Both sides in MD case guilty of poor PR

In the grip-and-grin world of political media relations, it's usually not considered good form to publicly blackball the biggest paper in your state.

In the grip-and-grin world of political media relations, it's usually not considered good form to publicly blackball the biggest paper in your state.

Nor, considering the careful cultivation of sources that goes along with being an effective political reporter, is it usually a good strategy to sue a politician who won't speak to you.

But both things happened in the state of Maryland, where Gov. Robert Ehrlich instructed state employees in late 2004 not to "return calls or comply with any requests" from two Baltimore Sun reporters because he had problems with their coverage. The Sun responded by suing Ehrlich for violating its First Amendment rights. The paper lost an initial ruling, and the case reached its strange conclusion earlier this month when an appeals court upheld Ehrlich's move, and the Sun said it would not press the case further.

The scuffle prompted predictable reactions from predictable parties. Rush Limbaugh hailed Ehrlich for standing up to the devious, underhanded liberal media. Journalism groups tripped over themselves condemning Ehrlich's flagrant violation of the newspaper's First Amendment right to call him a scoundrel. The general public continued to watch American Idol and ignore newsprint in record numbers.

In an age when the White House has taken the art of circumventing the national media to new heights, the Maryland case offers an instructive lesson to both sides of the press/government relationship on what not to do."

Ehrlich, for his part, stands convicted of making possibly the most ham-fisted swipe at the press since Major League Baseball pitcher Randy Johnson shoved a TV cameraman on the his first day in New York as a Yankee. Many politicians would surely love to shut out certain papers from covering their administrations. And some do, in fact, but they use much more subtle means: Witness the Vice President's office denying seats on his plane to The New York Times, and then expressing sincere regret that those darned jets just don't have any more room.

Furthermore, it's not overstating the case to say that the Baltimore Sun is virtually the only big league news outlet in the entire state of Maryland. That means that Ehrlich, by freezing out the Sun's political reporters, was essentially trying to cede statehouse coverage to The Washington Post, an out-of-state paper. That reflects poorly on Ehrlich's hometown pride. It's akin to him showing up at a Baltimore Ravens game in a Washington Redskins jersey.

The Sun is not without fault, either. Sources refuse to talk to reporters all the time. The response to this is usually more digging by the reporter, rather than slapping the source with a lawsuit. In fact, it was this fundamental point that the court brought up in its rejection of the Sun's appeal, pointing out that ruling in the paper's favor could establish a ridiculous precedent that would allow media outlets to impel politicians to speak to them.

Suing for scoops: only in a reporter's dreams.

These are the types of disputes that PR professionals are paid to stop before they ever happen. The editor of the paper should have foreseen that a lawsuit could do nothing but further degrade the obviously tenuous relationship between its political reporters and the governor's office. He should have also been advised that the paper would certainly lose in court.

Likewise, it defies belief that Ehrlich didn't have a single communications advisor tell him, in the most respectful way possible, that his ban on the Sun's reporters was craven, unprofessional, and downright stupid. Shareese DeLeaver, the governor's press secretary, says that no such conversation ever took place. Asked if the legal battle would worsen her office's relationship with the Sun, Deleaver told the truth.

"No more so than what it was before the ban," she admitted, and then burst out laughing.

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