Weighing the merits of Ehrlich complaints

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The following column by Sun Public Editor Paul Moore is being published in an effort to provide readers with a timely report on a list of complaints about Sun coverage compiled by the press office of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration. The list was given to Sun executives at an off-the-record meeting in December. Mr. Moore, who reports directly to the publisher and works independently of The Sun's news and editorial page operations, has carefully investigated the complaints on the list. The Ehrlich administration is expected to release the list today, along with other materials related to the governor's dispute with The Sun that led to the banning of two Sun journalists.

LAST NOV. 18, all Maryland executive branch employees were banned from speaking with two Sun journalists, columnist Michael Olesker and State Bureau chief David Nitkin.

"Do not return calls or comply with any requests. The ban is in effect until further notice," said the memo from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s press office. The reason: Mr. Olesker and Mr. Nitkin were "failing to objectively report" on state issues.

The ban is still in effect today.

Concerned about the ban and public assertions of unfair treatment of the governor by The Sun, the newspaper's publisher and top editors sought and ultimately gained an off-the-record meeting with Governor Ehrlich and members of his staff Dec. 19.

At that private meeting, the governor's staff distributed a document titled "Partial List of Inaccuracies, Omissions, Errors, and Distortions by The (Baltimore) Sun's Reporters, Headline Writers and Editorial Writers Regarding the Ehrlich-Steele Administration."

As The Sun's public editor, it is my responsibility to independently review such material to determine whether errors have been made and how they occurred and to suggest corrections to be published in the newspaper.

To fulfill that responsibility, I received a copy of the list -- 23 items relating to news stories, editorials, headlines, columns and graphics published in The Sun between 2001 and 2004. I reviewed the items and interviewed people involved. The Sun has corrected or clarified four items.

In the weeks after the Dec. 19 meeting, Governor Ehrlich alluded to this list when he publicly accused The Sun of "serial inaccuracies" in stories. On the radio and in interviews, he also claimed that some stories had been made up.

A close analysis does not support such conclusions.

While there is no doubt that some mistakes have been made in The Sun's coverage of the Ehrlich administration, there is no evidence of the grievous, purposeful mistakes publicly referred to by the governor. As I see it, those claims are grossly exaggerated.

Because the list was offered at an off-the-record meeting, I felt bound not to speak or write publicly about it. There have not been specific references to it in The Sun's news pages for the same reason.

Now, an April 7 letter from Jervis S. Finney, chief counsel for the Ehrlich administration, asking for a "prompt public response" on the list has removed that constraint, and the anticipated release of the list by the administration in response to a state Public Information Act request makes this assessment timely.

The complaints focus either on questions of factual accuracy or claims of bias in articles and headlines that the Ehrlich administration contends were not fairly balanced.

Making the list public is helpful, in my view, because it sheds significant light on larger issues that have shadowed the governor's dispute with The Sun.

Governor Ehrlich was clearly upset by Mr. Nitkin's coverage of a proposal to sell preserved state land in St. Mary's County in a deal that would have provided significant tax benefits to the purchaser, developer Willard Hackerman.

A number of the listed complaints focused on stories about that proposal, which sparked a political controversy.

For instance, one concerned an Oct. 20, 2004, front-page article written by Mr. Nitkin that was accompanied by this headline: "Ehrlich OK'd deal for land."

The list's grievance stated that "Governor Ehrlich never 'OK'd' any deal for land. In addition, there was no deal at the time -- only discussions."

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