- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Governors have a long history of squabbling with the press in Maryland — complaining about stories that they thought were unfair or inaccurate, filing protests with editors about supposedly biased coverage and, at times, refusing to talk to offending reporters.

But none of Gov. Robert L Ehrlich Jr.’s recent predecessors went as far as he has by issuing a written edict that nobody in the administrative branch of state government can talk to two writers for the Baltimore Sun.

Mr. Ehrlich’s edict, which he vigorously defends, resulted in a lawsuit filed by the Sun, saying he is violating the newspaper’s First Amendment rights.

So far, Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, is sticking by his decision to prohibit state employees in the executive branch from talking to columnist Michael Olesker or David Nitkin, chief of the newspaper’s State House bureau.

The governor has made mostly vague accusations against Mr. Nitkin and Mr. Olesker, complaining of what he said were made-up stories, made-up quotes and biased reporting but offering few specific examples.

Disputes between public officials and reporters are commonplace.

From Marvin Mandel through Harry R. Hughes, William Donald Schaefer and Parris N. Glendening, Mr. Ehrlich’s Democratic predecessors periodically complained about press coverage that they thought was unfair, biased against them and even inaccurate.

None of the recent governors faced more negative press coverage than Mr. Mandel, who went through a messy divorce, in which his wife refused to leave the governor’s mansion. He later was indicted on federal racketeering and mail fraud counts, convicted and sent to jail.

The stories played on newspaper front pages and led television newscasts for weeks. But Frank DiFilippo, who was Mr. Mandel’s press secretary, said that “through all the trials and tribulations … we nonetheless continued to have weekly news conferences.”

“There were times when [Mr. Mandel] would be upset by a story or with a reporter,” Mr. DiFilippo said. “Either he decided not to do anything, or I could calm him down or a couple of people on his staff could calm him down.”

Norm Silverstein, now the president of WXXI Public Broadcasting Council in Rochester, N.Y., was assistant press secretary for Harry Hughes during the 1980s.

“I don’t think you can be governor and not be upset occasionally at your news coverage,” he said, “but it never affected our relationship with any newspapers or broadcasters or individual reporters.”

The governor who had the most contentious relationship with the press was probably Mr. Schaefer, who seemed to pay little attention to positive stories about his administration but obsessed over coverage that was critical of him or his aides.

Mr. Schaefer complained often and loudly and called reporters demeaning names. He once walked up to a reporter at a press conference, leaned over and said softly, “I hate your guts.”

He would sometimes get so angry that he would refuse temporarily to talk to individual reporters. On at least one occasion, he issued an order that no one in his administration was to talk to any reporter. But the order was not put in writing, reporters worked around it to get information and it faded away.

Mr. Ehrlich defended his actions on radio talk shows by saying the “only arrow in [his] quiver” to deal with reporters he thinks are treating him unfairly is to cut off their access to government.

However, previous gubernatorial press aides say such a policy is not the governor’s only weapon.

“There are other ways to deal with reporters,” Mr. DiFilippo. “You cut them off. You talk about the weather when they ask a question. You leak information to their rivals, things like that.”

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