A lopsided megaphone

WBAL-AM Radio's decision to let former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. continue hosting his Saturday morning talk show even after he officially announces Wednesday that he is running for governor this year is troubling for any number of reasons, but the most important question is why the station would allow candidate Ehrlich to stay on the air at all.

The Federal Communications Commission sought to rein in such situations when it instituted the equal-time provision for broadcasters, which requires stations to give more or less comparable airtime to candidates for a public office. But Mr. Ehrlich, who since leaving office in 2006 has headed the Baltimore office of North Carolina law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, is exploiting a loophole that keeps the rule from kicking in until he formally files his candidacy with the state elections commission — sometime in July, he says — rather than when he publicly announces his candidacy this week. While his plan is likely perfectly legal, it fails any test of journalistic or media ethics and integrity.

That's because the precise date when Mr. Ehrlich formally files for election makes no practical difference in whether he's a candidate for office. Both before and after filing with the state, he can and will raise money, build a staff, attend events and advocate for his election. He will be subject to the same campaign finance laws whether he has filed with the state or not. The same applies to Gov. Martin O'Malley; who hasn't even announced that he's running for re-election but still must be treated as a candidate.

According to Mr. Ehrlich, the station has offered to give equal time to Mr. O'Malley. But while that may sound like a generous gesture on the station's part, there's less to the offer than appears at first glance. For one thing, Mr. O'Malley is unlikely to accept it because two hours on the station is not of equal value to him as it is to Mr. Ehrlich. WBAL listeners skew politically toward Mr. Ehrlich's conservative base, and it's useful to him to be able to communicate with those listeners because it keeps them informed and energized about his candidacy. If not for the show, Mr. Ehrlich would have to expend his own resources to accomplish the same task. By contrast, there is little electoral advantage to Mr. O'Malley communicating with WBAL's conservative listeners. If the station could somehow finagle two hours for the governor on WYPR-FM, which skews to a liberal listenership, that might be a fairer trade.

Second, just giving the governor equal time is still not equal treatment. Mr. Ehrlich is, after all, a paid employee of WBAL. It's also worth asking whether the station would make the same offer to all of the other candidates for governor. Former Ehrlich cabinet secretary George Owings III has announced that he is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, and businessman Brian Murphy has said he will seek the Republican nod. Neither has yet filed with the board of elections, though a handful of other candidates have: J.P. Cusick of St. Mary's County, Ralph Jaffe of Baltimore County, and Susan J. Gaztanaga and Doug McNeil of Baltimore City. Does the station intend to give each of them two hours of airtime, too, or just the ones who have not yet filed? (One imagines the early filers might have held off had they known about the chance for free airtime.)

Mr. Ehrlich said on the air Saturday that he doesn't want his show to devolve into a "We love Bob, we love Martin" routine, but no matter how much he may profess his intention to maintain a high-minded debate about the issues facing the state, the appearance on the radio of a publicly declared candidate for office furthers his own political aims, and WBAL's actions effectively support that effort.

Governor O'Malley appears regularly on an "Ask the Governor" segment on Maryland Public Television, but the station plans to discontinue the program at the end of the current General Assembly session. If Mr. O'Malley appears on the station again before election day, it will be in the context of explicit campaign coverage in which he would be invited on the air as a guest in the same manner as other candidates.

Since 1987, when the FCC, at the urging of the Reagan administration, gutted the so-called fairness doctrine that required broadcasters to air opposing views of issues, there's been no rule that says the station has to be balanced or objective – despite broadcasters' pious pledges to be. Certainly there's little attempt at evenhandedness on talk radio. But stations do have an ethical obligation to maintain their independence from overt politicking, and WBAL's actions here woefully fail that test. Now that Mr. Ehrlich is a declared candidate, his show is no longer either an appropriate or justifiable use of the public airwaves.

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