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Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. signed off Saturday (for the time being) from WBAL's "Kendel and Bob Ehrlich" radio show, and the sad truth is that he left the station a poorer place than he found it in terms of civics and social responsibility.

What promised to be a public affairs show on what was once Maryland's pre-eminent forum of radio news and analysis has come to be a cauldron of rigid ideology and partisan attacks. I don't blame Ehrlich as much as WBAL. Ehrlich, after all, is a politician trying to get elected. WBAL is the broadcaster with the responsibility of operating in the public interest.

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The total politicization of the show at the expense of citizens and callers reached a crescendo in recent weeks, as attack ads purchased by the campaign of Gov. Martin O'Malley disrupted the usual propagandist flow of the show and revealed a very thin-skinned Ehrlich.

I suppose I need to deal with the personal first. A fake caller was put on the air Saturday to say that I am a "best buddy" of and part of the "cheer-leading section over at the Sun" for O'Malley. None of it is true, of course. As I said to a blog commenter last week, in my 21 years in Baltimore at The Sun, I have never even met O'Malley. On the other hand, I was on a radio show with Kendel Ehrlich a few months ago and enjoyed the conversation.

Saturday's segment with the allegations made about me involved a caller who Ehrlich identified as Martin, From Annapolis. I guess it is a recurring character intended to mock O'Malley because I have heard him before on the show. The caller speaks in a voice that is a very bad imitation of Bill Clinton, which I guess makes it double catnip for the hardcore Ehrlich supporters.

"Two things very quick," the caller said. "The first thing is I'm very pleased to welcome a new member of my team, a member of my cheerleading section over at The Baltimore Sun. He's a TV critic and, well, I guess he ain't no TV critic no more. He's now a political commentator, Mr. David You Know Who. David Z, he's my best buddy in the whole world."

A male voice says "yup," when the caller says "you know who," but I cannot say with certainty if it Ehrlich's. The voice says "yup" a second time to affirm the statement as Martin concludes.

Sophomoric, sure. But it is also intended, I suspect, to send me a message, the way a brushback pitch might in baseball. Most important, it is an attempt to try and blunt any criticism by me of Ehrlich's media performance through the lie that I am a friend of O'Malley's and, therefore, the criticism is partisan.

Speaking of lies, one of the two things that I did criticize Ehrlich for last week on my blog, Z on TV, was falsely claiming credit for helping to bring the NBC series "Homicide" to Baltimore through a tax credit. It was false, and his campaign spokesman acknowledged it. Read that here.

My other criticism of Ehrlich was for ordering his producer to banish a caller last Saturday who disagreed with him, a no-no in responsible radio talk show broadcasting. Read that here.

And I did this on a blog founded on the premise of mapping the place where media and politics meet in popular culture. Z on TV was launched in August of 2008, at the height of a landmark presidential campaign in which new and old media were playing huge roles. David Z writing about politics and media isn't anything new -- except maybe to Martin, From Annapolis.

As a brushback pitch, this is Little League to me. Big League was when I was for a while the only mainstream media critic  taking on the Obama White House over its attempt to discredit Fox News. I stood with Fox News not in some kind of ideological solidarity but rather in the interest of an independent press that does not allow itself to be bullied by the executive branch of the government.

Check it out and tell me how that fits with the lie about my politics that Ehrlich put out there Saturday over WBAL's airwaves. Check it out, and send me a comment on it. Google "Zurawik, Fox News, Obama," and see how willing Ehrlich is to use public airwaves and play on partisan prejudices to spread a lie about such matters. But he picked the wrong guy to try and paint as a lockstep liberal Democrat.

But here's the main point, instead of responsibly using the show to help give voice to callers who want to ask about jobs or crime of the fear they have about the future, Kendel, Bob and WBAL are giving the precious airtime to Martin, From Annapolis, to attack perceived enemies. That's what I mean about using the airwaves for personal political gain rather than public service. Instead of using the airwaves to listen to the community and help craft a civic discussion as to how we can move forward, protect citizens and put more people to work, we get Martin, From Annapolis.

I hope to write more about this later this weekend. But it has been along week, and I am worn out with all the partisan politics I've been dealing with. But please stop back to Z on TV  later. There is much to still discuss from Ehrlich's last show as he steps down to file the paperwork that will make him a formal candidate for governor. Please also check out Maryland Politics, which has a post from Julie Bykowicz on Ehrlich leaving the airwaves today.

I still need to talk about some other calls and guests Saturday. For example, one of the first callers Saturday praised Ehrlich for "taking the high road," and then called O'Malley "a bully and a big punk playing politics." Gee, I wonder if it was the guy on the high road who let that caller get on the air so he could use such inflammatory language.

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And then there was attorney Billy Murphy describing what O'Malley said to him in a conversation about zero tolerance as the stuff that comes out of the back end of bull. When Murphy used the crude term a second time, Kendel Ehrlich said, "That's why we love you Billy," instead of firmly trying to discourage such language on a 50,000-watt station.

O'Malley's campaign bought time Saturday to air a new and pointed attack ad that effectively doubles down on Ehrlich as a bought-and-paid-for advocate for big oil and big business interests. After saying he wasn't going to talk about the ad, Ehrlich spent the first quarter-hour of the show talking about almost nothing else.

But it's all politics, propaganda and no public service from both sides now. And it is getting uglier in language, tone and personal attacks. I don't use the word "propaganda" lightly. Webster's defines it as: "ideas, facts or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause." That's all I have been hearing from the Ehrlichs on Saturday mornings lately.

To me, it's a deplorable use of the airwaves. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe that is the level of public discourse that the citizens of Maryland and the folks at Hearst who own WBAL want in these troubled and confusing times.

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