THE LINES ARE gone now. Maryland's savings-and-loan crisis was not as bad as the '30s, not even as bad as Ohio's. And from the vast perspective of two weeks, it is worth asking whether the press deserved the blame and in some cases the abuse for giving people bad news about their local thrifts.
Sure, The Baltimore Sun wrote a front-page story May 9 about a management change at Old Court Savings and Loan Association because its "rapid growth had created serious difficulties." Sure, the lines at Old Court started the next morning.
But did The Sun cast its light on the state's banking problems or create them? And if the story spawned hourly radio bulletins and metro television reports fanning the fears of Maryland investors -- essentially ruining their day as they stood on hot pavements and waited to lay claim to their savings -- let us consider the alternative.
What if The Sun had decided the public was not sophisticated enough to deserve this information about "problems" at Old Court?
Suppose the editors simply sat down with state officials and bank barons and agreed that -- in this case -- the public had a right to be kept in the dark?
In such a case, savings-and-loan clients could perhaps console themselves about lost funds by counting the amount of money they saved by canceling their subscriptions to the daily paper.
But The Sun did not hide or downplay the story. And even though it could not be said that the media acted like a host of angels covering this subject (there were television reports that breathlessly harkened back to the bank failures of the 1930s, for example), the Baltimore paper got more grief than it deserved.
As they waited in lines, customers were frustrated and in some cases angry -- especially at The Sun. Some turned their backs on all reporters in protest. Others shouted at camera crews.
Baltimore widow Wilma Michelson, for example, took one look at the immobile line where she was standing and told Post reporter Sari Horwitz pointedly: "This was a result of sensational journalism."
Ejner "Johnny" Johnson, Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes' chief of staff, bellowed at reporters on May 10: "The name of the game in this is confidence. You make it very difficult. You become part of the story and no longer are reporters. The fact is you frighten people when you have pictures of lines."
Even some in the press laid the crisis at the feet of The Sun, with The New York Times telling readers about how "Old Court's problems began after The Baltimore Sun reported yesterday morning that Old Court had named a new management team . . . ." Times reporter Eric N. Berg also said that the Sun "suggested" that new management had been brought in because Old Court had grown too fast, adding, "The newspaper did not elaborate."
Rereading The Sun's first story in a less turbulent moment -- with its headline that said "Old Court Reveals Problems" -- the article looks cautious, even timid. If it can be criticized, in fact, it could be said that the reader is left with a vague feeling of foreboding and a lingering question about how bad it is at Old Court, really. What does it mean, this management shift?
Sun editors and reporters, who had been investigating the mounting troubles at Old Court, have said that they were trying to let people know that the institution had problems without creating a panic.
Some savings-and-loan officials complained that news of a mere management shift should have been stuck on the back pages, but many journalists and even a few public officials disagreed.
"That was no ordinary management change. That was a very significant event -- removing (Old Court's President Jeffrey) Levitt," said Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, (also criticized for fomenting the near-crisis by ordering an investigation of Old Court on May 9.)
"It was like taking a face off Mt. Rushmore," Sachs said.
In some ways, the notations of wire-service reports and other papers, including The Post, of The Sun's "scoop" are particularly galling to the management at the Baltimore paper. The article was written because Old Court and the state issued a press release.
"What happened was that Old Court and MSSIC (Maryland Savings Share Insurance Corp.) made an announcement, and we reported it. And we just happened to be on the street first with it," said James I. Houck, managing editor of The Sun.
Moreover, the comparison to the Ohio situation, where more than a dozen state-insured institutions are still closed or offering only limited withdrawals, did not appear until the 14th paragraph of The Sun's May 9 story.
However, it is not until the 17th paragraph that The Sun offered reassurance to its readers. At that point, the authors quoted MSSIC president Charles Hogg II as saying that Old Court's problems were "totally manageable" now that there had been changes at the top.
Some of those in the lines, given the amount of time available to mull over the problems of telling the public about banking troubles, acknowledged that some of their frustration at the press was patently unreasonable. They wanted to know what was going on, but they didn't really want anybody else to know.
"That appeared to be the unarticulated view of a lot of people. 'If I knew privately, that's okay. But don't tell anybody else,'" said Sun columnist Roger Simon.
In fact, until the Sun article, the people who suspected there were problems were those who call themselves the "smart-money" or "hot-money" people who had already been slowly taking their funds out of Old Court and some other state-insured institutions in Maryland.
Many had followed the advice of Paul Bauer, publisher of the Savers Rate News, who warned his 1,600 subscribers in mid-April that Old Court gave high but shaky interest rates. Before there were ever lines, Old Court had lost $15.8 million by the end of March, leaving their cash account overdrawn by $2 million.
Another view on the thrift crisis these past two weeks came from John Heimann, former comptroller of the currency and now vice chairman of Merrill Lynch Capital Markets, who sees the press as "creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"Banking systems are based on confidence. If people have confidence in them, they survive. The word 'credit' comes from the Latin credere, which means to believe," Heimann said.
Heimann added that the nature of reporting on such institutions "tends to highlight the worst . . . . It creates fear and then confirms fears on the part of the public who then act very normally by going out and asking for their money."
But even Heimann says that the only way for the system to work is for "responsible" journalists to do their jobs, revealing information that may be uncomfortable but best made public. One caveat, he adds, is that journalists jumping in to cover such stories should be better informed about the intricacies of the banking world.
In the meantime, for all the things the press could be chastised for, the S & L crisis in Maryland probably isn't one of them.
As Sachs put it more flamboyantly: "It's like blaming Pearl Harbor on the Associated Press."