Governor agrees to meet with Sun's top executives

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. agreed yesterday to meet with top executives of The Sun to talk about his directive ordering state employees not to talk to two Sun journalists.

The Ehrlich administration sent out an e-mail three weeks ago forbidding state employees from talking to Sun State House Bureau Chief David Nitkin and columnist Michael Olesker, whose coverage, Ehrlich asserted, had included falsehoods.

Last week, The Sun filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to lift the ban.

The meeting is set for 4 p.m. Dec. 17 in Annapolis. Sun Publisher Denise Palmer, Editor Timothy A. Franklin, Editorial Page Editor Dianne Donovan and Public Editor Paul Moore plan to attend for The Sun. The governor intends to bring members of his communications staff.

Plans for the meeting were confirmed yesterday by the governor's counsel, Jervis S. Finney, and Sun attorney Stephanie Abrutyn.

Finney said the governor "wishes to lower the temperature level."

In an e-mail to newsroom staff yesterday, Franklin said he took the governor's willingness to meet as a hopeful sign.

"We've been asking for such a meeting since the ban was issued three weeks ago," Franklin wrote. "I wish we could have scheduled the meeting before taking legal action."

Franklin said he was prepared to "listen in good faith" to the governor's concerns regarding The Sun's coverage. "We take allegations of inaccuracies and unfairness seriously, and we correct our mistakes," he added.

The current dispute between Ehrlich and The Sun began in October after Nitkin wrote several stories about a secret deal by the state to sell 836 acres of preserved forest land in St. Mary's County to developer Willard Hackerman.

A front-page map that accompanied a subsequent Nitkin article about the potential sale of 3,000 acres of state land incorrectly highlighted all 450,000 acres of state preservation land. A correction ran the next day.

Olesker was included in the ban after he wrote that the governor's communications director, Paul E. Schurick, was "struggling mightily to keep a straight face" during an Annapolis hearing. Ehrlich's staff said Olesker could not have known Schurick's expression because the columnist did not attend the hearing.

Olesker, who said the phrase was intended as a metaphor, apologized for any misunderstanding in a subsequent column.

Abrutyn said yesterday the paper's lawsuit is still pending.

"We are hopeful that the governor will agree to rescind the ban, but if he doesn't then the legal process will continue," she said.

Earlier, Ehrlich said he would not meet with The Sun until the newspaper apologized for an editorial published during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign that said his running mate, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, "brings little to the team but the color of his skin."

Donovan, the editorial page editor, said yesterday that no apology had been issued.

In a television interview yesterday with Fox 45, WBFF-TV, Ehrlich stated that he would not meet with Franklin, the editor responsible for news content, but rather the "boss," an apparent reference to Palmer, The Sun's publisher.

But Finney said last night that Ehrlich would meet with a number of Sun editors in accordance with guidelines worked out by attorneys earlier in the day.

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