Where do you want to fly?

Ben Jealous, the Deomcratic nominee for governor in Maryland, with campaign volunteers in Kensington on Aug. 4. (Keith Lane for The Washington Post)
Media critic

Tamela Baker covers local and state politics for the Herald-Mail, a newspaper based in Hagerstown, Md. She writes about things like a proposal to ban weapons on Washington County property; grants for highway safety; a benefit for the Hagerstown Aviation Museum; sexual harassment allegations against a Washington County commissioner; optimism for the impact of a cycling event in Boonsboro; and so on.

And yet Baker, this week, has become the most controversial journalist in the state of Maryland.

It’s a political thing. Somehow, Baker ended up being “vetoed” as a participant in the Sept. 24 Maryland gubernatorial debate between Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Democratic challenger Ben Jealous. Just how that happened isn’t entirely clear.

Maryland Public Television (MPT) — the only statewide TV broadcaster in Maryland — is hosting the event and has gone through extensive negotiations with the campaigns. Tom Williams, the managing director of communications for MPT, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that the two campaigns reached an agreement on debate terms — an agreement that included “a process to mutually agree on a slate of reporters for the debate,” says Williams. In turn, MPT made clear to the campaigns that the reporters asking questions at the debate had to have a “high level of journalistic integrity.” Another condition was that MPT’s Jeff Salkin would moderate.

As Williams describes the process, all parties agreed to four outlets that would ensure full geographical coverage of the state: The Herald-Mail (western Maryland); the Baltimore Sun (Baltimore and beyond); The Post (Maryland’s D.C. suburbs); and WMDT-TV in Salisbury (Eastern shore). At that point, those news outlets were asked to identify the journalists they would be sending to the debate. “There was one case where there was a disagreement,” says Williams.

Baker was out, pursuant to the veto rule. As the Herald-Mail reported, the Hogan campaign did not exercise its veto, leaving only one campaign — that of Jealous — as the objector.

Why? That’s what Herald-Mail Executive Editor Jake Womer wanted to know. “I am surprised by this,” Womer told the Erik Wemple Blog on Tuesday. “If somebody has an issue with something we’ve done, I would like to hear about it. . . . Tammy’s been doing this for years, and we have full faith in her journalism and her reporting and her fairness.” As far as an official explanation, the Jealous campaign released a statement saying that “both campaigns were able to change the outlets and representatives asked to participate. . . . There are many reporters and outlets that we would have liked to include that are not being included. This type of back and forth is typical of debate negotiations.”

Upon hearing the Jealous campaign had blocked Baker, Womer’s “gut reaction” was to nix the paper’s participation altogether. Further discussions, however, led to a different resolution. “We thought that if we don’t send anybody, would the candidates answer questions about western Maryland? We can send the same questions with a different reporter,” said Womer. That alternate reporter was Mike Lewis, who was accepted by both campaigns.

And then: The Baltimore Sun expressed its disgust with these developments. “We don’t believe it is in the public interest for candidates to determine the journalists who ask questions in a debate,” said Baltimore Sun Editor in Chief Trif Alatzas. “We are concerned about setting such a precedent, therefore we are reconsidering our participation in Monday’s gubernatorial debate.”

The Jealous campaign caved. “We regret the way the debate negotiations between our campaign and the Larry Hogan campaign have excluded news outlets and reporters, including Tamela Baker of The Hagerstown Herald-Mail, and our part in that process,” said Kevin Harris, a senior adviser to Jealous, in a statement. “We want to be clear: The Jealous campaign does not have a problem with Tamela Baker being on the debate panel.”

Well, that’s refreshing. We asked Baker herself for her take on things. She replied: “Erik [Wemple Blog], thank you for your interest. But I’m going to respectfully decline. I don’t think I could shed much light as I’m still in the dark myself what prompted the issue in the first place.”

The tussle over the presence of Baker on a panel of questioners caps some tumultuous weeks of debate wrangling between the campaigns. This month, the Hogan campaign released emails that it had exchanged with the Jealous campaigns regarding the terms and frequency of the gubernatorial debate(s).

“We have a problem with the entire debate panel selection process, which was severely limited by the Hogan campaign’s unwillingness to simply participate in additional debates, as we originally put forward when we proposed five debates,” said Harris, in a statement cited by the Sun. “It is clear that reaching a good-faith agreement with our opponents is impossible, as they’d rather play politics than have an open process. Therefore, we will drop our veto and look forward to participating in next week’s debate.”

Doug Mayer, a spokesman for the Hogan campaign, blasted back: “Whatever little credibility Ben Jealous still had, it quickly evaporated with this latest ridiculous statement trying to dodge accountability for first turning down multiple debate opportunities, then trying to maneuver around media outlets he didn’t want involved, and then vetoing reporters he doesn’t like. But if it means we can get on with the debate on Monday, then we’re happy.”

During an interview on Wednesday, Harris said this about the veto of Baker: “As a campaign, we have not had the opportunity to work with her extensively. We often tried to engage the outlet during trips, especially during the primary, and have never really had a relationship.” The senior adviser also noted that the decision had “nothing to do with her personally, nothing to do with her work.” Why, then, did it approve Herald-Mail’s Mike Lewis? Harris responded that the campaign had more of a relationship with him than with Baker.

Was it the Baltimore Sun’s statement that forced the Jealous campaign to undo its veto? “The overriding consideration was that this became something that we didn’t intend. This became about the exclusion of a reporter, which is not something that we agree with and not something that was intended,” responds Harris, who stresses that the campaign wants to debate. He noted that the Jealous campaign, from the beginning, advocated for five debates, and Hogan countered with two. A more ample debate schedule, argues Harris, would allow for media outlets directly representing the state’s voting blocs — particularly Hispanics and African-Americans — to present the candidates with tough questions.

Proper order has been restored. No campaign for any office — governor, president, town council — should have the authority to block a journalist from sitting on a panel. Didn’t this veto arrangement disturb the hosts at Maryland Public Television? We put that question to Williams, who responded, “We’re glad the camps were talking to each other, and they agreed to at least move forward with one debate,” he responded. “What would have been terrible would be if we were not able to come to an agreement to have a debate.”

Allow a dissent here. No debate is better than any debate that allows campaigns to sink their control-freak tentacles deeper into the machinery of accountability. Such incursions will invariably be cited by future campaigns, endangering the ability of journalists to call the shots at events adorned by their logos. Presidential primary debates are already sufficiently fraught, with the major parties choosing broadcast partners suitable to their ideological preferences. Remember, news outlets: Campaigns need the credibility and distribution that media outlets bring to debates. Act accordingly.