Sen. Joseph S. Bonvegna spent several weeks during last summer's election campaign wondering just who that beautiful woman was who was running against one of his comrades in east Baltimore's 46th district.
The moon-faced senator saw the woman's "gorgeous mug" everywhere he turned -- in the newspapers, on posters and in leaflets -- but he never saw her in the flesh until a few days before the election. "I couldn't beleive it was this same beautiful person," Bonvegna recalled. "She may have looked like that 10 years ago, but hey...."
To Bonvegna, this was false advertising and something that should be corrected through legislation. He drafted a bill that would prevent newspapers and political literature from showing pictures of candidates that were taken more than two years before they were used.
To William S. Wilson Jr., a lobbyist for newspapers, Bonvegna's bill is not just an attack on false political advertising. "When you try to tell newspapers what they can and can't publish, you're attacking the Constitution, the freedom of the press," said Wilson. "I come to Annapolis every year to fight bills like this one. This year, at least, most of them don't seem to be all that monumental."
Indeed, Bonvegna's measure is one of four bills introduced this session that Wilson and representatives of the newspaper industry characterize as "antifreedom of the press." And judging from the reception two of those bills got at a House committee hearing today, it appears that the legislators are not inclined to pass them.
Today's hearing before the House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee involved two bills drafted by Michael H. Weir, a soft-spoken delegate from Baltimore County. One would require newspapers to publish 100-word explanations for every political candidate they endorse. The other would require newspapers to publish corrections the day after they print something inaccurate. The corrections must appear in the same place in the newspaper as the original error appeared.
In defending the first bill, Weir said it was unfair for newspapers to print the names of candidates they endorse without explaining why they support them. "There should be a reason for the endorsements," he said, "not just a list of names."
"What penalty would you suggest for newspapers that just print the names?" asked Del. Luiz Simmons (R-Montgomery).
"I have no idea," responded Weir. "Whatever would be appropriate."
"Okay," said Simmons. "Like stocks and pillory."
Wilson, speaking in opposition to the bill, first argued that it was unconstitutional, then added that it was asking too much for newspapers to find 100 words to praise some candidates.
"Suppose a guy's running for county clerk or sheriff," said Wilson. "Maybe he's been a good clerk or sheriff, but he ain't much after that. He gets to work on time, he doesn't take the county car home. Do you really have to use 100 words for that?"
Weir said his bill telling newspapers when, where and how to publish corrections was an attempt to hold the press responsible for "careless, incompetent reporting that can do irreparable harm."
Many of the committee members smiled and nodded in agreement, but made it clear to Weir that they thought his bill was unconstitutional.
"You're really in trouble on this one," said Del. Robert Redding (D-Prince George's). "The Constitution clearly prevents us from making the newspapers print the truth."