Home » Baltimore Sun is latest media casualty to fall under right-wing ownership

Baltimore Sun is latest media casualty to fall under right-wing ownership

Back in its heyday, when The Baltimore Sun ran eight foreign bureaus around the world, the newspaper boasted in a 1963 ad that “The Sun never sets on the world.” By 2008, the struggling newspaper had closed all its foreign offices. Darkness is now falling over the storied 187-year-old newspaper which has won 16 Pulitzer Prizes, including one for local reporting in 2020 for a fraud investigation that forced the mayor to resign.

On Monday, it was publicly announced that the Sun had been sold by vulturous private financial-management firm Alden Global Capital to Baltimore native David D. Smith, the multimillionaire right-wing ideologue who is executive chairman of the Maryland-based Sinclair Inc. broadcasting company. 

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The sale reflects a trend in which wealthy individuals have bought leading newspapers, including billionaire Jeff Bezos, who purchased The Washington Post in 2013, and Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who bought the Los Angeles Times in 2018.

In a lengthy thread on X, formerly known as Twitter, David Simon, the former Sun journalist who created the critically acclaimed HBO series “The Wire,” described the decline and fall of his onetime employer. The final season of “The Wire” featured a story arc about a Baltimore newspaper modeled after the Sun whose corporate owners are downsizing staff to cut costs and covering less news as a result.

The newspaper’s return to local ownership for the first time since it was sold to the Times Mirror newspaper chain in 1986 might normally be cause for celebration. After all, many local newspapers are slashing staff and even shutting down due to declining print advertising and circulation. But Simon saw little cause for optimism in Smith’s takeover. He wrote on X:

And now, the hollow shell of once honorable grey lady has been again returned to local ownership. But instead of a family with deep civic roots and a sense of noblesse oblige that allowed for an editorial product that was not first beholden to any ideological fervor, 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 irony is perfect: In Baltimore, where a newsroom of 500 souls once labored to deliver a politically centrist morning and evening newspaper that gave good  weight to trying to get stuff right, that newspaper has been returned to local ownership so that about 60 or 70 souls can labor to deliver a single, thin edition of a beholden political organ that will not give weight to any view of reality that cannot achieve some advantage or gain for a fixed ideology. 

The terms of sale were private, but Smith said during a staff meeting that he paid “nine figures”—or at least $100 million—out of his own funds to purchase Baltimore Sun Media, whose properties also include some affiliated suburban newspapers. He said the purchase was made independently of Sinclair, which owns nearly 200 local TV stations nationwide.

In the Sun’s own report on the purchase on Monday, Smith offered some platitudes:

“I’m in the news business because I believe … we have an absolute responsibility to serve the public interest,” Smith said in an interview. “I think the paper can be hugely profitable and successful and serve a greater public interest over time. We have one job, to tell the truth, present the facts, period. That’s our job.”

Smith told the Sun that he has one partner in the newspaper venture, whose share of ownership was not disclosed. That partner is the Black conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who hosts a nationally syndicated television show on Sinclair stations. In a post on X, Williams offered a less-than-reassuring pledge. 

“The goal is simple. Deliver fair, balanced news to our readers,” he wrote.

But Sinclair has been anything but fair and balanced when it comes to Donald Trump. Joshua Benton, writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab website, described how Smith met with Trump during the 2016 campaign and offered the candidate exclusive access to Sinclair reporters, saying, “We are here to deliver your message. Period.”

After Trump became president, Sinclair hired former Trump spokesman Boris Epshteyn as its chief political analyst and ordered stations to air his pro-Trump commentaries during local news broadcasts. Benton described what turned out to be a huge embarrassment for Sinclair: 

In 2018, Sinclair ordered its local stations to repeatedly air corporate-penned promos aligning themselves with Trumps attacks on the media, an experience one Sinclair anchor said “felt like a POW recording a message.” It also spawned this instant-classic groupthink mixtape:

And if that’s not bad enough, The Washington Post reported that tax forms show the David D. Smith Family Foundation donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to such right-wing groups as Project Veritas—which ran sting operations against journalists, government officials, and liberal activists—and Moms for America, a conservative education advocacy group whose activities included protesting school mask mandates.

Sun staffers were left feeling uneasy about Smith’s intentions after meeting with him on Tuesday, according to The Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit news website whose employees include some former Sun staffers. The Banner wrote:

In a tense, three-hour meeting with staff Tuesday afternoon, new Baltimore Sun owner David Smith told employees he has only read the paper four times in the past few months, insulted the quality of their journalism and encouraged them to emulate a TV station (Fox 45) owned by his broadcasting company. …

The in-person meeting ran nearly three hours and was full of tense exchanges, people at the meeting said. Smith was noncommittal about both the long-term continuation of a print edition and retention of current staff.

During the meeting, the Banner wrote that Smith responded to a question by saying he stood by remarks he made in an email to a reporter from New York Magazine in 2018 in which he refused a request for an interview. He wrote:

“Appreciate the interest in your wanting to do a story but we don’t talk to the print media as a general principal as we find them to be so devoid of reality and serving no real purpose. …

The print media is so left wing as to be meaningless dribble which accounts for why the industry is and will fade away. Just no credibility.”

According to the Banner, Smith repeatedly emphasized the need to increase profits, and at one point told staffers to “go make me some money.”

After the meeting, the Baltimore Sun Guild, which represents the newspaper’s editorial staff, issued a statement on X. It read:

If Sinclair’s local Fox 45 TV station is any model, the Sun may very well turn into a platform for Smith to attack Baltimore’s current Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott and other local officials by emphasizing and exaggerating such issues as crime and corruption, the Banner reported. Fox 45 was launched by Smith’s father as a UHF station in 1971, the first TV station that Smith and his brothers expanded into a nationwide broadcast company.

In February 2022, the Sun published an extraordinary, detailed editorial apologizing for promoting “policies oppressing Black Marylanders” for decades. The editorial noted that the newspaper’s founder, A.S. Abell, was “a Southern sympathizer who supported slavery and segregation” and that the newspaper “fed the fear and anxiety of white readers with stereotypes and caricatures that reinforced their erroneous beliefs about Black Americans.”

The newspaper promised to make amends for its past offenses, including launching a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion reporting team focused on telling the stories of underserved groups. That promise is likely to fall by the wayside now that Smith is in control of the Sun.

Marc Steiner, a longtime Baltimore public radio figure, told the Banner that Smith’s ownership is “really frightening” and that Smith “is a very right-wing conservative ideologue. He’s not buying the newspaper to save it. He’s buying it for his own political purposes.”

Fortunately, Baltimore residents have another option. Former Democratic state senator and Choice Hotels chairman Stewart Bainum Jr. failed in his bid to buy the Sun from Alden Global Capital. Instead, he invested millions of dollars to launch the Baltimore Banner website in 2022.

Simon, in his thread on X, urged people to support The Baltimore Banner so it could generate sufficient revenue to expand its coverage and ultimately deliver “the product that was butchered by the captains who led their entire industry to Wall Street and then the grave.”

“You should contribute a few dollars each month on behalf of an experiment that offers both professional journalism and local ownership and pray like hell that it succeeds,” Simon wrote. “In the end, there are no great cities without great news organizations.”

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January 2024