Media Watch V on the Race for Maryland’s Governorship: Television Political Coverage Continues the Renaissance

Media Watch V on the Race for Maryland’s Governorship: Television Political Coverage Continues the Renaissance

–Richard E. Vatz

This column has been writing for weeks about the sea change in fairness of this year’s major media coverage of Maryland’s gubernatorial contest as contrasted with that of 2002 and 2006. The focus thus far has been on the differences in The Baltimore Sun, whose even-handedness has improved immeasurably, and secondarily in The Washington Post with mixed conclusions.

Some of the 2002 and 2006 television reportage was nearly as unprofessional as that of the print media – although the Sun’s journalistically shameful cheerleading on the news pages for then-Mayor Martin O’ Malley and the censoring of any pro-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich support on the op-ed page and most of the letters-to-the-editor page for the entire election year of 2006 along with the paper’s day-to-day coverage and blacklisting of some conservative sources constitute the worst long-term media bias I have ever seen in mainstream media.

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Just generally, but not systematically, watching local television news on the race for governor, it has seemed as if there is a general major improvement regarding impartiality in coverage. Still, I had seen no hard-hitting analysis which would be the crucial test: if one of the political reporters at one of the main stations saw unfair campaign advertising in the governor’s race, could and would they report that?

There is not sufficient evidence to answer that question accurately yet, but it must be pointed out that several days ago WBAL-TV 11 News I-Team reporter David Collins did an ad watch (called an “Ad Fact Check”) on an advertisement for Gov. O’Malley that Collins called “vague,” an ad which, he said, was intended to depict the Governor as “a sound fiscal steward working for the middle class.”

Collins subsequently made the following significant ad criticisms: the O’Malley ad claims to cut waste, but “doesn’t define waste;” the governor was said to have “eliminated” many positions which “were vacant anyway;” some of the cost reductions were due to furloughed state employees, and he “balanced the budget through one-time transfers;” and Collins refers to several other ad claims which had very limited effect (“tax credits for small business to create jobs”) or ignore components which contradict the assertions of undiluted benefit for the state.

It is fair to say that in 2002 and 2006 there were either no journalistic fact checks by most of the Baltimore television stations (I have a bias saying this, but Fox’s WBFF always seemed to provide the only televised ad reckoning in past years) or that there were some implicit ones that criticized primarily Gov. Ehrlich. There certainly may have been some critiques of Democratic campaigning this writer did not recall: Mr. Collins reminded me that “[in 2006 WBAL-TV] fact checked every single political ad the TV station aired. Those fact check stories and a solid enterprise story by Jayne Miller about a campaign finance loop hole, helped WBAL TV win a national Walter Cronkite Award for political coverage.”

This year there appears to be some serious television journalism transpiring, and it must be said that there is no contradiction in Collins’ or other media analysts’ subjecting Gov. Ehrlich’s future ads to the same sort of rigorous scrutiny.

The point here, however, is that there is increasing evidence that the 2010 governor’s race may – may – be played – and covered — on a level television field.

Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

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