Media Watch VI on the Race for Maryland’s Governorship: Final Status as the Games Begin

–Richard E. Vatz

As the post-Labor Day gubernatorial election campaign begins in earnest, this may be the propitious moment to finalize an assessment of the performance of some of the major allegedly impartial print media. This is the sixth in a series of critiques of print and electronic media coverage of the 2010 Maryland Governor’s race.

In all honesty, it is difficult to exaggerate how journalistically terrible The Baltimore Sun was in 2006 (and several years before and after). Virtually every news piece on the gubernatorial election was an advertisement for the (Martin) O’Malley campaign. The letters-to-the-editor column was so slanted by the number and length of letters in favor of the Democratic candidate that the Sun had to give the excuse that they printed letters consistent with the percentage they received favoring each candidate. It’s hard to assess whether they hurt themselves more by the admission that they chose what to print by the utterly invalid measure of the number of letters they received on each side of an issue (attention letter generators!) or by the inference that this was simply one of their false claims.

Their letters-to-the-editor editor of that period is now thankfully gone, as is the writing of their reputedly nice-but-incompetent ombudsman. Also gone are their op-ed editors of that era and the editorial page editor of that year, whose journalistic malefactions are too numerous to recount.

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In this series I have complimented the Sun regarding their remarkable turnaround in quality of coverage vis à vis 2006 (and before and after), including general fairness, impartiality and actual lack of references to many issues 4 years ago (BGE rate increase, slots, racial attacks on Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, etc., etc., etc.). Most of the Sun writers assigned to the Governor’s campaign are now quite thorough as well as impartial in their writing, and some of the evenhandedness has simply left this observer dumbfounded. The op-ed page now includes excellent regular conservative columns by Marta H. Mossburg and Ron Smith. The columns by liberal Dan Rodricks have improved. The political op-ed writer of 2006 is thankfully writing his anti-(Robert L.)Ehrlich screeds elsewhere.

The Post‘s news articles on the Maryland Governor’s race, always well-written, have become somewhat less blatantly hostile to Gov. Ehrlich, especially those by Aaron Davis, but their editorial page has become less friendly.

Most of these points have been referenced in this series, but I have not remarked extensively on the editorial page, wherein the criteria of journalistic excellence are different. Parenthetically, I still have some personal problems with leftover humanoids from the pseudo-journalistic Dianne Donovan-Ann Lolordo op-ed period, but we’re focusing on the overall product.

Regarding the editorial page, an elementary distinction should be made of which some casual readers are unaware: the editorial page traditionally prints the point of view of the newspaper’s editorial board – not a balance of views — and may include letters to the editor. The op-ed page is the page opposite the editorial page and traditionally contains a variety of points of view with a liberal-conservative balance.

Still, the editorial page should have the sophistication to recognize strengths and weaknesses of both Democratic and Republican candidates. The 2006 Sun’s editorials were as bad as the news coverage and op-ed page, with virtually no criticism of the O’Malley candidacy and the ripping of Gov. Ehrlich’s without exception.

What is the change this year? While the editorial page is not writing disinterestedly, it has ripped Gov. O’Malley in language one would never have anticipated when the editors have disagreed with him. No example demonstrates this better than the July 28 Sun editorial (and a follow-up letter as well) titled “O’Malley’s reckless slots politics.” The article castigates (strong word, yes, but the word “reckless” is a rhetorical bombshell) Gov. O’Malley’s “public stance in favor of the referendum to overturn the Anne Arundel County zoning law that would allow slots at Arundel Mills Mall…a move that smacks of political opportunism.” (“Opportunism” is a fighting word as well.)

In today’s Sun there is an almost equally surprising editorial, “Here Comes the GOP,” which not only accurately predicts a tough year for Democrats across the U.S., but also predicts a close race for Governor in Maryland in which Republicans “are going to be fielding a proven winner [emphasis added]…”

You read correctly: no snarky gratuitous attacks in that assessment and an undilutedly positive description of Gov. Ehrlich.

Let’s look at some of the other points that you never would have seen just a couple of years ago in a Sun editorial: the newspaper’s editorial recognizes the crucial Vatzian god-criterion, intensity (one hopes the Gonzales pollsters do some day), and how its absence among Democrats presents them electoral problems this year. There is a fair and honest assessment of the “enormous” Tea Party rally at the Lincoln Memorial last weekend, a rally which dealt with Rev. Al Sharpton’s counter-rally in a “friendly way.” There is, to be sure, an unfair couple of paragraphs assessing Republican’s “cynical” alleged lack of recommending solutions to the nation’s problems and citing the Democrats’ “great case” for praising President Obama’s first term. But in 2006 such errant opinions would have constituted every paragraph.

This is not your older sibling’s Baltimore Sun.

None of this changes my willingness to bet one year’s salary (I know: that is not much) on whom the Sun or Post will endorse (yes, the Post endorsed Gov. Ehrlich 2006; it won’t in 2010), but it puts the newspaper within the parameters of excellent metropolitan papers’ covering an election for chief executive of the state.

Overall: going in, the field is not precisely level at the Sun or even at the Post, but there is every reason to buy these newspapers for a good and mostly fair account of this incredibly close race between Govs. Martin O’Malley and Robert L. Ehrlich.

–Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

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