Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Selective Censorship Outrage at Sinclair

We didn’t need more evidence that Mark Hyman is a corporate vice president and not a journalist (although he often plays at being one), but we sure got it in the most recent “Point.”

Hyman has nothing but praise for
the recent ruling by a federal judge in Maryland throwing out a lawsuit by The Baltimore Sun against Maryland’s Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich. The newspaper had filed suit after Ehrlich pronounced that no member of the state’s executive branch would be allowed to speak to reporters from the paper. The reason? Apparently Ehrlich didn’t like the fact that the newspaper dared criticize him in a number of stories it published.

In what he
openly admitted was an attempt to create a “chilling effect” in the media (yes, the governor actually used those words), Ehrlich said reporters from the paper would be barred from press conferences and that none of the more than 200 members of the executive staff were allowed to speak with them.

Judge Quarles, a George W. Bush appointee to the federal bench, ruled that The Sun was asking for greater access to the state government and its employees than members of the general public have. The decision will be immediately appealed by the Sun.

It’s not surprising that Hyman and the folks at Sinclair take an active interest in this case. After all, for Baltimore-based Sinclair, this is a local story (although there’s no hint of that in Hyman’s commentary, of course). Sinclair is also, nominally at least, in the journalism business. Surely they would be outraged at the prospect of governmental officials unilaterally prohibiting access to news outlets, right?

Wrong. The only thing Hyman has against Ehrlich’s ban is the fact that he made it so public. Had the governor kept it on the down low, everything would’ve been fine. In fact, Hyman insists that no government official is obliged to answer any questions from journalists, ever.

Hyman’s tortured logic here is that if we recognized an obligation of elected officials to allow journalists access, there would be no rationale for not speaking to each and every self-proclaimed journalist who insisted on their right to access.

But this is the silliest of slippery slope arguments.. Elected officials should be obliged to answer questions from the established press. In a democracy, the press are the eyes and ears of the public, and it takes little skill to distinguish a reporter from a major established newspaper from a blogger. If government officials make decisions about who to talk to that skews coverage, that itself will become a news story. Witness the recent fallout from the Bush administration’s attempt to stack the White House press corps by allowing “reporter” Jeff Gannon into news conferences. Ostensibly a reporter from an outfit calling itself Talon News, Gannon was revealed to be little more than an operative for a Republican activist group, GOPUSA. The administration has rightly been raked over the coals for its shenanigans in this case, as well as its attempts to buy off members of the press corps to serve as shills for its policies (including Sinclair regular Armstrong Williams).

Governor Ehrlich has every right to simply answer “no comment” to questions from certain reporters, but banning a legitimate, established news outlet from press conferences and forbidding any employee from speaking to its reporters is an act that is both undemocratic and cowardly. As the Founders knew, a free press serving on behalf of the citizens is indispensable for a healthy democracy.

We shouldn’t be surprised, however, that Sinclair takes Ehrlich’s side in this issue. After all, several members of
the Smith family (owners of Sinclair) have helped fill Ehrlich’s campaign coffers. Moreover, Sinclair vice president Duncan Smith was at the center of “Choppergate,” a scandal involving the “lending” of a helicopter to Ehrlich when he campaigned for governor. Sinclair is very much part of the Ehrlich regime.

We know what some of you are saying: this is just the reality of politics. Any news organization that tended to side with Ehrlich’s politics would be just as willing to sell out their journalistic principles to support him as is Sinclair. That’s the way of the rough and tumble world of realpolitik.

But that turns out not to be true. One of the most interesting and revealing opinions on the Ehrlich Doctrine of Preemptive Censorship comes from the Baltimore Business Journal. The Journal competes directly with The Sun and also tends to take a more conservative, pro-Ehrlich stance on most issues. Yet,
one of the most scathing attacks on Ehrlich’s policy toward The Sun came from the editorial page of The Journal.

Why the difference between The Journal and Sinclair in their attitudes? Simple. The Journal is in the journalism business; Sinclair isn’t.

And that’s The Counterpoint.


At 10:06 AM, Anonymous Crimefighter said...

Sorry YOU'RE WRONG. The government is NOT required to answer your questions. They can pick and choose what reporters they want to talk to. And frankly some reporters are absolutely jerks and are very distortive on their reporting.


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