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As Long as We Remember...

December 13, 2004

Accountability! It's Such a Beautiful Word

Tony Soltero

Part of what has made America such a successful nation over the centuries has been its embrace of public accountability. Political leaders at every level are subject to periodic performance reviews from the voters. If they convince enough of the voters that they have delivered, they get re-elected; if they don't, they're out searching for alternate careers.

Public accountability is what separates us from the third-world dystopias in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In most of those countries a government need not fear being exposed for corruption or having to answer to the public for bad decisions – the news media is successfully muzzled by the state, and elections, when they're even held at all, are about as transparent as a three-year-old shower curtain. The result is that these countries remain cesspools of corruption and cronyism, with all of the attendant effects.

In the center of the pursuit of public accountability lies an honest, probing news media; a news media that regularly questions the motives of government officials in the performance of their actions; a news media that's not afraid to unearth and criticize improprieties when they occur; a news media that's not afraid to stimulate discussion.

It is the news media's responsibility to inform the citizenry on what its government is doing with the public tax dollars it collects. And politicians, or at least those politicians who understand the concept of a free press, know that getting called out by the news media is one of the unpleasant perks of occupying public office.

Yes, the news media can be a pain. But it has to be. As 19th-century journalist Wilbur Storey once remarked, "It is a newspaper's duty to print the news and raise hell."

The great majority of our nation's elected officeholders, whether they're Republicans, Democrats, or independents, simply acknowledge that public and media criticism is part of the territory – indeed an essential component of the accountability process – and either let it slide or respond to it in a professional, proactive manner.

Then there's our governor, Robert Ehrlich.

It appears that the governor is a little upset at the way a couple of Baltimore Sun writers have been treating his administration and some of his decisions.

So how has he responded? Has he gone on the stump and explained to the public why these writers might be misguided in their criticism? Has he attempted to answer the charges leveled against him? Has he provided counter arguments to the writers’ allegations?

Those are the things one would expect most executive officeholders to do. But Governor Ehrlich's solution is, shall we say, original – he has instructed state officials to freeze out these inquiring journalists and stop speaking to them.

Without even going into the constitutional issues raised by the governor's selective gag order, most of which touch upon our freedom of the press (we still have that, right?), it's obvious that this is one of the most petulant acts ever indulged in by a Maryland elected official (not counting William Donald Schaefer, who's in his own category). Many media observers have termed this kind of executive order, and the ensuing brouhaha, as "unprecedented."

What a pain this accountability thing is! The funny thing is that I always thought Republicans were FOR this kind of stuff. But it sounds like Governor Ehrlich is for accountability the way Ronald Reagan was for balanced budgets, and the way Newt Gingrich was for term limits.

The sad thing is the relative triviality of some of the issues involved. In one case, the governor's staff griped about a column by Michael Olesker, in which the columnist suggested that state tourism ads that feature Mr. Ehrlich might have been intended for political purposes, and that communications director Paul Schurick unconvincingly denied the allegation. Mr. Olesker's phrase was that Schurick was "struggling mightily to keep a straight face" while denying any political motives behind the ad.

It was clear, from the context, that Mr. Olesker was employing a common metaphorical device to describe what he perceived as Schurick's disingenuousness. Mr. Olesker was not physically at the hearing, and didn't claim to be, but the governor's office turned the phrase into a food fight over whether Mr. Olesker could have really known Mr. Schurick's facial expressions.

Mr. Olesker finally had to write a clarification, but the State House succeeded in changing the subject to something much more banal than Mr. Olesker's main point. But if this administration gets all bent out of shape like this over a tourism ad, one wonders what they'll do when someone brings up any holes in the next budget. Self-immolate?

This is not to imply that The Sun has been completely fair and blameless in its dealings with the governor's office. It's obvious that The Sun's editorial staff doesn't care for Mr. Ehrlich, whose policies it perceives are damaging to its home city, and its reporting and framing of issues do take on a distinctly anti-Ehrlich tilt.

This was especially apparent in a recent map it published when exploring the state sale of public lands. The Sun raised several important questions regarding who benefited from these proposed sales, but unnecessarily undercut its arguments with its misleading map, which suggested that all state properties were up for grabs.

The governor objected to the map, and The Sun, after determining that the governor had a point, published a correction. Nothing wrong with that; that's the way the process is supposed to work.

But elected officials and the media that covers them have been tangling with each other in this country for centuries. There's nothing The (Baltimore) Sun does to Bob Ehrlich that, say, Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times doesn't do to John Kerry.

It is Governor Ehrlich's response of cutting off a reporter and a columnist that's unique here. That's what goes beyond the usual squabbling, and that's what's setting a dangerous precedent. Not to mention that his chest-thumping comment about his action being "meant to have a chilling effect on them" is something better suited for Guatemalan dictators than for the governor of an American state. And this doesn't speak well for his ability to handle criticism.

But if one thinks about it a bit, it is very possible that Governor Ehrlich might be cutting off his nose to spite his face here.

Think about it. The actions of the state government and the governor's policy proposals are a matter of public record. The government NEEDS the news media to present its rationales for its actions – and in just about every case, the government freely uses this outlet to get its message out to the public.

But if the government deliberately refuses to talk to certain members of the news media, the newspapers in question can simply present the anti-government side of a policy proposal, liberally sprinkle around a few quotes from the opposition, and tersely state that "the governor's office was unavailable for comment."

In other words, The (Baltimore) Sun could simply report on what the Ehrlich administration DOES, rather than on what it SAYS. You don't need quotes for that; all legislative and executive actions are easily available to the press and public. And the opposition, of course, would have a field day dissecting every Ehrlich initiative in the same media pages the governor's office chooses to cut off.

So maybe The Sun doesn't need to file any lawsuits. The Sun could just go on and tell us all why the next slots initiative would be destructive to the state. And if the Ehrlich administration doesn't wish to defend its position, well, that's its prerogative.

So we might, ironically, wind up with MORE accountability out of this whole dustup, as Sun reporters, rather than relying on quotes and spin from government officials, simply go straight to the primary sources themselves in their reportage to the public.

Who knows? An attempt to suppress the media might ultimately wind up giving us all better information about the Ehrlich agenda. Now that's a newspaper printing the news and raising hell.

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