Officials across Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration have been directed to cut off all contact with a reporter and columnist from the Baltimore Sun in retaliation for articles that Ehrlich (R) deems unfair.
In a memo sent out last week by Ehrlich's press shop, administration officials were advised not to speak with State House Bureau Chief David Nitkin or longtime columnist Michael Olesker "until further notice."
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"Do not return calls or comply with any requests," said an e-mail sent out under the name of Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver. "The Governor's Press Office feels that both [journalists] are failing to objectively report on any issue dealing with the . . . administration."
Ehrlich said the unusual action was justified partly because of a series of stories Nitkin has written about the administration's interest in selling off state land, including an aborted deal in St. Mary's County with Baltimore construction company owner Willard Hackerman. During a radio appearance this week on WBAL-AM, Ehrlich said the stories contain "incredibly inaccurate innuendo" and "dots that do not connect."
The administration's differences with Olesker go back further, but aides cited one recent column in which Olesker wrote that Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, was "struggling mightily to keep a straight face" at a legislative hearing. Olesker did not attend the hearing, in which Schurick asserted that political gain was not a consideration in developing pro-tourism commercials that prominently feature the governor.
Sun Editor Timothy A. Franklin said Ehrlich's administration has refused to meet with him to discuss its points of contention. He said "blackballing" reporters "is a pretty scary proposition."
"I think this is something that should be of concern to every Marylander," Franklin said.
"The governor is effectively saying, 'I'll provide information about state government, but only to reporters I approve of.' My question would be, 'Who's next?' "
In a letter to Ehrlich this week, lawyers from the Tribune Co., which owns the Sun, said the ban also violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
"Federal courts have repeatedly recognized that all members of the media must be given the same access to official news sources," the lawyers wrote. "Once access is given, it may not be taken away . . . based solely on the conduct of that writer's speech."
During his radio appearance, Ehrlich said he hopes that people will not see the ban on the Sun reporter and columnist "as some politician whining about criticism. If I whined about that, I'd whine every day."
Asking to Be Fired
Former Maryland delegate Dana Lee Dembrow's career in the Ehrlich administration ended with an exchange of terse letters last week.
Dembrow, a combative Democrat who represented Silver Spring in the legislature for 16 years, was fired by his boss and former seatmate on the House Judiciary Committee, Kenneth C. Montague Jr., now Secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services.
Dembrow worked as a lawyer for the troubled agency shortly after he lost a bid for reelection in 2002. He said in an interview that the job became increasingly difficult as the agency's most qualified mid-level managers started to leave in large numbers.