On Dec. 19, 2004, the publisher of The Sun and top editors met privately with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and members of his staff. At that meeting, the governor's staff distributed a document with 23 items detailing complaints about news stories, editorials, headlines and columns published in The Sun between October 2001 and December 2004.
Because the meeting was off the record, The Sun's editors felt bound not to talk or write publicly about the document. Now, an April 7 letter from Jervis S. Finney, the Ehrlich administration's chief counsel, asking for a prompt public response to the list, has removed that constraint, and the anticipated release of the list by the administration makes this assessment timely.
The Sun's public editor, Paul Moore, reviewed all the items on the list and interviewed people involved. Here is the Ehrlich administration's document, unaltered in any detail, annotated with findings from Moore's investigation.
Partial List of Inaccuracies, Omissions, Errors, and Distortions by The (Baltimore) Sun's Reporters, Headline Writers and Editorial Writers Regarding the Ehrlich-Steele Administration.
November 3, 2002
GRIEVANCE: This is remarkably insulting to the State's first African-American statewide official, dismissing his qualifications and injecting race where it was entirely inappropriate. In addition, the editorial calls Ehrlich "calculated" and "crass" for choosing a Johns Hopkins educated international lawyer as his running mate, thereby accusing the Governor of the same narrow-mindedness displayed by The Sun. Governor Ehrlich and Lt. Governor Steele have a longstanding call for an apology, which they still have not received.
Lt. Governor Steele was President of his class at Johns Hopkins University, went to Seminary school, graduated from Georgetown Law School, ran a successful corporate and international law practice, and was a member of the US Naval Academy Board of Visitors. He does not deserve to be dismissed by The Sun.
Findings: The choice of words could have been more delicate, but The Sun editorial board does not apologize for stating its view that Mr. Steele was far less qualified for the job than his opponent and that the primary political attribute he brought to the ticket was racial diversity.
January 16, 2003
In a column about Governor Ehrlich's State of the State address, Columnist Michael Olesker quoted Delegate John Arnick as saying, "[Ehrlich] tells everybody I was his mentor. He learns to work things out. He's too liberal for Republicans and too conservative for the Democrats -- which is probably the way to be. In Washington, it's 'My party, right or wrong.' It's not that polarized here."
GRIEVANCE: Delegate Arnick has told the Governor's Press Office that this was not his statement.
Findings: The Sun stands by its reporting. Delegate Arnick did not make a complaint to The Sun at the time columnist Olesker's piece was published in January 2003. The Baltimore County Democrat said in late 2004 "that he did not recall saying things that way." Olesker has a clear and detailed recollection of the conversation with Delegate Arnick.
February 27, 2003
Columnist Michael Olesker wrote, 'We have no plans whatsoever for [Clarence] Mitchell,' Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick said Tuesday after the announcement that Mitchell would not retain his job as director of the newly-created office of urban development. 'The favor has been paid. You try to help the people that help you. We did that. End of story. We do not feel the obligation to get him another job' 'Hoskins told the governor and lieutenant governor that he intended to ask for Mitchell's resignation. And they back him up.' 'The job was not created exclusively to help (Mitchell). It was created because we thought it was a legitimate function, and he was the right candidate for it.'"
GRIEVANCE: Mr. Schurick categorically and completely denies ever saying these words.
Findings: The Sun stands by its reporting. Mr. Schurick acknowledged that he did have a conversation with Mr. Olesker. The columnist says he quoted Mr. Schurick accurately and has notes to support his statement.
June 16, 2003
In a story entitled, "Governor creates jobs for allies," a "Sun Staff Writer" reports that the Governor is rewarding legislative allies and others with jobs.
GRIEVANCE: The story fails to show any balance. There is no mention anywhere that family members of the Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller and House Majority Leader Kumar Barve both have well-paying jobs with State government.
Findings: The Sun article does offer appropriate perspective. It notes that Governor Ehrlich is a Republican new to an office long held by Democrats, a fact that contributed to the high level of turnover in state jobs, and it quotes a University of Maryland professor on that topic. The article also quotes a governor's aide who noted that, overall, the state payroll was down. In respect to the complaint about Senator Miller and Delegate Barve, the article was focused on Governor Ehrlich's administration and not earlier patronage practices.
May 14, 2004
Columnist Michael Olesker wrote, 'Ha-ha-ha,' said [Lt. Governor] Steele. 'Ha-ha-ha.' He laughed loudly, and kept going. 'Ha-ha-ha,' and 'ha-ha-ha,' he said. It was the kind of forced laugh that stalls for time. 'Ha-ha-ha.' It was laughter that says, I know where you're trying to take me with this, but if I keep laughing long enough, maybe you'll go away and not make me talk about this crass and crude and mean-spirited language uttered by my boss that sounds like an insult to everyone in America whose people came from some other place -- which is, in fact, just about every single soul in America."
GRIEVANCE: This excerpt never happened, according to two separate aides -- Governor Ehrlich's communications director and Lt. Governor Steele's deputy chief of staff. They personally witnessed Mr. Olesker's attempt to interview the Lt. Governor. Both adamantly deny that this long, awkward, pregnant laugh ever took place. This is not the last time that Mr. Olesker will describe with great detail behavior of Ehrlich Administration officials that never happened. In addition, Mr. Olesker effectively puts 65 words in Lt. Governor Steele's mouth beginning with, "I know where you're trying to take me "
Findings: The administration initially claimed that Lieutenant Governor Steele did not have this conversation with Mr. Olesker. The governor's press office later acknowledged that Lieutenant Governor Steele talked to Mr. Olesker that day at the track. On the day of the meeting, Mr. Olesker told a number of editors at The Sun about the lieutenant governor's extended laughter. The 65 words in question were not a quotation but were columnist Olesker's description of Lieutenant Governor Steele's reaction to the question.
August 3, 2004
In a notebook story about partisanship and Capitol Hill, David Nitkin writes, "Most of the Governor's staff accompanied him from Capitol Hill, where they were schooled in the politics of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay."
GRIEVANCE: Of the roughly 80 individuals who work in the Executive Office of the Governor, only 13 accompanied him from Capitol Hill. Of the roughly 20 members of the Governor's executive cabinet, only two accompanied him from Capitol Hill. This may seem a small transgression on its face, but the reporter's incorrect statement legitimized the argument of Ehrlich's opponents who say the Governor has brought Capitol Hill partisanship to Annapolis. In fact, David's own statement implies that is the case. David never bothered to ask if the assertion was remotely accurate, though a complaint was lodged the day it was printed.
Findings: Mr. Nitkin accurately noted that most of Governor Ehrlich's congressional staff had accompanied the governor into Maryland state government. He did not specifically describe the makeup of the current executive office or Cabinet.
September 23, 2004
In "Md. Ponders Deep Health Care Cuts," David Nitkin writes "The elimination of programs, the governor has said, is the only way to close a projected $800 million budget deficit without raising taxes."
GRIEVANCE: The Governor has never said, nor does he believe, that eliminating programs is the only way to close the deficit without raising taxes. The Governor's budget balancing over the past two years proves that he balances the budget without relying solely on eliminating programs. This is lazy, careless reporting. In fact, reducing funding or slowing the growth of funding for programs are common approaches the Governor has used to reduce the deficit.
Findings: The article should have said slower growth in programs and spending cuts rather than the elimination of programs. As a result of this investigation, The Sun has published a correction.
September 29, 2004
David Nitkin's story carries the headline "Ehrlich skirts law on health." His story implies the Governor was reckless with the law when slowing the rate of growth for health care benefits.
GRIEVANCE: David Nitkin refused to include in the story a letter from the Assistant Attorney General that proves his article and its headline to be inaccurate and unfounded. The AG's letter opines that the Governor's action was legal. Mr. Nitkin had a copy of the letter. The Governor's Budget Secretary referenced this letter with Mr. Nitkin more than a day before his story ran, yet there was no mention of it anywhere in the story. The press office called and complained the next day.
Findings: The article did report the contents of the assistant attorney general's letter, as related by Cecilia Januszkiewicz, deputy secretary of the Department of Budget and Management. But it might have helped the article to report that such a letter existed and in hindsight could be considered preferable. The shorthand required to write headlines can occasionally produce ambiguity. In this case, the word "skirt," though technically accurate, was not the best choice.
October 20, 2004
David Nitkin's story runs with the headline "Ehrlich OK'd deal for land."
GRIEVANCE: This is wrong. Governor Ehrlich never "OK'd" any deal for land. In addition, there was no deal at the time -- only discussions. This inaccurate story and headline was placed on the front page, top fold of The Sun. The Secretary of General Services lodged a complaint.
Findings: The article was accurate. The newspaper published this "Clarification" of the headline on Dec. 28, 2004: "A headline accompanying a front-page article in the Oct. 20 editions of The Sun, 'Ehrlich OK'd deal for land,' may have left readers with the impression that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had given final approval to a plan for sale of public lands. The article reported on testimony by Maryland Department of General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford, in which Rutherford said Ehrlich was briefed in 2003 and 'said it was worth pursuing.' Only the Board of Public Works, on which the governor serves, can authorize final approval of any public land use."
October 25, 2004
Governor Ehrlich tells David Nitkin he is disappointed that The Sun would take shots at his integrity. But first, the Governor directly says he wants to talk off-the-record.
GRIEVANCE: Mr. Nitkin outlines the Governor's off-the-record remarks in The Sun's lawsuit against the Governor, thereby taking a private and off-the-record conversation with the Governor public.
Findings: Governor Ehrlich himself first disclosed the substance of this conversation during a televised interview on WBAL Channel 11 with reporter David Collins on Nov. 23. The videotape of the governor's interview was available through WBAL's Web site. After the governor revealed the content of the discussion, it was clearly on the record and in the public domain.
November 16, 2004
David Nitkin writes a story entitled "Hackerman's partner held fund-raiser for governor," implying foul play on the governor's behalf for attending a fundraiser held by Howard Brown.
GRIEVANCE: David Nitkin fails to show any connection between Mr. Hackerman and the fundraiser. Why? Because there is no connection. It isn't the partnership between Mr. Hackerman and Mr. Brown on a State project, because the contract for the project was approved by the State before Governor Ehrlich took office. There was no connection, no relevance, yet, to the best of the press office's recollection, the story was placed on the front page. Stories with no relevance such as this carry perception consequences for the governor even when no foul play was committed or even contemplated.
Findings: The article clearly states that Mr. Hackerman did not attend the fund-raiser and clearly states that the development company headed by Mr. Brown and Mr. Hackerman was selected before Governor Ehrlich took office. But the fact remains that Mr. Brown is Mr. Hackerman's partner, and editors legitimately concluded that the timing of the fund-raiser was relevant and that it deserved to be placed on the front page.
November 16, 2004
Columnist Michael Olesker wrote, "The Governor's spokesman, Paul E. Schurick, struggling mightily to keep a straight face, said political gain was 'not a consideration' when making the commercials. Delegate Hurson, trying just as mightily to keep a straight face since he still remembers the Democratic commercials, said he had doubts about that."
GRIEVANCE: Michael Olesker was never in the room during this discussion. How could he describe with detail the expressions on the faces of Mr. Schurick and Delegate Hurson without having been in the same room with them? The fact that Mr. Olesker is not a reporter does not give him permission to deliberately mislead readers.
Findings: Mr. Olesker apologized in a Nov. 24 column for confusion caused by his "straight face" comment. Mr. Olesker said he did not intend to deceive readers. His decision to describe Mr. Schurick's facial expression was called a major lapse in judgment in a Nov. 28 column written by The Sun's public editor.
November 16, 2004
David Nitkin writes, "Repercussions from the aborted deal are continuing. Yesterday, state Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Southern Maryland Democrat, asked state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. for an investigation 'to see if there was any criminal misconduct' involved in the proposed St. Mary's County transaction. 'I believe it is up to the attorney general's office to investigate this matter,' Dyson said in a letter."
GRIEVANCE: David fails to state until two-thirds into the story that Sen. Dyson does not believe any wrongdoing took place.
Findings: This article was primarily based on Senator Dyson's formal request for an investigation by the Maryland attorney general's office. The article accurately reports that action and Senator Dyson's later comments.
November 24, 2004
Delegate Susan Krebs, a respected state lawmaker from Carroll County, submits a Letter to the Editor with The Sun. According to Delegate Krebs, The Sun delayed her letter for 11 days and only ran it in the Carroll County edition, despite its relevance to The Sun's Nov. 18 statewide story. The letter probably never would have run if her office had not followed up with e-mails and phone calls. She began drafting the letter soon after reading The Sun story, and e-mailed it around noon on Nov. 24. First, they said they never received it, according to Del. Krebs. Then the main office declined to run it and passed it on to the Carroll County bureau.
Findings: Delegate Krebs' letter was too long for The Sun's main Letters to the Editor column, but in fairness to her it was sent to the Carroll County edition of The Sun, which is circulated in the district represented by Delegate Krebs and where it could be published in its entirety.
November 28, 2004
The Sun runs an editorial entitled "Land-gate."
GRIEVANCE: The editorial implies that the issue at hand has risen to the level of :
1.) The State's chief executive doing something criminal, or;
2.) Doing something that warrants his resignation from office.
Findings: This is the headline of an editorial, which represents the opinion of The Sun's editorial board. The governor may disagree with that view, but the headline fairly represents the substance of the editorial.
December 1, 2004
Every single letter printed on The Sun's Letter to the Editor Page is an attack on Ehrlich, except for one. Several of them include the phrase "chilling effect," showing what we believe to be a willingness on The Sun's behalf to publish the product of letter writing campaigns, even when it is obvious to the most casual reader. In addition, Dr. Richard Vatz, a highly respected political science professor at Towson University, submitted a letter that did not attack the Governor. The Sun refused to print it.
Findings: Readers responded in huge numbers to the governor's declaration on a radio show: "That's my government. That's my government. I'm the chief executive." The Sun seeks to print letters that represent proportionally the number we receive expressing a given opinion. In this case, the letters received were more than 10-to-1 opposed to the governor. The Sun, however, published one pro-Ehrlich letter to provide a minority viewpoint. The term "chilling effect" showed up in so many letters because the writers were quoting the governor, who used the phrase on the radio program.
December 1, 2004
The Sun runs a story entitled "Group plans to sue state over highway widening."
GRIEVANCE: The story includes three quotes from the plaintiff who is suing the State, and not one quote from the State Dept. of Transportation or State Highway Administration to give their side of the story. The Sun never called either agency. They called a Governor's spokesman at home at roughly 8 p.m. He was not home. However, the plaintiff is not suing the Governor's office. It is suing MDOT, which did not receive a phone call.
Findings: This article was accurate but should have been more thoroughly reported with additional comments from other state officials. The article did include a previous statement from the head of MDOT in support of the project, which was placed high in the article. The reporter contacted the governor's press office because opponents of the road project planned to sue the Board of Public Works, of which Governor Ehrlich is chairman, as well as MDOT and the State Highway Administration.
December 4, 2004
In a December 4 story entitled, "Sun files suit to lift ban on journalists by Ehrlich," Greg Barrett and Stephanie Haines wrote, "Ehrlich has shunned the newspaper since a 2002 editorial said [Lt. Governor Steele] was chosen because of the color of his skin."
GRIEVANCE: The Sun gets it wrong twice in one sentence. Governor Ehrlich has never shunned "the newspaper." Governor Ehrlich and his staff speak with Sun reporters on a daily basis. In addition, Governor Ehrlich has conducted numerous one-on-one interviews with Sun reporters since November 2002. He has never punished reporters for the editorial board's own short sightedness or bigoted statements toward Lt. Governor Steele.
This raises a question for The Sun: Does the editorial board constitute "the newspaper?" If so, Mr. Barrett and Ms. Haines confirmed what we have suspected for years: that the liberal bias of the editorial board does in fact speak for "the newspaper."
Secondly, The Sun does not accurately copy its own editorial's language. The November 2002 editorial specifically stated, "Mr. Ehrlich's running mate, state GOP chairman Michael S. Steele, brings little to the team but the color of his skin." This is far more insulting to Maryland's first African-American statewide official than Mr. Barrett and Ms. Haines's inaccuracy contends.
Findings: It is clear that Governor Ehrlich has been hostile to The Sun editorial board since November 2002. The use of the word "shunned" in the article was imprecise, but Governor Ehrlich's attitude toward The Sun in December 2004, when this article was written, was exemplified by his administration's ban of state executive branch employees from talking to two Sun journalists. The article did not include the entire section from the editorial but only "the color of his skin" passage to make its point.
December 8, 2004
In a story about a proposed land transaction in St. Mary's County, David Nitkin and Andrew Green accurately quote State Sen. Roy Dyson as saying, "The process stinks, in my opinion. I think something went radically wrong."
GRIEVANCE: Mr. Nitkin and Mr. Green fail to report that, in the same hearing, Warren Deschenaux of the Department of Legislative Services said, the Administration "followed the process. The process worked." (Emphasis added.) Several senators from both parties echoed this sentiment. Mr. Nitkin and Mr. Green did not include that quote in their story, even though it directly refutes Sen. Dyson's statement. Where is the balanced reporting?
Findings: The substance of the hearing was that while the process as it now exists might have "worked," the handling of the sale of public lands is flawed and requires revision. Several senators said during the hearing that flaws were being revealed because the state had never envisioned selling state-preserved land before. Part of the point of the hearing was to discuss drafting legislation that would change the process that many legislators believe is inadequate. Given that context, Mr. Deschenaux's comments -- and those of other legislators from both parties -- were not included in the coverage of the hearing.
December 8, 2004
David Nitkin and Rona Kobell write a story with the headline "Education center-resort rising quietly at Elk Neck."
GRIEVANCE: The headline implies that the project is being conducted secretly. The story fails to mention that four public hearings were held to discuss this project. In addition, the Mayor of the nearby town and the Democrat delegate from Cecil County both voiced their support for the project. It's hard to conduct a project "quietly" when four public hearings have been held on the matter.
Findings: The article accurately reported that many people -- including neighbors of the park directly affected by the project -- did not know about it.
December 9, 2004
GRIEVANCE: Jervis Finney, Chief Counsel to the Governor, explicitly told Ms. Anderson that "Governor Ehrlich agreed to the meeting a couple weeks ago, subject to the guidelines." Despite making the Governor's position painfully clear, Ms. Anderson gets the facts wrong.
Findings: The article in question was correct because Governor Ehrlich's agreement to meet was conditional until Dec. 8, when the governor confirmed a tentative agreement to meet.
On October 5, 2001, The Gazette Newspapers carried a story in which State Sen. Thomas V. "Mike" Miller called then State GOP Chair Michael Steele an "Uncle Tom." Michael Steele publicly calls for an apology the same day.
GRIEVANCE: The Sun refused to write a story about this instance for four days, long after two of their competitors had chosen to cover it. When The Sun finally chose to cover it, it was a blurb at the bottom of their political notebook. The Governor's Press Office hazards a guess that that would not be the case if Governor Ehrlich made such a remark.
Findings: The complaint takes this situation and puts it in a context that is not relevant. This event happened in October 2001, a full year before Governor Ehrlich and Lieutenant Governor Steele were elected. Given Lieutenant Governor Steele's position today, The Sun would certainly cover such an instance differently.
A Lexis-Nexis search shows more than 80 misspellings of the name "Ehrlich," when referencing the four-term Member of Congress and Governor of the State that the The Sun covers. This is remarkable, considering The Sun has covered Bob Ehrlich to some degree for more than a decade.
Findings: The newspaper is correcting the misspellings of "Ehrlich" in its Lexis-Nexis library system.