News Media Facing Eviction from Maryland Statehouse

 

Maryland's Statehouse is the oldest capitol building in the United States still in legislative use. But after July 31 it also may be one of very few that does not provide space for the news media.

In a June 28 letter to media, the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) ordered reporters to clear out of their basement digs in the domed Annapolis landmark, where Gen. George Washington resigned his military commission in 1783. The administration says it plans to use journalists' space for gubernatorial staff during a three-year project to replace pipes for heating, cooling and drinking water.

Critics counter that Ehrlich, who frequently claims not to read newspapers, is retaliating against the print press that he regularly derides.

"This is another boner by Ehrlich," said Blair Lee, a longtime political columnist for The Gazette newspaper in Maryland and son of a former Democratic governor. "Republicans never seem to get it right with the media."

The governor had nothing to do with this, said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver. "This wasn't a governor's directive, this is work that had to be done."

The project has been in the works since 1998, and the money for the renovation had already been approved in the state's capitol budget several years ago, DeLeaver explained. "This will be an inconvenience to us all, not just the media."

"In order to prepare for the first phase of the work, you must vacate the offices that you currently occupy in the State House by no later than July 15," states the administration letter to Associated Press reporter Tom Stuckey, who has worked in the Capitol's press room since 1964. "The space should be left in broom clean condition," the letter adds.

More recently, the administration announced that journalists would not have to move out until July 31, and have promised other state-owned space in Annapolis for reporters, but it could be several blocks from the Statehouse.

Media advocates and reporters across the country could name only one other capitol, in Florida, that does not reserve space for the media.

But reporters left the Florida Capitol in 1974 because they did not want to pay rent to the state, said Dick Shelton of the Florida Press Association.

Instead, media outlets joined together to rent a separate building across the street from the Tallahassee Statehouse, Shelton said. In 1989, media moved into a three-story building owned by the Press Association.

Reporters around the nation could not recall being forced out of a statehouse, but several remembered being shuffled around to less appealing accommodations.

In South Carolina, for example, the media were moved from a prime first-floor location to a much smaller space in the attic after a renovation project in the mid-'90s, said reporter Aaron Sheinen of The State in Columbia, S.C.

The previous location was turned into a gift shop, Sheinin said.

New Jersey Statehouse reporters have been moved twice since the 1980s, said columnist Herb Jackson of The Record in Bergen County, N.J. To avoid the hassle, both The Record and The Star Ledger of Newark now rent office space outside the New Jersey Capitol in Trenton.

As is the case in most statehouses, the Maryland Capitol's pressroom is far from luxurious. Used by the media as early as 1948, the space is poorly lit, and cluttered with low wooden desks, a mismatched assortment of chairs and the paraphernalia left by six decades of reporters.

During the Maryland General Assembly's annual 90-day legislative session, two adjoining rooms, called "the Bullpen" or "The Pit," serve as the workspace for more than 20 print and broadcast journalists from across the Free State. News organizations do not pay rent, but do pay for phone and computer lines. Most news organizations do not use the space year-round.

Reporters from The Sun in Baltimore and The Washington Post work from separate cramped, dingy basement offices and also rent commercial space outside the Statehouse.

The Sun reporters could work out of their other offices, but that would not be good for the news gathering or the readers, said David Nitkin, Statehouse bureau chief of The Sun. Politicians, lobbyists and citizens all know where to find the reporters and stop by daily to chat or pass on tips, he said.

"We feel we need to be exactly where we are to be the eyes and ears of the public," Nitkin said.

And many smaller news organizations will not be able to afford the added expense of renting space off the Capitol grounds, he said. "I would not be surprised, but I would be saddened if those organizations stopped sending [reporters] because press space is removed," Nitkin said.

The battle for the Bullpen is just heating up. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D) sit on a four-member panel, which oversees the use of buildings and grounds on the Capitol property. At a press conference this week, both vowed to block the evictions in court, if necessary. "There was no intent to violate protocol," countered Ehrlich spokeswoman DeLeaver. "Mr. Busch and Mr. Miller are welcome to offer vacant space [from legislative offices] as well," she said.

The Maryland Democratic Party also is making political hay out of the issue, citing the threatened press eviction and the recent removal of newspaper boxes from the Statehouse as evidence of Ehrlich's "newspaper paranoia."

And the administration's directive to vacate the space has raised the hackles of free-speech advocates.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said that evicting the press was short-sighted and bad public policy.

"If the governor thinks he's punishing the media, he's really punishing the public," Dalglish said. "If he's just doing this because he's pitching a little tantrum, that's unfortunate."

The press has blown the story way out of proportion considering the state is facing both budget and medical malpractice crises, said Gazette columnist Lee, who has often sided with Ehrlich against the region's major daily papers.

There is definitely a liberal bias in the Annapolis press corps, Lee said. "But to give them a reason to come after you is stupid." 

 
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