Media

The Baltimore Sun's new owner sparks concerns over editorial influence

David Smith is the chairman of Sinclair Broadcasting, which has previously mandated its local stations run conservative commentaries.

The Baltimore Sun's new owner sparks concerns over editorial influence
Lea Skene/AP
SMS

The largest and most-awarded newspaper in Maryland is now in the hands of a new owner: David Smith, the chairman of Sinclair Broadcasting.

Smith's surprise purchase returns The Baltimore Sun to local ownership, but it is also raising alarms inside and outside of The Sun's newsroom because of Smith's political views and actions.

A day after news of the sale was announced to staff, Smith gathered them in a large conference room overlooking City Hall.

Scripps News confirms he told staff he hasn't read the paper in decades and insinuated its reporting, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2020, was irrelevant. Smith pushed staff to "make me money" and said they should be more like Sinclair Broadcasting's flagship station in Baltimore, Fox 45.

The TV station portrays Baltimore as a "city in crisis." It says it's laser-focused on revealing corruption in Baltimore. But critics, including Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, say the coverage is unfair, skewed and irresponsible.

"Smith has a record in media, particularly with Sinclair Broadcasting, of trying to use his stations not to inform but to persuade," said Tom Rosenstiel, professor at the University of Maryland College of Journalism. "All the indications are at this point, that based on his past behavior, and based on his remarks, and based on his apparent lack of interest in print media, or newspaper-based media, that his intent here is not to create a news organization that informs and understands the city, or the metropolitan region, but he's doing it because he wants a conservative voice."

Smith insisted to Sun staff he's "apolitical," but he has donated to various Republican causes and campaigns and has funded a ballot measure to limit terms of city officials.

Smith's acquisition of The Baltimore Sun is just the latest in a trend of wealthy businessmen buying American media outlets.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post a decade ago. A couple years later, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson acquired the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Billionaire businessman Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong purchased the Los Angeles Times in 2018.

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Several current and former Sun employees who were in the meeting with Smith tell Scripps News that this feels different. They declined to have their names published, fearing retribution from their new owner.

David Simon, a former Sun reporter who went on to create shows like "The Wire," posted on X, "The Baltimore Sun is now owned by someone who has delivered a news product that begins with a hard ideological premise and then tailors all coverage and editorializing to fit."

The union representing Sun reporters released its own statement, saying in part, "The editorial direction he described ... concerned many of our members, as did his attitude toward vulnerable communities in the city that we love."

Smith told staff he is driven to highlight problems. Referring to Baltimore City Schools students, he told staff of The Baltimore Sun, "As a news organization, you might be able to do something about it by focusing on those people, that class of people, who are products of the Baltimore City school system, who have never had a job. They're always going to be a product of the government. They're always going to be on welfare."

The quote, confirmed by Scripps News, was first reported by The Baltimore Banner.

Kwame Rose, a Baltimore activist and entrepreneur, is critical of Smith's leadership record.

"Fox 45 is fixated on creating, telling the story about corruption in Baltimore City Public Schools," he said. "It's not painting a whole picture. What it does is incite fear into readers to think that Baltimore is just this jungle of violence and young Black folk who can't read or write. And instead, what it should be, is telling that picture of like, decades of underfunding leads to generation of problems."

Smith's father founded Sinclair. It is the country's largest broadcaster and operates stations in 86 markets across the country.

In the past, Smith has mandated those stations run conservative commentaries.

One of those commentators, Armstrong Williams, is also now part owner of The Sun.

In a post on X, civil rights attorney Ben Crump expressed his support for Williams and Smith. "I’m very proud of my Brother Armstrong and David," he said. "I know that they will do a tremendous job in speaking truth to power and giving marginalized people a voice. The Sun is shining bright across Maryland."

Scripps News requested comment from David Smith and Sinclair about the sale, but did not hear back.