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Weighing the merits of Ehrlich complaints

The following column by Sun Public EditorPaul Moore is being published in an effortto provide readers with a timely reporton a list of complaints about Sun coveragecompiled by the press office of Gov.Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration. Thelist was given to Sun executives at an off-the-record meeting in December. Mr.Moore, who reports directly to the publisherand works independently of TheSun's news and editorial page operations,has carefully investigated the complaintson the list. The Ehrlich administration isexpected to release the list today, alongwith other materials related to the governor'sdispute with The Sun that led to thebanning of two Sun journalists.

LAST NOV. 18, all Maryland executivebranch employees were banned fromspeaking with two Sun journalists, columnistMichael Olesker and State Bureauchief 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. EhrlichJr.'s press office. The reason: Mr. Oleskerand Mr. Nitkin were "failing to objectively report"on state issues.

The ban is still in effect today.

Concerned about the ban and public assertionsof unfair treatment of the governor byThe Sun, the newspaper's publisher and topeditors sought and ultimately gained an off-the-record meeting with Governor Ehrlichand members of his staff Dec. 19.

At that private meeting, the governor's staffdistributed a document titled "Partial List ofInaccuracies, Omissions, Errors, and Distortionsby The (Baltimore) Sun's Reporters,Headline Writers and Editorial Writers Regardingthe Ehrlich-Steele Administration."

As The Sun's public editor, it is my responsibilityto independently review such materialto determine whether errors have been madeand how they occurred and to suggest correctionsto be published in the newspaper.

To fulfill that responsibility, I received acopy of the list -- 23 items relating to newsstories, editorials, headlines, columns andgraphics published in The Sun between 2001and 2004. I reviewed the items and interviewedpeople involved. The Sun has correctedor clarified four items.

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

A close analysis does not support such conclusions.

While there is no doubt that some mistakeshave been made in The Sun's coverage of theEhrlich administration, there is no evidenceof the grievous, purposeful mistakes publiclyreferred to by the governor. As I see it, thoseclaims are grossly exaggerated.

Because the list was offered at an off-the-recordmeeting, I felt bound not to speak orwrite publicly about it. There have not beenspecific references to it in The Sun's newspages 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 thelist has removed that constraint, and the anticipatedrelease of the list by the administrationin response to a state Public InformationAct request makes this assessment timely.

The complaints focus either on questionsof factual accuracy or claims of bias in articlesand headlines that the Ehrlich administrationcontends were not fairly balanced.

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

Governor Ehrlich was clearly upset by Mr.Nitkin's coverage of a proposal to sell preservedstate land in St. Mary's County in adeal that would have provided significant taxbenefits to the purchaser, developer WillardHackerman.

A number of the listed complaints focusedon stories about that proposal, whichsparked a political controversy.

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

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

The article was accurate, and GovernorEhrlich did act to move consideration of thedeal forward. But the headline word "OK'd"might have suggested final approval. Therefore,the newspaper published this "Clarification"on Dec. 28, 2004:

"A headline accompanying a front-page articlein Oct. 20 editions of The Sun, 'EhrlichOK'd deal for land,' may have left readerswith the impression that Gov. Robert L. EhrlichJr. had given final approval to a plan forsale of public lands. The article reported ontestimony by Maryland Department of GeneralServices Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford,in which Rutherford said Ehrlich was briefedin 2003 and 'said it was worth pursuing.' Onlythe Board of Public Works, on which the governorserves, can authorize final approval ofany public land sale."

Other than the imprecise headline and aninaccurate map of preserved state lands thatran on the front page Nov. 18, which was correctedand apologized for the next day, TheSun's reporting of the land deal was, in myview, fair, accurate and in the public interest.

Events that followed support that judgment.

The land proposal was aborted in early November. Subsequently, a constitutionalamendment to prevent the state Board ofPublic Works from selling state-owned preservationland without legislative approvalwas approved by the General Assembly withsupport from Governor Ehrlich. Marylanderswill vote on this proposed constitutionalamendment in the 2006 election.

The reporting on this matter stimulated arobust debate and may lead to resolution of apotential problem. It illustrates how an unfetteredpress does its job in helping protectcitizens' right to information.

Another notable item on the list is a 2002Sun editorial endorsing Kathleen KennedyTownsend for governor. In it was this sentence:"Mr. Ehrlich's running mate, stateGOP chairman Michael S. Steele, brings littleto the team but the color of his skin." The administration'slist called it "remarkably insultingto the State's first African-Americanstatewide official," and has asked for an officialapology.

Editorial Page Editor Dianne Donovan hassaid publicly she regrets the choice of wordsused in that part of the editorial but standsby the point the editorial was trying to make,which is that Mr. Steele had little experiencerelevant to serving as lieutenant governor,particularly compared with his opponent, retiredAdm. Charles R. Larson, who had twiceserved as superintendent of the Naval Academy.

There is a clear division between the editorialpages and the news pages at The Sunand other newspapers. Editorials are opinions,supported by facts, reason and interpretation.The news operation is completely separate.By including both news articles andeditorials and letters to the editor in thesame list of grievances, the administrationhas clouded that distinction.

The list claims that three columns by Mr.Olesker included quotes from individualsthat they denied making. In one case, Del.John S. Arnick said he spoke with Mr.Olesker but claimed he was misquoted in aJanuary 2003 column. In another case, PaulE. Schurick, director of communications forthe administration, denied making the commentsattributed to him in a February 2003column.

Mr. Olesker says he quoted Mr. Arnick andMr. Schurick accurately. Mr. Olesker has aclear and detailed recollection of the conversationwith Mr. Arnick and has his notes fromthe conversation with Mr. Schurick.

The list cites a May 14, 2004, column inwhich Mr. Olesker quotes Lieutenant GovernorSteele from a conversation they had atPimlico Race Course. The grievance says thattwo administration aides who also werepresent at Pimlico that day deny the exchangeoccurred. The grievance also statesthat "Mr. Olesker effectively puts 65 words inLt. Governor Steele's mouth."

After first stating he never met Mr.Olesker, the governor's press office later acknowledgedthat Lieutenant Governor Steeledid speak with Mr. Olesker that day at thetrack. The 65 words were not a quote butrather Mr. Olesker's description of the lieutenantgovernor's reaction to the question.

Mr. Olesker did apologize in a Nov. 24, 2004,column for confusion caused by his statementin a Nov. 16, 2004, column that Mr.Schurick was "struggling mightily to keep astraight face." The grievance noted that thecolumnist had no way of knowing what Mr.Schurick's expression was because he did notattend the hearing. Mr. Olesker said he wastrying to make a sarcastic point and said hedid not intend to deceive readers.

Some other articles noted in the list couldhave been better organized and edited. In afew stories, sentences were poorly worded.But taken together, the Ehrlich administration'scomplaints do not support a conclusionthat The Sun or any of its journalists wereengaged in a deliberate campaign to smearthe governor.

What is The Sun's public editor to do whenhe arrives at conclusions about facts and fairnessthat appear so much at odds with thepublicly stated perceptions of Maryland'schief executive?

My principal obligation is to honestly statethose views while at the same time urging mycolleagues at The Sun to remain vigilant intheir efforts to report fairly and accuratelyand to quickly correct the unintended errorsthat are inevitable in any complex news gatheringand editing environment.

It is dangerous for either party in an extendeddispute to stop listening or fail to seeka fair-minded understanding of the other'sview.

That said, it appears even more dangerousto me for The Sun to stop seeking the truth,regardless of whom it may anger.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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