Pressing the issue
Ehrlich speaks his mind on the media.
By David Folkenflik
July 10, 2003
Annapolis - On a television comedy show scheduled to air later this
summer, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. plays the amiable host. He fences with
Lt. Gov. Michael
Steele, winces at off-color jokes made by his longtime buddy Steve Rouse of WQSR-FM and pretends to work at a Wendy's fast food restaurant.
The governor's willingness to perform on the WMAR-TV show - a pilot
tentatively called Baltimore Saturday Nite - reflects his desire to court
unconventional media outlets. It also embodies the lesson Ehrlich says he has learned from the press coverage he has received since his January inauguration.
The lesson, by his reckoning, is this: The two dominant newspapers in
the region, The Sun and The Washington Post, are eager to see the state's
governor in a generation fail. As proof, Ehrlich and his aides point to what they contend is a pattern of mistreatment by the two papers, from unsympathetic
headlines, careless errors and mischaracterization of policy to consistently dismissive assessments in news columns and on editorial pages.
In 1995, tough press accounts gave then Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a
Democrat, a rocky first several months. But, Ehrlich says, most of the
Glendening focused on scandals. Much of the negative coverage of Ehrlich involves policy matters. "There was no honeymoon," Ehrlich says. "We viewed it as a
sustained campaign to hurt the administration before it got off the ground."
Unpretentious and approachable, Ehrlich typically performs well before
the camera and in the public eye. Since his earliest days as an elected
official, he has spent
hours indulging questions from talk radio hosts, television reporters and writers from smaller newspapers. Now Ehrlich's aides say he pursues these outlets more than ever because of his
treatment by the state's two largest newspapers. And, in recent months, the two papers have sometimes encountered a sluggish response to requests for information and interviews from
state officials, even as television reporters have been swiftly accommodated.
"It's not anti-Sun or anti-Post," says Paul E. Schurick, the governor's communications director, "but it's pro-anything else."
As his own chief media analyst, Ehrlich often cites as his inspiration
two of the most charismatic American politicians of the second half of
the 20th century - John F. Kennedy and
Both were adept at reaching voters by co-opting or circumventing reporters,
political operatives, pundits and scholars - the interpretive class which
helps to shape so-called conventional
Ehrlich, who recently spoke at length with The Sun about his relationship
with the media, suggests that editors, not reporters, are the ones who
dream up anti-Republican directives. His
dismay about the coverage he was receiving was first reported last spring in a column written by Tim Craig, then a Sun reporter. The report inflated Ehrlich's response to a question from a
Towson University student at a campus event, the governor's staff says.
Schurick says that he's even been told Greg Garland, another Sun reporter, has been assigned to follow Ehrlich around solely to scour for gaffes.
Absolutely not, says Sandra A. Banisky, The Sun's deputy managing editor
for metro news. The newspaper must cover Ehrlich's public appearance, she
says. "The governor might say
something insightful. He might say something important for the citizens of Maryland to know," Banisky says. "It's important to have what the governor says all the time - no matter who
the governor is."
Ehrlich is equally fed up with the Washington Post. In early March,
the Post noted the choppy waters that greeted the Ehrlich administration's
proposal to introduce slot machines to the
state to bail out the horse racing industry and provide hundreds of millions of dollars for the strapped state budget. The article opened with an anecdote describing Ehrlich as failing to
appear before a group of senior state legislators, and mentioned a gubernatorial aide who hinted the new governor was last seen in pajamas.
The aide meant the line as a joke, Ehrlich says now. He had been briefed
by staffers about the meeting - one that he said he had never intended
to attend personally - at the start of the
morning, after a workout. He was wearing sweats. And, according to Ehrlich's aides, the Post reporter never asked about the full details surrounding the incident. "That's when it hit me,"
Ehrlich says. "If that's going to be the way it is, it's 'gotcha.'"
Lori Montgomery, the Post state political reporter who wrote the article,
says it accurately captured the tension between the lawmakers and Ehrlich
at a time when he needed legislative
Smaller transgressions also have grated: Both papers frequently have
misspelled the governor's name. (A data base search found Ehrlich incorrectly
spelled 22 times in The Sun and 15
times in the Post). "You would certainly expect a four-term member of Congress and governor would be accorded the respect of having his name spelled correctly," says Henry Fawell,
the Ehrlich spokesman whose own name also has been incorrectly spelled several times.
In April, a Post political column by Montgomery and Jo Becker delivered
a tough assessment of Ehrlich's first legislative session as governor.
"How many ways are there to say
'unmitigated disaster'?" The two wrote in the April 13 piece. The new administration failed to secure passage of the slots bill, which the column noted was the centerpiece of the Ehrlich
budget, won battles on few other policy initiatives, and failed to win the respect or fear of lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, the Post concluded.
"We do a winners and losers list every year," Montgomery says now. "The
one we did this year was not substantively different from the ones we've
done of Governor Glendening in the
past and other governors before him."
Democratic partisans had been attacking the Ehrlich administration for
weeks, but the reporters' description was seen as insupportable within
Ehrlich's inner circle. "Reporters today, it
appears to me - and, I think, to the administration - feel very free to spin stories and not report the news straight up," Ehrlich says. "It is what it is and nobody wants to hear us complain
Ehrlich arrived in office a self-proclaimed agent of change. He called
for a smaller state government, planned cuts to address a significant budget
deficit, and sought to introduce slot
machines to help pay for education. But his plan on slots took a battering, while several key appointments and policy proposals ran aground. Some Ehrlich supporters say the two
newspapers have hewed closely to the critique offered by the powerful Annapolis Democrats who for years have controlled the General Assembly.
"His statehouse performance is being measured by reporters and newspapers
that supported his last opponent and will support his next one, no matter
who," columnist Blair Lee, a
former Democratic strategist who is sympathetic to Ehrlich, wrote on May 30 in the Gazette newspapers of suburban Washington.
Other journalists and observers argue the newspapers' coverage of Ehrlich's
first months reflected the tumult of the time. "I think it was fairly balanced,"
says veteran national GOP
strategist Scott Reed, who lives in Annapolis and has informal ties to the Ehrlich camp. "The press corps was aggressive, and Ehrlich gave them a few openings."
Journalists at both papers say they have to remember that Ehrlich remains
a politician as well as a public servant. "Our job has been to cover the
politics and the policies of a new
administration, the likes of which we haven't seen in nearly two generations," says David Nitkin, The Sun's State House bureau chief. "They want to speak unfiltered. We are filters - we
choose what to quote, who to quote, how to order facts within a story.
"What readers of The Sun get, if we're doing our job well, is the full
picture, some analysis, some context and the answers to some questions,"
Nitkin says. "You're not going to get that
by allowing a politician to speak unadulterated through a different medium."
Says Jo-Ann Armao, the Post's assistant managing editor for metro news: "He's not the first politician to have this kind of feeling when things are going bad for him."
The governor is fighting back. Last spring, Schurick announced that
calls wouldn't be returned for seven days from any reporter who quoted
Maryland Democratic Party official David
Paulson, a persistent critic of all things Ehrlich. The policy was not seriously enforced.
And as controversy erupted over Ehrlich's slots proposal, Schurick shot
off an annoyed e-mail to Banisky, the Sun editor. (Both Schurick and Banisky
agreed to the release of his e-mail
for this article.)
"The anti-Ehrlich bias among most of the [Sun's] State House reporters
isn't even hidden any more," Schurick wrote in the e-mail on March 6. "I
don't know if it's top down from their
editors or simply personal biases. They work hard every day to file anti-Ehrlich pieces. Does a day go by when we're not excoriated for something?"
Sun editor William K. Marimow said Ehrlich's first legislative session occurred during a tempestuous time.
"What the governor perceived as the tone of coverage was really the natural outcome of a very ardent, partisan, spirited debate over public policies," Marimow says.
Ehrlich prefers the uncomplicated approach of television. "TV doesn't have time to spin," he says. "The reporter is more straight-up. It is more 'just the facts, ma'am.'"
Increasingly, sit-down interviews have been granted by the governor
to outlets he sees as more pliant, such as smaller papers. Among those
given a full, one-on-one interview are the
newspapers serving Salisbury, Frederick, Easton, suburban Washington, and east Baltimore County. And the governor, always comfortable on the radio waves, uses a special
broadcast-quality phone line set up in Schurick's corner office for myriad sessions on such talk radio stations as WBAL-AM and WCBM-AM in Baltimore and WTOP-AM and
WMAL-AM in Washington.
For years, winning statewide races in Maryland depended on earning huge
leads in votes from Baltimore City and Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
Ehrlich turned that calculus
on its ear, running up large margins in the rest of the state and riding them to victory.
The Sun and Post each sell more than 300,000 copies daily, and more
than 450,000 copies on Sundays in Maryland. The news stations and radio
stations generally reach tens of
thousands of viewers and listeners.
But the people who voted for Ehrlich, his aides say, can be reached without reliance on the two establishment papers.
A single framed newspaper announcing the governor's victory hangs on
the wall of his office. It is the Salisbury Daily Times, the only Maryland
newspaper to endorse him last fall,
Ehrlich notes with a laugh.
His good humor fades, however, when he talks about The Sun's November
endorsement of his opponent, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. The editorial
said Steele, now the
state's first black lieutenant governor, "brings little to the team but the color of his skin." Ehrlich immediately declared the endorsement unforgivable.
But Ehrlich now says he was equally stung by the way the newspaper sloughed
off his own public record. "Until his decision to run for governor, very
few issues of substance have
engaged Mr. Ehrlich," the newspaper's endorsement stated. "He seems to have no compass but a political one, no vision past an election."
Ehrlich denies that assessment. "My reviews in Congress have been pretty good," he says. "They just dismissed it in a pretty cavalier way."
As a consequence, he no longer speaks to the editorial board of The
Sun. "It's a waste of my time to run up there [to Baltimore] and talk to
people who have their minds made up," Ehrlich
"That's his choice," responds Dianne Donovan, The Sun's editorial page editor. "I think it's unfortunate.
"Our journalistic responsibility is to our readers and the people of Maryland," she says. "We call things as we see them."
As seen from the governor's office, the drumbeat of unfairly negative
stories continues. In mid-June, the Post reported that Ehrlich had scrapped
environmental rules holding poultry
processors responsible for chicken waste dumped into the Chesapeake Bay. Schurick says the administration was simply responding to a ruling by a state official that Glendening had
overstepped his authority in setting the regulations. And he noted that the governor has pledged to come up with new ways to restrain pollution with the input of industry.
Post editorial cartoonist Tom Toles also weighed in on the poultry issue.
The Ehrlich character is speaking to a poultry corporate official. "So,
when you gave me all that money to get rid
of those 'chicken**** environmental regulations,' you meant literally," the cartoon Ehrlich says.
Ehrlich says he's reading the writing on the wall. And, he says he's
concluded that it's telling him that he needs to devote himself to other
forms of media - and away from The Sun and the
Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun