Volume 12, Issue 49 ~ December 2 - December 8, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

The Sun Vs. The Gov.
Metaphorical — metaphoric, a metaphor of or relating to metaphor; comprising a metaphor or containing metaphors; figurative; not literal.
—Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary

Metaphorical was the term employed by The Sun columnist Michael Olesker in defending a column that aroused Gov. Bob Ehrlich sufficiently to ban state officials from speaking with him. At the same time, the guv also put off limits chit-chat with Sun State House Bureau chief David Nitkin in the aftermath of another goof-up in a recent edition of the newspaper — a newspaper for which I toiled for 37 and a half years before retiring a dozen years ago.

To hear the officialdom at The Sun — and more than a few of its writers — you might think a free press no longer exists in the Free State. Ehrlich’s ban limits the “Sun’s ability to gather and report information,” is how public editor Paul Moore put it in the past Sunday’s edition of The Sun.

But there’s more to this than meets the eye. To this hassle there are two sides, not restricted to freedom of the press.

Take a peek at the controversy from the viewpoint of the other side. Ehrlich, who has been hammered pretty hard by The Sun since he took office, in frustration tossed to the winds the old advice that one shouldn’t pick an argument with an opponent who buys ink by the barrel. It isn’t easy to suffer in silence, so when the opportunity arose for payback, he didn’t let the bus go by.

After 57 years as a journalist, I find myself trying to figure who’s right, who’s wrong — and if this whole saga is worth all the ink it’s getting. Realistically, if the matter was a black-and-white issue of freedom of the press, there wouldn’t be enough ink anywhere to do it justice. But one can legitimately question whether that is the case.

I know firsthand how Olesker and Nitkin must feel. In the waning years of the Glendening administration, suddenly and without explanation, faxes of press releases from the governor’s office relating to environmental, Bay and other outdoor issues stopped arriving at my home office in Riviera Beach. Via the grapevine (there are always state employees willing to talk confidentially) I was told that, in the various publications I write for, I had hammered Glendening too much on the subject of black bear and trapping management and his blatant interference in Department of Natural Resources matters, including the hiring and firing of key personnel.

For a time, I considered appealing to the governor’s office, even legal action. But I quickly learned there were more than a few inside DNR who could fill me in on the latest news from the Glendening administration — and add tidbits of info not included in the standard press releases. Tired of the way things were going, these state employees wanted the information to end up in the ink of a newspaper.

Some risked their jobs by quickly faxing me copies of releases with informative notations added. Others called from home. All they asked was that I keep things confidential. Within weeks, I found I was much better informed than when I was on the Glendening press list.

Still, I had concerns about freedom-of-the-press guarantees under the Bill of Rights. Was I right in not pressing the issue? Should I try to bring to light the blacklisting tactics of withholding government information? After all, for years I have been chairman of the Freedom of Information and Access Committee of Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers, and at one time I was deeply involved in the matter with Outdoor Writers of America. In those capacities, I worked to see that writers got what they wanted and what they were entitled to in federal, state and local governmental dealings: access and information.

Metaphorically Speaking
Yet there is the other side of the coin, especially in the Olesker matter. The Sun columnist wrote that the governor’s communications director was “struggling mightily to keep a straight face” when he testified at a hearing about using taxpayers’ money for tourism ads that feature the governor. Sounds okay seeing that columnists, as opposed to news reporters, are granted much leeway in what they put in print.

The way newspapers operate, reporters write news and do it without comments — just straight news. Columnists report news or whatever they want to write about as it filters through their minds and their views. But in instances like the straight face flap, all journalists are obliged to be accurate. A columnist carries a heavy burden: There must be credibility and accuracy — unless in parody.

It turns out that Olesker wasn’t even at the hearing to see the communications director “struggling to keep a straight face.” To my thinking, that’s stretching the reins of being a columnist a bit more than reasonable — or ethical. Olesker says his description was metaphorical. I say nuts, and not metaphorically do I use that word.

Yet other than in letters to the editor, I’ve not seen anyone taking the columnist to task. The issue instead is freedom of the press, as if the governor and his underlings should continue to feed news to sources that stray from truth.

A Map of Error
As for the Nitkin situation, a big front-page article written by him was accompanied with a map that indicated the governor was considering selling all 450,000 acres of state forests, parks and other property. In fact, only 3,000 acres were under consideration. Nitkin professed he had nothing to do with the map: That came under a different department.

True. But with The Sun keeping the heat on such a hot political issue, you wonder why Nitkin didn’t check the map himself; after all, this was a big front-page story taking the governor to task. Over my years at The Sun, hundreds of maps were drawn to accompany my fishing and outdoor columns. I personally went to the art department to check each one to ensure accuracy. While great at art, artists are notorious for poor spelling, sometimes for detail inaccuracy.

No Right Here
So Ehrlich has gone to the airwaves, WBAL Radio, to hawk his messages. Sun reporters and columnists — other than Olesker and Nitkin — still have access to his people. Yet to hear the fuss, you’d think the public were being deprived of all news from his office, you’d think the First Amendment had been tossed out the window.

Forget about who struck John. This is a no-right situation. The touchy governor, the errant columnist and the possibly lax bureau chief all carry a bit of baggage. But the bottom line is the newspaper made the first boo-boos; then the indignant governor added to the fiasco with his ban without first appealing to The Sun, which also has rights granted under First Amendment of the Constitution.

The mighty Sun can still go on hammering Bob Ehrlich without fear of its presses shutting down and its personnel intimidated or jailed. It’s just that two of its staff will have to work harder to get their stories. Meanwhile, the gov can say gotcha, which seems to give him a bit of satisfaction.

Enough said …

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.