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Thirteen years later, it’s not difficult to conjure up nostalgia for the clear-cut dynamic in the media’s pursuit of 1988 presidential aspirant Gary Hart.

Assailed by allegations of adultery, Hart made it easy for the press. Follow me, he said. Hart didn’t need to ask twice. The media found Donna Rice and a sturdy hook of hypocrisy upon which to hang the story.

In 2001, things are more complicated. Politicians don’t invite the press to peep, and they erect fortresses of outraged privacy. The media have responded by digging ever deeper under such defenses.

The Washington Post’s Aug. 31 story about a long-rumored relationship between Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening and his Deputy Chief of Staff Jennifer Crawford (who oversees Maryland’s redistricting and anti-sprawl initiatives) raises serious questions about how deep the press is burrowing.

After receiving a tip in May, Post reporters Lori Montgomery and Daniel LeDuc spent a month in a shopping-mall parking lot, staking out Crawford’s nearby Annapolis home to establish that Glendening and Crawford have a “relationship.” They also grabbed sand buckets and watched their targets vacation at a Delaware beach house. But the Post held off on publishing the tale, pulling back an early version of the story in June.

The paper found its hook for the story when Maryland Comptroller and former Gov. William Donald Schaefer dragged the Glendening-Crawford relationship out into the open at an Aug. 29 public meeting. At the meeting, Schaefer referred to Crawford as the “big boss” in Glendening’s office and circulated to the press a letter that he’d written to Crawford, complaining about the shutdown of a fountain at the governor’s residence.

Glendening and Crawford had no comment for the Post. Nor did Glendening’s wife, Frances Anne Glendening, from whom the governor has been estranged for a year. When the Washington City Paper asked the governor’s communications director, Michael Morrill, for his reaction, he stated, “The Post has clearly set a new lower standard for invading public officials’ private lives, and that’s exactly why we won’t comment on the governor’s private life.”

The story’s writers also had little or no comment. LeDuc said that “the story speaks for itself” and referred other queries to Post editors, as did Montgomery.

LeDuc was right to urge a look at the story itself. Stated simply, the Post constructed a “Mistress Macbeth” scenario to impute news value to its stakeout and its story. The Post noted that Crawford was promoted to her position a year ago, receiving a raise of more than $31,000. She’s traveled with the governor on official business. The Post also tossed in grumblings from unnamed “sportsmen’s groups” that Crawford pushed for the ouster of high-ranking officials in the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), tying up the story with the bow of Schaefer’s comments that Crawford “runs things” in the governor’s office.

Numerous elements in the article itself undercut its news value, however. Maryland has no written policy forbidding such a relationship. A former high-ranking DNR official says that she doesn’t believe that Crawford forced her out. Only one trip with Glendening detailed in the story appears to have been peripheral to Crawford’s future or present duties. All of the sources about the affair and its detrimental effect on state government were anonymous.

The Post’s own media critic, Howard Kurtz, posted a Sept. 4 Web item about the “storm of criticism” engendered by the story, relying on a critique by pundit-at-large Andrew Sullivan (recent victim of media attacks on his own privacy) and partisan-tinged e-mail from outraged readers, but he provided no statement from the paper itself.

Reached Wednesday, Metro section editor Jo-Ann Armao vigorously defended the story and the reporting methods used by the Post to obtain it. She said that Glendening’s refusal to answer any questions posed by the Post about the relationship was a factor in the decision to dig for more, and she disputed the use of the term “stakeout” to describe the Post’s efforts to nail down the affair. “We followed a tip,” she said. “We went, looked, and observed from what we considered public property.”

Armao observed that a “combination of factors,” including the DNR resignations, pushed the story into the paper now, though she added that Schaefer’s comments “did give it more of a news hook.” At bottom, she insisted, the Post believed that the public policy implications of the relationship made it a story. “We all knew it was a story that would be controversial,” Armao noted, adding that she felt “quite comfortable” with the results.

The other major daily covering Maryland government—the Baltimore Sun—took a different tack. The Sun published a story on Aug. 30 (the day before the Post exposé) focusing on Schaefer’s behavior at the meeting. The Sun coverage included an exchange in which Schaefer referred to Crawford as the “big boss” to Glendening’s face. The Sun also noted that the comptroller had distributed his letter to Crawford. The story didn’t mention the “relationship,” but alluded strongly to it—noting that Schaefer “guffawed” when asked why he had sent Crawford a missive about an issue that’s out of her purview.

The Sun’s Aug. 30 article and subsequent stories (including a Sept. 1 piece reacting to the Post story and a Sept. 2 column by Michael Olesker) did provide some interesting back story that readers couldn’t find in the Post about the motivation for Schaefer’s role as the winged Mercury. The shut-down fountain that caused him to publicly out the relationship was (as the Sun dubs it) the “pet project” of the late Hilda Mae Snoops—Schaefer’s “lady friend” and official hostess during his tenure as Maryland’s governor. Olesker rendered his take on Schaefer’s sentiments bluntly: “If you’re going to hurt the memory of my lady, I’m going to talk about yours in public.”

Quizzed about his paper’s coverage, Sun Managing Editor Anthony Barbieri noted that, as a columnist, Olesker “can add 2 and 2 and get 11. [The news side] has to add 2 and 2 and get 4.” He said that the manner in which the Sun should cover the Glendening/Crawford relationship “has been a constant subject of discussion for probably a year. There’s the question of ‘Is it a story?’ And if it is a story, how do you run it? Where do you run it?”

When Schaefer dragged the relationship out into public, Barbieri said, the question suddenly shifted. After weighing what was provable about the tale and the public policy interests involved, he observed, the Sun decided to stick with “what was attributable fact in the public domain and not to go beyond that.”

And the Post? “They chose to do one thing,” responded Barbieri. “We chose to do another thing.”

The Reliable Lloyd He can dish out scoop about celebrity tips, but can Lloyd Grove take it? Apparently not. In a Sept. 5 Reliable Source item taking Bistrot du Coin owner Michel Verdon to task for shushing an infant, the Post’s tattletale inserted a whimper about his own victimization in the tip scoop game by the Washingtonian magazine. The February 2001 issue reported that Grove—who routinely berates others for measly 15 percent restaurant tips—tipped just $7.16 on a $48.46 lunch bill at the affably raucous Dupont Circle eatery. Bad form, baby. Bad tip, too. —Richard Byrne