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Media Circus

Early Warning

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 1/18/2006

Former Sun columnist Michael Olesker, who resigned about two weeks ago, was privately “warned” by editors in 2004 after one of his columns was criticized by the governor’s office for being factually misleading. That precedent may have contributed to the seeming haste and severity of the newspaper’s treatment of the veteran journalist two weeks ago.

Olesker formally resigned Jan. 3 after being confronted by editors with evidence that several of his recent columns contained small amounts of background material that appeared copied, without attribution, from The Washington Post and The New York Times, as reported about in the Jan. 4 edition of Media Circus. Those revelations came on the heels of a correction published in The Sun on Dec. 24, in which the newspaper disclosed that a paragraph from Olesker’s Dec. 12 column was nearly identical to a paragraph in a 2003 Post article.

The Sun has characterized Olesker’s resignation as voluntary, but the Post’s Howard Kurtz reported on Jan. 5 that “Olesker resigned . . . after [Sun editor Tim] Franklin told him he could quit or be fired.” A reliable source at The Sun familiar with the situation confirmed Kurtz’s account.

Olesker declined to speak on the record for this story, except to say, “I’ve been told not to talk to anybody. As you might imagine, this has been awful.”

The 60-year-old columnist’s abrupt departure was met with consternation inside and outside the Calvert Street newsroom, both at the shock of losing a 27-year veteran so integral to the newspaper’s identity, and because none of Olesker’s apparent transgressions appeared to rise to the level of an obvious “firing offense.”

In 1999, The Sun dismissed two reporters for ethical reasons, but both were let go for more flagrant transgressions: an obituary writer fabricated a testimonial source, and a classical music critic plagiarized several paragraphs directly from a music reference book.

“I think [Olesker] should have been suspended for a week or two,” writes one young Sun reporter in an e-mail. “Here was a guy who grew up here, who went to school here, who understood Baltimore and wrote about it with grace and compassion. And at a paper increasingly written and edited by out-of-towners, Olesker was invaluable. He can’t be replaced, and so he shouldn’t have been let go so quickly.”

In an online chat with readers, Post columnist Marc Fisher, who described himself as Olesker’s “counterpart” in Washington, expressed concern at Olesker’s “lazy and somewhat less than honest” behavior but concluded, “I ... fail to see this as a nuclear event. Sadly, we live in a time of Zero Tolerance and Gotcha Schadenfreude, and it’s that climate that axed Olesker far more than any particular misdeeds of his own.”

That sentiment is echoed by mystery novelist and former Sun reporter Laura Lippman. “If this is a firing offense,” she says, “I’m missing something.”

But the fact that editors privately admonished the columnist 14 months ago about another seemingly minor offense may help explain the paper’s decision to summarily expel one of its most prominent and popular voices.

In his Nov. 16, 2004, column, Olesker derisively described gubernatorial spokesman Paul Schurick as “struggling mightily to maintain a straight face” during a meeting in Annapolis. Olesker wasn’t present at that meeting, and his use of a visual metaphor to describe a person he could not have seen was cited by the governor’s office four days later as part of the justification for an administration-wide ban on speaking to Olesker and Sun political reporter David Nitkin.

That gag order is still in effect, and a Sun lawsuit contesting it on First Amendment grounds is awaiting a decision from a federal appeals court.

“It’s my understanding that Olesker was warned,” says Sun public editor Paul Moore about the “straight face” incident. “And the situation was discussed in great detail, that the Schurick facial expression [description] was not acceptable, and that was made clear. We took it very seriously.”

Despite their concern, the paper’s editors did not print a correction or editor’s note, but instead allowed Olesker to address the criticism himself. In his Nov. 24, 2004, column, he apologized for “any misunderstanding” the metaphor caused, but also belittled the governor’s complaint about it as an attempt to distract public attention from the substance of Olesker’s claims against the administration.

In the Sun’s own reporting on the governor’s gag order and the subsequent lawsuit, Olesker has at times been less than contrite about his use of the “straight face” language, in one story telling reporter Stephen Kiehl that “[a]nyone past the age of elementary school” should have understood the columnist wasn’t being literal when he described Schurick as having a “straight face.”

Moore did criticize the “straight face” description in his Nov. 28, 2004, column, calling it a “major lapse in judgment,” but the ombudsman—as the readers’ representative—does not speak for the paper’s
management.

“I think people in the newspaper were not happy about [Olesker’s “straight face”] column and probably thought that should have been dealt with a little more forcefully,” says Michael Hill, a Sun reporter and the newspaper’s employee-union representative.

If the paper’s editors refrained from publicly criticizing their beleaguered columnist at the end of 2004, they privately warned him that he would be under much greater scrutiny, editors now say.

“We had discussions about it, and it was clear to Mike that there was a bull’s-eye on his back,” Franklin says. “I think he was aware, or should have been aware, that the spotlight was on his work.”

That such a minor gaffe—if it even rises to the level of blunder—caused so much concern within the newsroom underscores the delicacy of Olesker’s situation: A hard-charging liberal columnist casting ethical stones at a Republican administration was particularly susceptible to likewise criticism, especially when the newspaper became involved in a legal battle against the governor and needed to present itself as above journalistic reproach.

Ordinarily, Olesker’s “straight face” remark would not likely have aroused any hackles. In fact, the columnist may have taken similar rhetorical liberties in 1998, when he sarcastically described in a column then-Orioles manager Ray Miller as announcing “with a straight face” during a clubhouse pep talk that the flagging baseball team had a chance to make the playoffs.

Sportswriter Joe Strauss, who covered the Orioles for The Sun at the time, says reporters were not typically permitted to observe clubhouse meetings. Even so, the Orioles did not order a clubwide ban on speaking to Olesker.

Ultimately, Olesker appears to have been pushed to resign not for any one minor error, but for what Moore called in his Jan. 8 column a “pattern of recklessness.” The extent of that pattern may be revealed when the newspaper concludes its own internal review of Olesker’s columns dating back to 2000. Moore says he hopes to wrap up the review in the next few weeks.

Franklin says he plans on naming Olesker’s replacement within the next two months.

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