William Donald Schaefer, a man who has plenty of experience feuding with politicians and the press, offered the governor some surprising fatherly counsel yesterday: Make up with The Sun.
"You can't beat a group with barrels of ink," the 83-year-old state comptroller said in gently urging Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to put aside his quarrel with the newspaper long enough to meet with the editor.
"My advice to you, from someone who has fought the Sunpapers, is you'll never win," Schaefer said at the state Board of Public Works. "Invite them down. Say, 'Fellows, it's Christmastime, let's all ring bells together.'"
Ehrlich has refused for two weeks to meet with Editor Timothy A. Franklin to discuss a directive forbidding all state officials from talking to two journalists at The Sun. The newspaper's attorney, who has cited the First Amendment in formally asking that the ban be lifted, is negotiating with a lawyer for Ehrlich to try to arrange a meeting date.
"We still want to meet with Governor Ehrlich and have him lay out his specific concerns," Franklin said yesterday. "Unfortunately, there is no meeting set still. But we're hopeful that we can work this out civilly and outside the courtroom."
Rescinding the ban
Franklin, the top newsroom executive, made clear that he has one goal: rescinding the ban. He called the governor's action "unconstitutional" and "something that should be of concern to every citizen."
"What the governor is effectively saying is, 'If I don't agree with you, I'll close off access to all state government,'" Franklin added. "Open, transparent government is the foundation of our democracy. When public officials start closing off access to information, it should be alarming to everyone."
While promising to heed Schaefer's admonition, Ehrlich complained anew yesterday about unfair coverage of his administration.
A meeting "will happen," he said, but later added not until "some point when we get accurate reporting."
Speaking on a WBAL radio program last week, the first-term Republican governor said his problems with the coverage include "a series of noncontextual innuendo" and said his ban was "meant to have a chilling effect." He defended his order, saying, "That's my government. That's my government. I'm the chief executive."
Nov. 18 memo
Ehrlich's press office issued a memo Nov. 18 directing everyone in the executive department and state agencies to refuse to speak to The Sun's State House Bureau Chief David Nitkin and columnist Michael Olesker.
One complaint stemmed from a front-page map that accompanied an article by Nitkin about the potential sale of thousands of acres of state parks and preserved land. The newspaper's map incorrectly highlighted all 450,000 acres of state-owned preservation land instead of the 3,000 acres the state is considering designating as surplus. A correction was published the next day.
The other was about a Nov.16 column in which Olesker wrote that the governor's communications director, Paul E. Schurick, was "struggling mightily to keep a straight face" when he told lawmakers that political gain was "not a consideration" in making state tourism commercials that feature the governor.
Ehrlich's staff said Olesker did not attend the hearing and could not have known Schurick's expression. Olesker said he intended the reference metaphorically, not literally.
The governor and comptroller appeared to reverse roles yesterday.
Ehrlich, 47 and a genial glad-hander, was told to be more conciliatory by Schaefer, a Democrat and Maryland's senior politician who is known for his feuds and temperamental outbursts.
Schaefer, the former mayor of Baltimore, rarely had a kind word for his successor, Kurt L. Schmoke. The two men even avoided each other at black-tie dinners. And Schaefer constantly criticized his successor as governor, Parris N. Glendening, calling him a despot and accusing him of leaving the state broke.
Nor has Schaefer been particularly complimentary to The Sun. He refused to talk to several City Hall reporters over the years and was fond of giving the press his single-digit salute as governor.
Even while he was encouraging Ehrlich to make nice yesterday, Schaefer hurled a few criticisms at the paper himself.
"We in public office have the right to expect a minimum degree of accuracy from the press," Ehrlich said at one point.
Schaefer responded: "That's what you get."