--Richard E. Vatz
Governor Robert L. Ehrlich has officially announced his candidacy for Maryland’s governorship, and there may be no more interesting question than whether The Baltimore Sun will cover the race fairly.
The biggest Maryland media scandal of 2006 was the Sun’s lopsided coverage in favor of candidate Mayor Martin O’Malley and against incumbent Governor Ehrlich, summarized in a Red Maryland blog of March 12, 2010, but the entirety of which is represented by one stunning fact: The Sun op-ed page, the page opposite the editorial page and one traditionally open to differing points of view, carried not a single word of support for Gov. Ehrlich by name the entire election year of 2006.
In this first of several time-to-time assessments of the media coverage of the 2010 governor’s race, particularly by Maryland’s #1 newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, we shall look at whether coverage of this executive race is disinterested and unbiased. This will include such criteria as fairness in selection of: issues to cover, placement of stories, headlines to use, relevance of evidence cited and not cited, sources to interview, pictures to accompany articles, and general tenor of articles.
Our first assessment deals with the recent coverage of the anticipation and actual entrance of Gov. Ehrlich into the impending gubernatorial race.
The Sun got off on a terribly wrong foot with its article March 12 and its cheerleading coverage of Tom Russell, the governor’s campaign manager, and his confident anticipation of Gov. O’Malley’s upcoming campaign for governor. The piece was pro-O’Malley and anti-Ehrlich, with only one quote from a pro-Ehrlich source. There were no questions posed regarding Russell’s optimistic claims, including his prediction of the campaign’s being about "why Maryland is better off today than four years ago under Bob Ehrlich."
On March 28 Julie Bykowicz did much better in her Sun article on how Gov. Ehrlich was ready to declare for governor. She assessed fairly the prospects for the gubernatorial candidates, gave relevant political and occupational background , quoted Democratic criticism of such, and elaborated on Gov. Ehrlich’s financial prospects in running. One could quibble regarding punctilious political even-handedness, but for the most part it really is a good, solid and generally fair piece.
There has been some criticism of the picture of Kendel Ehrlich, Gov. Ehrlich’s wife and political partner, accompanying the March 28 Bykowicz piece, but both the former First Lady and Gov. Ehrlich are laughing, and, honestly, it is not clearly unflattering. The picture is not prominently displayed on The Sun’s web site, and there appears no conscious effort to depict Mrs. Ehrlich negatively.
Today, March 31, Ms. Bykowicz has a piece on Gov. Ehrlich’s throwing his hat into the governor’s race, and she writes a straight news account with historical perspective and a generally fair assessment of the strengths and weaknesses Gov. Ehrlich brings to the table. Both Democratic and Republican partisans are quoted, but the allegedly nonpartisan academics referenced were all liberal. The piece ended with a fairly long quote by Russell – beware if articles typically end with unbalanced quotes in favor of one candidate – not a trend yet, but we’ll be watching. Overall article grade: B+, but for The Sun, this is very promising. I cannot recall a major Sun news piece on the governor’s race in 2006 which rose above a “C.”
For its part The Sun’s editorial page – not to be confused with the op-ed page – has a piece disingenuously titled “Welcome to the race,” a largely anti-Ehrlich and pro-O’Malley editorial snarkily including comments such as “Seven months of reliving the supposed glory days of Mr. Ehrlich's first term and rehashing the talking points of the 2006 campaign, we could do without.” The editorial also incredibly mentions the BGE rate dispute without mentioning then-Mayor O’Malley’s and later Gov. O’Malley’s false claims regarding his stopping Baltimore Gas and Electric's 72 percent rate increase.
Good journalistic coverage of Gov. O’Malley and former Gov. Ehrlich requires that the news sections not become cheerleaders for one of the candidates, as The Sun did in 2006. The evidence is a bit mixed so far, but at least we don’t yet know whom one of the major Sun political reporters favors in the governor’s race.
Professor Vatz teaches Media Criticism at Towson University
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
--Richard E. Vatz