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The Right-Wingers and Billionaires Destroying the News in Baltimore and Beyond

IMPORTANT READS

THE PRESS - David D. Smith, leading stockholder of Sinclair, Inc., announced on January 15 that he was purchasing what is left of the Baltimore Sun, once regarded as the crown jewel of the Maryland city’s media (AP, 1/15/24).

Sinclair is a multi-billion-dollar Fortune 500 company and one of the largest owners of television stations in the country. The company has been criticized for its conservative and not always accurate TV news coverage (Salon, 7/21/17; New Yorker, 10/15/18). In 2018, the company compelled local TV news anchors around the country to read on air the same copy parroting President Donald Trump’s claims about “fake news” (Deadspin, 3/31/18).

The decline of the Sun has been happening for years before Smith’s purchase. The outlet was purchased in 2021 by Alden Capital Group, a hedge fund, which cut newsroom capacity and output. The Sun’s previous owner, Tribune (formerly Tronc), had already been furloughing staff and cutting pay before Alden’s takeover.

Sinclair is a national media giant, owning 294 stations across the country, but it is also headquartered just outside of Baltimore. Smith said he purchased the Sun with his own funding, independent of Sinclair. The Sun (1/15/24) advertised the purchase as “the first time in nearly four decades that the Sun will be in the hands of a local owner.”

Numerous media outlets around the country have expressed concern about Smith’s purchase, with a focus on his right-wing political leanings and his outspoken disdain for print media (e.g., New Republic, 1/17/24; New York Times, 1/20/24).

“A local buyer taking over a struggling newspaper in the 21st century is normally cause for some celebration,” the AP (1/16/24) commented. “But the Baltimore Sun’s newly announced owner has a very specific political background, and some are concerned about what the 187-year-old publication could become.”

Yet the groundwork for Smith’s takeover of the Sun was laid by many of the same news outlets expressing concern about it. Media have created an environment that not only enables takeovers of newspapers by billionaires, but frequently celebrates such acquisitions as important for democracy.

What are billionaires really buying?

Much of the concern around Smith’s purchase of the Baltimore Sun has to do with his family’s legacy of influencing the news in the region. Over the last 20 years, Smith and his family have become increasingly powerful in Baltimore’s political, corporate and media landscape, and they have used their local media holdings to promote their agendas (Baltimore Sun, 1/18/24). The Sun has a history of reporting critically on Sinclair (9/1/226/27/238/2/23), a threat that has likely been neutralized by this purchase.

Observers are right to be skeptical of Smith’s promise that he is buying the Baltimore Sun out of an “absolute responsibility to serve the public interest” (AP, 1/16/24). But many of the same news outlets concerned about Smith’s influence over a longstanding daily newspaper have shown little concern about the influence of billionaire news owners in general—or they have shown selective concern.

When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post in 2013 (Extra!, 3/14), he assured the public that he was only interested in its potential profitability and that the Post would continue to operate as an independent entity. There wasn’t widespread panic.

Some of the Post’s coverage has seemed to go out of its way to protect the explicit interests of Bezos and the billionaire class (CJR, 9/27/22). As FAIR (10/11/1811/21/18) reported, the Post’s coverage of the 2018 Maryland gubernatorial campaign was shockingly biased in favor of Republican Larry Hogan and against Democrat Ben Jealous, a Bernie Sanders supporter. Hogan was negotiating to bring an Amazon headquarters to Maryland, and Jealous had raised questions about the deal.

With some exceptions, like Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter (New York Times, 10/5/22; Newsweek, 10/28/22; MSNBC, 11/21/22), corporate media have covered billionaire takeovers of media outlets in a mostly neutral or positive light, at times portraying the wealthy owners as if they are saving a dying but essential industry out of the goodness of their hearts. That was the dominant tone of the coverage of Marc Benioff’s purchase of Time magazine (CNN, 12/30/19) and John H. Henry’s purchase of the Boston Globe (Reuters, 8/3/13), among others.

When billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong purchased the LA Times, the New York Times (2/7/18) described him as rescuing the outlet from corporate media hell and offering a “welcome alternative” to Tronc. Its article began with a staffer “popp[ing] a bottle of champagne.” Soon-Shiong had previously been Tronc’s vice chair.

To ‘save the news industry’

The New York Times (1/18/24) recently reported that the media outlets bought by billionaires have been largely failing financially—that the billionaires have failed to “save the news industry,” as if that were truly their goal. The Times didn’t consider that billionaires earn other dividends from controlling public discourse, for one.

The national media did exhibit more concern when billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a major casino owner (now deceased), bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2015. News stories highlighted his ties to the Republican Party, and some speculated that he would use the purchase to influence the 2016 presidential election (Guardian, 12/17/15; NPR, 12/17/15; Atlantic, 12/17/15).

There was far less concern over what it means, in general, for a casino magnate to own the news in Las Vegas (Common Dreams, 12/22/15). Would Adelson have faced as much pushback if he weren’t a Republican?

It seems that “liberal” establishment media are concerned about some wealthy corporate owners—the faceless hedge funds and those with far-right leanings—but not the problem of billionaire or corporate ownership in general and its corrosive effects on a free press. But it is the very unchecked environment of corporate news ownership that has enabled the wealthy far-right takeover of so much of it.

None of the billionaires buying up newspapers have offered clear policies and practices ensuring that they won’t be able to influence coverage, only tepid assurances. FCC or other regulations that might ensure news media are free from such conflicts of interest would require sustained public attention–and that would entail corporate media challenging the interests of their own owners.

Baltimore and the Smith family

Concerns about the Baltimore Sun becoming a blatant tool of the far right are warranted. Within Baltimore, WBFF-Fox 45’s racist and politicized coverage is notorious. Regular coverage fosters fear around Baltimore youth, progressive causes and public schools (e.g., 7/24/221/25/24). In 2014, Fox 45 was caught doctoring footage of noted local activist Tawanda Jones to make it seem like she was saying “kill a cop” during a protest, when she was chanting about “killer cops” (Afro, 12/23/14).

Fox 45 has shown clear favoritism to local politicians. For years, it supported a scandal-ridden candidate, Thiru Vignarajah, in his repeated failed bids for state’s attorney and mayor. Smith family members were prominent donors to his campaigns, and Fox 45 has hosted him in the studio far more than other candidates.

This year, the Smith family has shifted its financial support and airtime to candidate Sheila Dixon, who was previously Baltimore’s mayor but resigned in 2010 after pleading guilty to perjury and embezzlement. Smith’s partner in his deal to buy the Sun, conservative Sinclair commentator Armstrong Williamshosted a one-hour, flattering interview with Dixon last June.

The Smith family also has a notorious reputation locally for the practices of its restaurant company, Atlas Restaurant Group, which has been aggressively buying up struggling restaurants and other properties. The company has faced controversy for policies that restrict service based on racist and arbitrarily enforced dress codes.

Smith has been less shy than his counterparts in other cities about his plans to influence the Baltimore Sun’s coverage. Sun employees shared anonymous accounts with outside reporters (Baltimore Banner, 1/16/24) of a closed door meeting in which Smith reportedly admitted to wanting to remake the Sun to be more like his local TV station, including featuring unscientific polls on the front page.

The Sun mythology

As part of catastrophizing Smith’s purchase of the Baltimore Sun, media have promoted the newspaper’s legacy as if it were unquestionably vaunted, setting up a good/evil binary. In reality, there has long been substantial local criticism of the Sun, including its coziness with powerful interests, its legacy of problematic hero-reporters, and its negative characterizations of Baltimore’s Black and other marginalized communities.

The Baltimore Banner (1/16/24) brought up the the Sun’s credentials in challenging Smith’s characterization of the newspaper:

Asked Tuesday during the meeting whether he stood by [negative] comments [about newspapers] now that he owns one of the most storied titles in American journalism, Smith said yes. Asked if he felt that way about the contents of his newspaper, Smith said “in many ways, yes,” according to people at the meeting.
The Baltimore Sun won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting.

The Banner article was written by three reporters, all of whom previously worked for the Sun.

The Pulitzer Prize was invoked again by the Washington Post (1/17/24) as prima facie evidence of the Sun’s intrinsic goodness. The Post recounted an exchange in which Smith suggested to his new employees that the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death in 2015 were innocent. A staffer challenged him on the point.

“You may believe that they killed somebody,” Smith said. “I’m not here to tell you they did or didn’t.”
The Sun was a Pulitzer finalist for its coverage of Gray’s death.

I previously wrote for FAIR (9/22/23) about how the Sun’s coverage of Freddie Gray’s death leaned almost entirely on the statements of police and promoted police officers as heroes, while marginalizing or ignoring the statements of witnesses, who were the Black residents of Gray’s former neighborhood. The Sun has refused to share new evidence that has emerged in Gray’s death since 2015, failing to correct the record on its mistakes, despite the case being one of the biggest stories in Baltimore’s history.

Likewise, the Sun’s coverage of the riots in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s death was barely distinguishable from how Fox 45 reports on Baltimore’s youth. As FAIR (4/29/15) reported at the time, Sun reporters (4/28/15) repeated a false police story that teenagers had been planning to “purge” that day and attacked police, “pelting officers with water bottles and rocks,” as if unprovoked. The Sun missed the real story of how police fomented a riot by locking down teenagers after school and not letting them return home (Mother Jones, 4/28/15), among other provocative actions.

The Sun has continued to portray Baltimore’s Black youth as de facto criminals in many stories (e.g., 9/15/20), often hiding the racism behind a sheen of “both sides” reporting.

Conversely, although Fox 45 has been an easy target for liberal reporters and politicians, not all of its coverage has been as supportive of powerful interests as the Sun’s reporting. Fox 45 (3/19/21) was aggressive in its effort to expose corruption by Nick Mosby, the current City Council president, and former state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby—a Baltimore power couple who recently divorced. (She filed an FCC complaint against the station, accusing it of racist coverage.) Marilyn Mosby was ultimately indicted and convicted by the federal government for perjury and mortgage fraud.

By contrast, the Baltimore Sun published several editorials in support of the Mosbys and minimizing their scandals, including one (3/23/21) arguing that the federal investigation into their possible crimes was “not good for Baltimore.” (One member of the three-person editorial team at the time, Andrea K. McDaniels, is married to a long-time vocal Mosby supporter, Zach McDaniels, who helped Mosby on the Freddie Gray case. Andrea McDaniels is now managing editor of the Baltimore Banner.)

Banner escapes scrutiny

As for the Banner, the Sun’s chief competitor, it has adopted a superior tone in its coverage of the Smith takeover (1/16/242/5/24), but it has its own ties to the Smith family. The Banner has held events in partnership with Atlas restaurants, which are owned by the Smith family, and published article after article that cover Atlas, a Banner advertiser, in a favorable light (e.g., 7/11/2310/2/2310/18/23).

The Banner has also escaped any scrutiny of its own ownership model. As I previously wrote about for FAIR (12/21/23), the Banner is nominally a nonprofit organization—an “independent” outlet, according to Nieman Lab (1/22/24)—but it is owned by Stewart Bainum, Jr., the very wealthy CEO of Choice Hotels and a nursing home chain, as well as a one-time state politician. He established the Banner after failing to purchase the Sun.

A Democrat, Bainum was described by the national press as the “savior” of Baltimore media (Washington Post, 2/17/21), but the Banner’s board and staff are almost entirely made up of people from the corporate world, its content is buried behind paywalls, and it has platformed right-wing sentiments, including transphobia (9/20/22). Also, like the Sun, it has a habit of parroting what police say (8/27/22) and not offering retractions when those stories turn out to be false (8/30/22).

Smith obviously poses a real threat to the possibility of fair and accurate Baltimore news. At the same time, he serves as a convenient scapegoat for a much deeper and broader problem: the unchecked control of the media by corporate interests, sometimes in the form of what seem like wealthy benefactors.

(Justine Barron is a writer and investigative journalist who focuses on criminal justice, disability and media criticism. She is the author of They Killed Freddie Gray: The Anatomy of a Police Brutality Cover-Up (Arcade Publishing, 2023). This article was first featured in CommonDreams.org.)

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