Sunday, April 18, 2010

Media Watch III on the Race for Maryland’s Governorship: The Baltimore Sun Surpasses the Washington Post

--Richard E. Vatz

This third criticism will be the last evaluation, for a little while at least, from this writer on the quality of major print media coverage of the race for the Maryland governorship. It is not the intention here to cover every jot and tittle of reportage, since there will be ebbs and flows of fairness, but I did want to cite some trends evident early in the race.

The most striking change is that, so far at least, The Baltimore Sun has had more comprehensive and significantly fairer analysis of this race, despite a clumsy beginning, than The Washington Post. The latter’s John Wagner, a bright and able journalist who could be much fairer, more often than is journalistically justifiable quotes Donald F. Norris (chairman of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County), a consistently liberal source who almost invariably subtly praises Governor Martin O’Malley and disparages former Governor Robert L. Ehrlich. Wagner's other favorite historically has been Matthew Crenson (retired political science professor at Johns Hopkins University), whose animus toward conservatism in general and Gov. Ehrlich in particular has been palpable. That’s fine – but balance it, which Mr. Wagner does not.

Wagner himself is vaguely hostile to Gov. Ehrlich, with his attitude being evident in person and revealed by his periodic sardonic references to Ehrlich (“His take is certain to be less rosy,” was Wagner’s only reference to Ehrlich in a positive piece on Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley’s bill signing after the 2010 legislative session). Mr. Wagner should at least sometimes quote a centrist observer or a conservative professor (try James Gimpel -- Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland -- a bit more, sir).

Today, April 18, 2010, the Post, had in their “Topic A” column the politically imbalanced “Same Candidates, New Questions,” which sported six pundits’ take on the “governor’s race.” Praising Gov. Ehrlich was my excellent colleague, P. Kenneth Burns. That’s where the excellence stopped. Damning Gov. Ehrlich with faint and short praise was the founder of the Bel Air Tea Party. The other four included one neutral evaluator and three unabashed O’Malley supporters, including the journalistically embarrassing Ann Lolordo, late of the Sun’s op-ed page editorship, who was the overseer of that appallingly ideologically censoring page before it improved.

Speaking of such improvement moves me back to the Sun, whose editorial page now regularly includes excellent conservatives Ron Smith and Marta Mossburg, as well as the near-equal printing of good conservative observations in their letters-to-the-editor page; the former meretricious editor therein thankfully has been fired along with the equally meretricious Ms. Lolordo. That page once printed 10 letters on one day to evaluate a policy of Gov. Ehrlich – one favored; nine opposed.

Incredible.

But back to the redeemed Sun. Today, believe it or not, the ever-improving gubernatorial reporting has its third straight – count ‘em, three – fine piece of work. In an article titled “O’Malley puts record to the test (and voters),” Annie Linskey subtitles her piece “Governor’s legislative initiatives...have mixed results” and then provides specific, balanced analysis of issue after issue, including matters that the Sun ignored or virtually ignored in 2006 and beyond, such as Gov. O’Malley's failure to roll back the 72% BGE rate increase, as he had promised to do. Point and counter-point is fairly iterated on major issues, without any obvious or not-so-obvious editorializing in favor of Gov. O’Malley (or, for that matter, Gov. Ehrlich). The piece even brings up the matter of up to 30% of Maryland’s millionaires who may have left the state as a consequence of Maryland’s recent higher taxes on the wealthy. The piece is filled with sources from the right and left, all clearly, fairly and comprehensively quoted on the above issues, including the sales tax rise, other shifts in income tax, slots, speed-cameras, the death penalty, and state aid to counties and cities. The article ends with O’Malley-friendly paragraphs, but let’s not look for overly punctilious equality yet.

Both supporters of Gov. O’Malley and Gov. Ehrlich should read this Sun piece and not be overly frustrated that major arguments were neglected or given short shrift.

I cannot help but think that the Sun’s reporters feel better about their recent good journalism than the weak-to-horrendous journalists felt about their one-sided, pseudo-journalism throughout the 2000s and particularly in 2006.

There is no evidence yet of serious fairness on the Sun’s editorial page, but they do have some traditional leeway there.

The Washington Post endorsed Gov. Ehrlich in 2006. Don’t look for that again.

It’s a new day in Maryland when the more comprehensive and fair coverage of the governor’s race is found in the Sun and not in the Post.

Will it continue?

Stay tuned.


Professor Vatz teaches an advanced class in Media Criticism at Towson University.



Postscript -- the following is an intended appendage to a contributing chapter I will have published this year (2010) in the book alerting readers to the above-cited turnaround by The Baltimore Sun: Seth Kahn and JongHwa Lee, Activism and Rhetoric: Theories and Contexts for Political Engagement, published by Routledge



Postscript

What a difference four years makes. As I indicated, in 2009 my being blacklisted at The Baltimore Sun was ended by the editor of the editorial section who implied to many that it was simply anathema to his personal ethics to blacklist people because they criticized the paper or because their political philosophy was conservative.

But the most striking change is that most of the censoring and blatantly biased of the paper’s editorial hierarchy and reporters have been replaced at the Sun. In addition there are now two regular op-ed writers who are unmistakably and consistently conservative. There was no such regular contributor there in the years covered by this analysis and almost none of that philosophy appeared previously on that page, even from free-lancers. Even the letters-to-the-editor page has markedly improved, edited as it is by Mr. Green, who ended my blacklisting. That page once printed 10 letters on one day to evaluate a policy of then-Governor Ehrlich – one favored; nine opposed.

The reporter replacements – so far at least – have so reversed the journalistic conventions there that I wrote a series of blogs in “Red Maryland,“ a prominent Maryland conservative blog, culminating with one which argued that the Sun’s journalistic excellence had surpassed that of the Post (1) per the following journalistic criteria of political disinterest: 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.

I also wrote in that blog: “I cannot help but think that the Sun’s reporters feel better about their recent good journalism than the weak-to-horrendous journalists felt about their one-sided, pseudo-journalism throughout the 2000s and particularly in 2006. There is no evidence yet of serious fairness on the Sun’s editorial page, but they do have some traditional leeway there.“

And finally, “It’s a new day in Maryland when the more comprehensive and fair coverage of the governor’s race is found in the Sun and not in the Post. Will it continue? Stay tuned.”

The marketplace is a remarkable vehicle for improving products, and it appears to have a potentially powerful impact even on print and electronic media.


(1) Vatz, R.E. Media Watch III on the Race for Maryland’s Governorship: The Baltimore Sun Surpasses the Washington Post, Red Maryland blog April 18, 2010

http://redmaryland.blogspot.com/2010/04/media-watch-iii-on-race-for-marylands.html

2 comments:

DetectiveDick said...

Since 2006 the Democrats have been successful with "buzz" word campaigns. Let's see what the new "buzz" words will be and if the Party in Power can defend their Spend Now and Pay Later agenda. The invoice for such reckless spending is due, however "We the People" have been put on the Credit Card until after the election. Elections have consequences and this election in November is about my wallet. It is empty!
The media has an obligation to vet all candidates on how they will handle the Public's Money.

Daniel 'The Wig Man' Vovak said...

Richard Vatz, I think you're too hard on John Wagner, as I like his reporting. REMEMBER: the Washington Post endorsed Ehrlich over O'Malley, to the surprise of many! In my personal interactions with him, I have never found him to be unfair (and I have discussed a number of issues, too, which Maryland Republicans find to be sensitive). As a reporter, Wagner begins with numbers, which do not favor Republicans. I have no doubt his reporting will be more aggressive, should there be a change in the numbers. Wagner doesn't report from hip, just with the facts. Sadly, in Maryland the facts also favor Democrats.

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