservative columnist.

Last Tuesday, the Sun’s multimedia editor, Steve Sullivan, called WBAL station manager Jeff Beauchamp and told him that Sun reporters had been asked to stop contributing to the station’s popular lineup of conservative talk-radio and news programs.

Kane was the only Sun news journalist who made regular appearances on WBAL, appearing as a guest every other Wednesday on the Ron Smith Show.

“I have sad news about Gregory Kane,” Ron Smith said July 19 at 3 p.m., opening his show. “He has been yanked [from the air by] his primary employer, the Baltimore Sun. . . . From what we understand, a lot of people down there, including some of the top people, are absolutely transfixed by our radio station, and they cannot stand it. They believe we unfairly criticize The Sun. And I’ll tell you something . . . ”

With that opening salvo began days of near nonstop criticism of The Sun by WBAL on-air personalities and call-in listeners, who made the “banishment” and “muzzling” of Kane the hot topic of conversation, overshadowing both the Tuesday announcement of John Roberts Jr. as President Bush’s candidate for Supreme Court justice and Thursday’s second terrorist attack on London.

WBAL hosts appeared to take particular pleasure in repeatedly pointing out that the Sun’s new policy is likely to affect only its sole African-American news columnist. They also hammered the irony of the newspaper’s singling out for silent treatment another news organization—at the same time that the Tribune Co.-owned daily is engaged in a 9-month-old legal battle against Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s order that administration employees not speak with Sun political editor David Nitkin or columnist Michael Olesker.

Franklin dismissed comparisons between the Ehrlich ban on Sun reporters and the Sun’s ban on WBAL, saying the former concerns the media’s right of access to public officials, and the latter is a conflict between two commercial media organizations.

For his part, Kane says he readily agreed to his employer’s request that he stop appearing on the Ron Smith Show because the ban applies to all Sun news journalists and doesn’t single him out. He sent a letter outlining his position to Ron Smith, who read it on the air Thursday and posted it on his web site.

“It is frustrating,” concedes Sun public editor Paul Moore, “because it appears to a lot of people that The Sun has singled out [Kane] for his conservative perspective.” Moore says he received between 30 and 40 related phone calls on Tuesday and about 75 e-mail messages.

In fact, Moore and Franklin both say, the decision to take action against WBAL was a response to demands by some Sun journalists that the newspaper sever any relationship with a station they believe routinely crosses the line from acceptable criticism of the daily’s editorial positions to personal attacks on Sun staffers.

Among the oft-cited examples of such attacks is the comparison of Tim Franklin to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin recently made by WBAL talk-show host Chip Franklin (no relation).

“But I didn’t call him Stalin,” Chip Franklin insists. “I called him Pol Pot.” He pauses. “Or it might have been Hitler.”

Tim Franklin says he wasn’t upset by the Stalin reference, and that the WBAL decision was made in response to newsroom sentiment, not a personal vendetta. “I don’t care what they say about me,” Franklin says. “But I do care that there’s this orchestrated verbal jihad to attempt to undermine the integrity of The Sun and the men and women who work here.”

Veteran Sun columnist Dan Rodricks, whose recent “open letter” to Baltimore drug dealers drew sharp attacks on Chip Franklin’s show (“Street Talk,” Media Circus, June 15), says he supports the ban.

“After a while, you question why The Sun would want to contribute with any of its journalists and personalities to the broadcast product of WBAL radio,” he says. “I don’t see where it’s censorship. It’s a decision not to contribute to another media entity’s product.”

The Sun/WBAL flap has also made a household name—at least among WBAL listeners—of the paper’s executive editor for multimedia, Steve Sullivan, whose response to concerned Sun readers was read, and then heckled, by Ron Smith Wednesday and later by Les Kinsolving, who hosts a talk show on rival WCBM (680 AM).

Sullivan declined to speak on the record about the WBAL situation, but the executive editor—whose job is to manage relationships between the newspaper and other media—has not shied away from criticizing local news outlets in the past. In early June, Sullivan publicly criticized WBAL and WYPR (88.1-FM) for routinely neglecting to credit the paper with news first reported in its pages (“The Pinky Incident,” Media Circus, June 1). Both WBAL and WYPR news programmers denied any intentional poaching of Sun content.

Ron Smith says he’s surprised that the daily set itself up for a public flogging on his airwaves. “What did they expect? What did they teach us when we were kids about what you do when someone calls you names?” Smith says. “You ignore them.”

“It’s just amazing to me,” station manager Beauchamp agrees. “I think they’ve really inflicted an embarrassing situation
upon themselves.”

But in the Sun newsroom, ignoring WBAL is not an option, because the governor has made it part of his media strategy to bypass the newspaper in favor of the friendlier reception he receives on conservative talk radio.

“I listen to WBAL radio all the time,” says Nitkin, who regularly receives harsh treatment at the microphones of its talk-show hosts and guests. “I usually spend my Saturday mornings listening to the governor or lieutenant governor [on WBAL’s Stateline program]. And we also have to monitor WBAL for when news stories get leaked to them, or when they break news. They’re definitely part of the dialogue in this town.”

Though he acknowledged frustration that his access to the governor is often mediated by WBAL, Nitkin says he never requested The Sun take any action against the radio station.

In his 29 years at the station, Beauchamp says relations between WBAL and The Sun have never been more bitter than they are now.

Sun sports columnist Peter Schmuck will be allowed to continue as a paid baseball commentator on WBAL, which also broadcasts Orioles games. Kane was not paid for his bimonthly appearances.

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