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Weighing the merits of Ehrlich complaints

The following column by Sun Public Editor Paul Moore is being published in an effort to provide readers with a timely report on a list of complaints about Sun coverage compiled by the press office of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration. The list was given to Sun executives at an off-the-record meeting in December. Mr. Moore, who reports directly to the publisher and works independently of The Sun's news and editorial page operations, has carefully investigated the complaints on the list. The Ehrlich administration is expected to release the list today, along with other materials related to the governor's dispute with The Sun that led to the banning of two Sun journalists.

LAST NOV. 18, all Maryland executive branch employees were banned from speaking with two Sun journalists, columnist Michael Olesker and State Bureau chief David Nitkin.

"Do not return calls or comply with any requests. The ban is in effect until further notice," said the memo from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s press office. The reason: Mr. Olesker and Mr. Nitkin were "failing to objectively report" on state issues.

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The ban is still in effect today.

Concerned about the ban and public assertions of unfair treatment of the governor by The Sun, the newspaper's publisher and top editors sought and ultimately gained an off-the-record meeting with Governor Ehrlich and members of his staff Dec. 19.

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At that private meeting, the governor's staff distributed a document titled "Partial List of Inaccuracies, Omissions, Errors, and Distortions by The (Baltimore) Sun's Reporters, Headline Writers and Editorial Writers Regarding the Ehrlich-Steele Administration."

As The Sun's public editor, it is my responsibility to independently review such material to determine whether errors have been made and how they occurred and to suggest corrections to be published in the newspaper.

To fulfill that responsibility, I received a copy of the list -- 23 items relating to news stories, editorials, headlines, columns and graphics published in The Sun between 2001 and 2004. I reviewed the items and interviewed people involved. The Sun has corrected or clarified four items.

In the weeks after the Dec. 19 meeting, Governor Ehrlich alluded to this list when he publicly accused The Sun of "serial inaccuracies" in stories. On the radio and in interviews, he also claimed that some stories had been made up.

A close analysis does not support such conclusions.

While there is no doubt that some mistakes have been made in The Sun's coverage of the Ehrlich administration, there is no evidence of the grievous, purposeful mistakes publicly referred to by the governor. As I see it, those claims are grossly exaggerated.

Because the list was offered at an off-the-record meeting, I felt bound not to speak or write publicly about it. There have not been specific references to it in The Sun's news pages for the same reason.

Now, an April 7 letter from Jervis S. Finney, chief counsel for the Ehrlich administration, asking for a "prompt public response" on the list has removed that constraint, and the anticipated release of the list by the administration in response to a state Public Information Act request makes this assessment timely.

The complaints focus either on questions of factual accuracy or claims of bias in articles and headlines that the Ehrlich administration contends were not fairly balanced.

Making the list public is helpful, in my view, because it sheds significant light on larger issues that have shadowed the governor's dispute with The Sun.

Governor Ehrlich was clearly upset by Mr. Nitkin's coverage of a proposal to sell preserved state land in St. Mary's County in a deal that would have provided significant tax benefits to the purchaser, developer Willard Hackerman.

A number of the listed complaints focused on stories about that proposal, which sparked a political controversy.

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For instance, one concerned an Oct. 20, 2004, front-page article written by Mr. Nitkin that was accompanied by this headline: "Ehrlich OK'd deal for land."

The list's grievance stated that "Governor Ehrlich never 'OK'd' any deal for land. In addition, there was no deal at the time -- only discussions."

The article was accurate, and Governor Ehrlich did act to move consideration of the deal forward. But the headline word "OK'd" might have suggested final approval. Therefore, the newspaper published this "Clarification" on Dec. 28, 2004:

"A headline accompanying a front-page article in 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 sale."

Other than the imprecise headline and an inaccurate map of preserved state lands that ran on the front page Nov. 18, which was corrected and apologized for the next day, The Sun's reporting of the land deal was, in my view, fair, accurate and in the public interest.

Events that followed support that judgment.

The land proposal was aborted in early November. Subsequently, a constitutional amendment to prevent the state Board of Public Works from selling state-owned preservation land without legislative approval was approved by the General Assembly with support from Governor Ehrlich. Marylanders will vote on this proposed constitutional amendment in the 2006 election.

The reporting on this matter stimulated a robust debate and may lead to resolution of a potential problem. It illustrates how an unfettered press does its job in helping protect citizens' right to information.

Another notable item on the list is a 2002 Sun editorial endorsing Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for governor. In it was this sentence: "Mr. Ehrlich's running mate, state GOP chairman Michael S. Steele, brings little to the team but the color of his skin." The administration's list called it "remarkably insulting to the State's first African-American statewide official," and has asked for an official apology.

Editorial Page Editor Dianne Donovan has said publicly she regrets the choice of words used in that part of the editorial but stands by the point the editorial was trying to make, which is that Mr. Steele had little experience relevant to serving as lieutenant governor, particularly compared with his opponent, retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, who had twice served as superintendent of the Naval Academy.

There is a clear division between the editorial pages and the news pages at The Sun and other newspapers. Editorials are opinions, supported by facts, reason and interpretation. The news operation is completely separate. By including both news articles and editorials and letters to the editor in the same list of grievances, the administration has clouded that distinction.

The list claims that three columns by Mr. Olesker included quotes from individuals that they denied making. In one case, Del. John S. Arnick said he spoke with Mr. Olesker but claimed he was misquoted in a January 2003 column. In another case, Paul E. Schurick, director of communications for the administration, denied making the comments attributed to him in a February 2003 column.

Mr. Olesker says he quoted Mr. Arnick and Mr. Schurick accurately. Mr. Olesker has a clear and detailed recollection of the conversation with Mr. Arnick and has his notes from the conversation with Mr. Schurick.

The list cites a May 14, 2004, column in which Mr. Olesker quotes Lieutenant Governor Steele from a conversation they had at Pimlico Race Course. The grievance says that two administration aides who also were present at Pimlico that day deny the exchange occurred. The grievance also states that "Mr. Olesker effectively puts 65 words in Lt. Governor Steele's mouth."

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After first stating he never met Mr. Olesker, the governor's press office later acknowledged that Lieutenant Governor Steele did speak with Mr. Olesker that day at the track. The 65 words were not a quote but rather Mr. Olesker's description of the lieutenant governor's reaction to the question.

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Mr. Olesker did apologize in a Nov. 24, 2004, column for confusion caused by his statement in a Nov. 16, 2004, column that Mr. Schurick was "struggling mightily to keep a straight face." The grievance noted that the columnist had no way of knowing what Mr. Schurick's expression was because he did not attend the hearing. Mr. Olesker said he was trying to make a sarcastic point and said he did not intend to deceive readers.

Some other articles noted in the list could have been better organized and edited. In a few stories, sentences were poorly worded. But taken together, the Ehrlich administration's complaints do not support a conclusion that The Sun or any of its journalists were engaged in a deliberate campaign to smear the governor.

What is The Sun's public editor to do when he arrives at conclusions about facts and fairness that appear so much at odds with the publicly stated perceptions of Maryland's chief executive?

My principal obligation is to honestly state those views while at the same time urging my colleagues at The Sun to remain vigilant in their efforts to report fairly and accurately and to quickly correct the unintended errors that are inevitable in any complex news gathering and editing environment.

It is dangerous for either party in an extended dispute to stop listening or fail to seek a fair-minded understanding of the other's view.

That said, it appears even more dangerous to me for The Sun to stop seeking the truth, regardless of whom it may anger.

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