Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) came to a college communications class yesterday to talk about the art of persuasion. But the discussion quickly turned to the complete breakdown in communication that has become the talk of Annapolis.
Ehrlich's 45-minute lecture at Towson University was dominated by discussion of his Nov. 18 directive forbidding administration officials to respond to questions from a Baltimore Sun reporter and columnist who he said were not providing fair coverage. Ehrlich yesterday showed no sign of retreating.
"When you go to the front page of a newspaper, you have a right to expect facts," Ehrlich told the students. "This is serious."
The Sun has filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming the directive violates the paper's First Amendment rights and discourages "speech by any citizen of Maryland who disagrees with the governor." And yesterday, Sun Editor Timothy A. Franklin said the paper would seek a preliminary injunction in a bid to force Ehrlich to lift his ban immediately.
Franklin said he has been frustrated by the governor's refusal to meet with the paper to detail his accusations. Yesterday, Ehrlich again asserted that the Sun had run "wholly invented stories" and that he had "pages and pages" of examples of errors. He did not detail any of those, however, telling the students that the Sun's lawsuit limited what he could say.
"It seems to me if the governor was seriously interested in the accuracy of the Sun, he'd sit down and go over those accusations rather than demonize hardworking journalists," Franklin said in an interview after the lecture.
Ehrlich's relationship with the Sun has been strained since his 2002 campaign, during which an editorial appeared asserting that Ehrlich's running mate, Michael S. Steele, added little to the ticket but "the color of his skin." Steele, a former Maryland GOP chairman, is black.
Ehrlich spoke at some length yesterday about that episode, telling the students that "elitists cannot deal with the fact that Michael Steele is black and a Republican."
Ehrlich said, however, that the paper's editorial had nothing to do with his decision on State House Bureau Chief David Nitkin and longtime columnist Michael Olesker. Instead, he cited recent pieces critical of the administration, including articles Nitkin wrote on an aborted land deal in St. Mary's County. One of those articles ran with an inaccurate map, which the Sun later corrected.
In light of such articles, "what Ehrlich tried to do was superficially shrewd," distracting attention from the criticism, said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "But in fact, it's only made things worse because now Ehrlich has two things to justify."
Donald F. Norris, a political science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said that he personally believes that Ehrlich's edict is "foolish" but that it probably won't cause any long-term political damage.
"This plays to his base very well," Norris said. "His conservative base doesn't like the Baltimore Sun, period. It sees the Sun as biased against Ehrlich. They're saying, 'Hurrah, Bob.' "
Moreover, typical voters, most of whom get their news from television, probably won't factor this episode into their choice of governor in 2006, Norris said.
Some criticism of Ehrlich, however, has come from usually friendly quarters: talk radio.
Chip Franklin, a host on WBAL radio who is often sympathetic to the governor, said on his show this week that he thinks the ban has gone on too long. He asked listeners to imagine that former governor Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, had banned a Washington Times reporter.
"We'd be screaming bloody hell," Franklin said.
Decisions by politicians to cut off reporters they deem unfriendly are hardly a new phenomenon. At one point in his term, former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura stopped talking to local reporters who were critical of him and distributed press badges that labeled reporters "jackals."
Last year, Ehrlich stopped granting interviews to a Washington Post reporter assigned to cover him. But such directives are rarely put in writing and distributed so broadly throughout an administration.