Saturday, June 4, 2011
The Gotcha That Wasn't
The Baltimore Sun thought it had city state's attorney Gregg Bernstein in a "gotcha" moment.
And not just the reporter, who raised the alarming specter of "ethical" issues from an internal e-mail Bernstein sent to his staff. The editors, too, who splashed the story as the top headline of the day last Friday.
Meanwhile, a story of real substance--Bernstein's creation of a new unit to prosecute the worst criminals in Baltimore--was relegated to the inside pages.
And that's our newspaper's priorities in a nutshell.
Not that Bernstein can afford to whine about it, and he won't. But it's a reality he will have to contend with over the next several years, quickly and more adroitly if he wants to build a lasting legacy.
Bernstein sent an e-mail out to to his staff assessing the first case he tried as state's attorney. Clearly he tried to be collegial, humorous, and somewhat self-deprecating, intending to foster a sense of camaraderie.
Apparently he failed with at least one recipient, because the e-mail was leaked to The Sun. And boy did they run with it. Using some guy from New York to attack the content of Bernstein's e-mail, the Sun made it the top story of the day.
The only thing Bernstein did wrong was to e-mail his candid thoughts. As one comment on the Sun's article noted, it's E-mail 101. Don't put in writing what you wouldn't want spread across the news.
But Bernstein's relationship with the press must go beyond avoiding pseudo-stories. His chatty e-mail was quite the contrast to his persistent "no comment" policy on cases or his being too busy to explain decisions, for which The Sun, with some justification, criticized him last winter. While he must be cognizant of ethical issues, he can still find a way to communicate.
One of the mistakes predecessor Pat Jessamy made early in her tenure was in not talking to the press. They punished her hard for it, and she only narrowly won reelection in 2002. Jessamy learned her lesson, but then went in the opposite direction, elevating press relations over substance.
Bernstein won't do that, but he can't ignore the media, either. He must be accessible, responsive and proactive. Just as his e-mail mirrored practices from his days in the U.S. Attorney's Office, he seems to be taking a page from their press policies. Well, like Dorothy, he's not in Kansas anymore. He isn't above the fray, but in the midst of it, handling the messy and complex business of local crime and politics.
And the media, for its part, needs to look in the mirror. Bernstein's e-mail had precious little to do with anything of substance. It was only news because The Sun made it news. (And then they lectured him about it being news.) If they want a state's attorney of substance--and I assume they do--they should focus upon it themselves.
What about Bernstein's creation of the Major Investigations Unit to target violent and repeat offenders? A huge initiative, arguably the crux of Bernstein's campaign promise, the Sun gave it short shrift.
I can think of a million questions to have asked Bernstein. For example:
--How will this unit be different and more effective than what we have seen in the past?
--How will Bernstein measure its results, and report to the public?
--What makes him confident that his new chief of Major Investigations will quickly come up to speed and make a difference? Thiru Vignarajah, an Ivy League educated part-time law professor, appears to be an academic and intellectual blue blood with zero experience in local prosecution. What timetable does Bernstein have for him to learn on the job and produce results?
When reporters ask questions like these, and follow up on them, then they are journalists serving the public interest. And if Bernstein fails to answer these questions, if he hides behind prepared statements, The Sun should make him accountable.
But publishing e-mails on the front page that were clearly and appropriately intended for a narrow audience, the only effect of which is to embarrass the author, reflects more upon how The Sun does its job than on how Bernstein does his.