By: Joe Strupp I know 2005 is only two weeks old, but I'm already convinced that the Crybaby of the Year Award should go to Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich.
You'll likely recall that Ehrlich is the chief executive of that great state who has turned his whining about The Sun of Baltimore into a daily exercise while also wasting his time, taxpayer's money, and reporters' and editors' energy on a needless fight that he should eventually lose.
First Ehrlich showed his thin skin last month by ordering state employees not to talk to Sun reporter David Nitkin and columnist Michael Olesker after he found some of their coverage not to his liking. Then, in the past several weeks, he barred Nitkin from at least two press events, according to the Sun.
The paper, to its credit, has attempted to handle things maturely, first politely requesting a halt to the ban, then agreeing to meet with Ehrlich in December. When that meeting resulted in little change, the Sun filed a lawsuit seeking a court order to lift the restrictions.
If the case actually goes to court and Maryland's taxpayers are forced to foot the bill for its costs, they will lose. The Sun, meanwhile, will have to divert money and energy from the business of newspapering to a needless legal fight serving no one, and its readers will lose.
The only winner here would be Ehrlich, who gets his thrills by thumping his chest as Mr. Powerful, despite the true image he is creating as a self-serving wimp.
"He's insane," declared Lucy Dalglish, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of The Press, when I asked her about Ehrlich. "If he won in court, this could become a much more widely accepted tactic."
Dalglish's group is one of several journalism organizations that joined in a recently submitted friend-of-the-court brief on the Sun's behalf. The other groups included the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Association of Capitol Editors and Reporters, and the Society of Professional Journalists, the paper said. A hearing on the case is set for Jan. 28.
Ehrlich's staffers contend that the Sun has been able to cover all news involving the governor through its other reporters. But that's not the point; politicians should not be deciding who covers them for a paper, and certainly not which reporters other officials can speak to about news-making state business.
The Sun-Ehrlich battle is just the latest in a string of recent high-profile government efforts to curb press freedom, most of which involve demands for confidential sources. In one case, a Rhode Island television reporter has already been ordered to serve six months of house arrest.
Any day now, Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time expect to find out if their appeals of a contempt ruling will be granted and whether they will be jailed. Both were punished for refusing to disclose the source who leaked the name of a CIA agent to them, even though Miller never printed the name and Cooper wrote about it only after it was already revealed.
Ehrlich's actions, while on a different scale, are almost as damaging as the federal prosecutors going after Miller, Cooper, and others. And it is just as gutless.
If he has a true bone to pick with the Sun's reporting, he should speak out against it, demand a retraction or correction if warranted, or even refuse to be interviewed. The Sun has corrected some factual errors stemming from Ehrlich's initial complaints, none of which appear to be major mistakes.
Going to the lengths of ordering state employees -- who are paid, in part, to work for the people/readers -- not to talk to reporters, and barring the journos from public press events, is cowardly.
It used to be that one of the character traits of a good politician was being tough enough to handle the rough-and-tumble world of campaigns and elections, as well as the accusations and hard shots of the press. I guess Ehrlich is learning from a fellow Republican, George W. Bush, who doesn't bar reporters form press conferences -- he just rarely has any.
Or maybe Ehrlich learned from that other great Maryland governor, Spiro Agnew. He famously called the press "nattering nabobs of negativism" after rising to the heights of vice president (before resigning amid scandal).
To show you how serious this battle is, look at the strange bedfellows it has brought together at the Sun. Just a year and a half ago, Sun Publisher Denise Palmer and local Newspaper Guild leaders were at each other's throats in a bitter contract battle that ended just days before a planned strike and left both sides with wounds that still fester.
But in the face of Ehrlich's temper tantrum, the union has come to the aid of Palmer and Editor Tim Franklin to demand that the governor drop his childish behavior and get back to work.
Hopefully, the Maryland top dog will do just that, cut out the hurt-puppy act and behave like the reliable guard hound that voters elected. I also hope the Sun will keep up the fight -- and other news organizations will join in via editorials, stories, and support -- so that whatever happens, the Sun will be able to keep its state's lead canine on a proper leash.