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More crime and conservatism: How new owners are changing 'The Baltimore Sun'

Conservative commentator Armstrong Williams is the new owner, along with David D. Smith, of <em>The Baltimore Sun</em>. The newspaper now features Williams' columns and stories about his broadcast interviews.
Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun
Conservative commentator Armstrong Williams is the new owner, along with David D. Smith, of The Baltimore Sun. The newspaper now features Williams' columns and stories about his broadcast interviews.

Updated February 26, 2024 at 5:33 PM ET

The Baltimore Sun's purchase last month by television magnate David D. Smith has sparked outrage and bafflement.

Outrage among some Baltimore residents and journalists who have seen Smith steer the nearly 200 local television stations owned or controlled by his company, Sinclair Broadcast Group, hard to the right politically. And bafflement over why he wanted the famous but famished newspaper in the first place.

Smith declined to speak to NPR through his partner in the deal, the conservative commentator and entrepreneur Armstrong Williams. Williams is perhaps best-known nationally for his close friendship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Williams says simply: We come in peace.

"We're not there to gut the operation. We're there to enhance it and grow it," Williams tells NPR. "We want to return the paper to localism."

Williams says The Sun is already beginning to focus more on stories readers care about.

"You see more about crime. You see more about the mayor and City Hall," Williams says. "And as we add resources, that would only expand and grow."

Smith has said he paid nine figures - meaning at least $100 million - for The Sun, though that may include the significant cost of services, such as its content management system, provided by the previous owner, the investment fund Alden Global Capital.

Co-owner figures prominently at – and in – The Sun

Smith has stayed largely out of public view, making his presence instead felt behind the scenes. In the short time since the acquisition, it is Williams who has become an avatar for The Sun.

His column now frequently graces the opinion pages. The Sun's articles draw upon the interviews he has conducted for Sinclair's Baltimore station and for the syndicated weekly show that runs on 170 Sinclair stations nationally and only a handful of others. A lengthy guest editorial by civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump hailed Williams as a leading Black entrepreneur. It featured a big picture of Williams–right above Williams's own column. And he's been meeting with staffers in small groups.

I asked Williams, what role does he play in The Sun's newsroom?

"Any role that I want as an owner, that's the role it will be," he says. "We're the owners."

I reported for The Sun for a decade before joining NPR in 2004. I recently returned to Baltimore to learn more about how the paper was changing and to catch up with a half dozen former colleagues who have left The Sun at their weekly coffee klatch.

Among them were reporters posted to Moscow and Mexico City for The Sun. Another had been among the first Western journalists in Rwanda during the genocide there three decades ago. A fourth covered the wars in the Balkans. Two had been among the paper's most senior news leaders.

The Sun now has no foreign bureaus and a dwindling number of reporters. According to local newsroom union officials, there are about 60 journalists, down from more than 300 in my day. All that is due to changes that are affecting newspapers across the U.S: the way people consume and convey news, and the rapacious pursuit of profits by a series of out-of-state owners, most recently Alden Global Capital.

<em>The Baltimore Sun's</em> front page on Jan. 16, 2024 featured a story about the newspaper's purchase by David D. Smith, executive chairman of the Sinclair broadcasting chain and an active contributor to conservative causes.
Lea Skene / AP
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AP
The Baltimore Sun's front page on Jan. 16, 2024 featured a story about the newspaper's purchase by David D. Smith, executive chairman of the Sinclair broadcasting chain and an active contributor to conservative causes.

Jon Morgan, a former top editor over enterprise reporting and state politics, brought a recent copy of the paper to the coffee klatch. He points to it in warning that Smith — the first local owner in more than three decades — could prove to be the worst of the bunch.

"It kind of confirms some of our worst fears," Morgan says. "It's fallen in the hands of someone who, by all indications – and I want to give him the benefit of the doubt – is out to set an agenda, and use the newspaper to do that."

Smith has bought the paper as an individual, saying Sinclair investors wouldn't have let him buy it through the publicly traded company. Yet the former Sun reporters — unified in their concerns — note the record at Smith's media properties across the country and in Baltimore.

Sinclair's political coverage includes advocacy and disinformation

Nationally, Smith's Sinclair Broadcast Group has taken on an increasingly pro-Republican and pro-Donald Trump tilt.

The pattern, recalled in recent conversations with six former Sinclair staffers, stretches back a generation. It started in earnest after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Smith's Sinclair ordered anchors in the markets in which it ran newscasts to read editorials aloud supporting then-President George W. Bush's war on terror. Some objected, including in Baltimore. Smith gave hefty political contributions to Bush and other Republicans.

In early 2004, Sinclair sent Washington bureau chief Jon Leiberman and its conservative editorialist, Mark Hyman, to Iraq to find the positive developments that the company claimed other news outlets were ignoring. Hyman's editorials had frequently supported Bush and criticized the media's coverage of the war.

In October 2004, Leiberman stormed out of a staff meeting and denounced an hour-long program giving credence to discredited attacks on then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry that ran on Sinclair stations nationally, which includes markets in many key swing states. Leiberman told me then that the show was "biased political propaganda." Sinclair softened the program before airing it, but fired Leiberman and subsequently forced him to return unemployment payments.

Some years later, The Washington Post reported that Sinclair commanded so-called "must-run" stories critical of then President Barack Obama's administration be carried on their stations too.

After Trump prevailed in the 2016 election, son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner said that the campaign had struck a deal with Sinclair for more favorable coverage. Politico reported that he told business executives Sinclair's journalists were granted more access to candidate Trump and his aides. (Sinclair's top executive said the same opportunity for interviews had been offered to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.)

Sinclair drew national notoriety in 2018 for ordering its stations throughout the country to run an editorial echoing Trump's attacking the rest of the press that was narrated by local anchors as though it reflected the personal thoughts of each. The editorial warned some journalists "use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think. And this is extremely dangerous to our democracy."

Suspicions of bias at local Sinclair station

Sinclair's Fox 45 in Baltimore is the company's first and flagship station. Smith's father Julian founded it in 1971; in the mid-1980s David D. Smith started to lead Sinclair, the newly created company named after Julian's middle name, as it added stations.

Local journalists say his flagship Baltimore station became known in the 1990s for its visual storytelling and the gentle pace of its profiles and features, a hallmark of videographer Scott Livingston, who's now Sinclair's chief news executive over all the stations. But its reporting took on an increasingly sharp edge, relentlessly focused on how dangerous Baltimore is and the failings of the city schools system. Reports frequently focus on corruption as a root cause.

"I just can't believe that that's true," says Kathy Lally, who covered the city schools for a decade for The Sun. "If you look at any urban school system, there's a problem with economics, with social problems [in] that families are not getting the support they need. There's not [sufficient] transportation that provides for jobs.

"There are so, so many problems that are not going to be fixed by finding somebody who's corrupt in the Baltimore City school system," Lally says.

Then there's the question of context. Fox 45 made waves with an investigation that found that 11 percent of students in the city's five selective public high schools tested as proficient in the state math exam. But, as a city schools official responsible for STEM classes argued in a Sun opinion piece last fall, a far greater number of students had taken high school math courses in middle school, so had already taken such tests. Those stronger students were excluded from the station's count.

In his first meeting with Sun staffers, Smith pointed to such investigations as a model for the paper. Sinclair's larger investigations are overseen by Hyman, previously Sinclair's conservative editorialist and lobbyist.

Hyman says he's left all editorializing behind in favor of tough-minded scrutiny.

"This is a city that is fraught with challenges with crime and drug usage and teenage pregnancy and so forth," Hyman says. "It's important to deliver bad news. It can't be all parades and sunshine and daffodils."

"People do worry about jobs, stability, crime, the economy. They want to send their kids to school and be safe and have them come home," he says. "They want to be good neighbors. That's pretty much true everywhere around the world, including here in Baltimore."

The stories represent accountability journalism of the first order, he says.

Not the way Fox 45 does it, argues former Sun reporter Michael Hill, a retired foreign correspondent who earlier covered television news for the paper. He says the stories are an unserious approach to serious problems.

"They have picked an audience they want, which is a suburban audience, and they want to tell them how terrible the city is, and that they're right to live in the suburbs," Hill says. "And that, I think, is their sort of commercial approach that is reflected in their news business."

Some journalists who previously worked at Sinclair's Fox 45 echo that critique.

Former weather anchor Kirk Clyatt says one memory there stands out: during a news meeting, Clyatt says he told the then news director that he would be projecting 2 to 4 inches of snow to fall overnight.

Clatt says the station's then news director wanted more, hoping to cement viewers to the screen in anticipation of worsening weather.

"He goes, 'Kirk, let's make it three to five'," Clyatt says. "And just that statement gives you kind of an idea of the way the mentality was."

The approach applied beyond weather, Clyatt says.

"You take a story - crime or problems with the schools. And instead of going two to four inches, you go three to five. You amplify the negativity."

Joe DeFeo, the longtime Sinclair news executive who was the news director at the time, did not reply to messages seeking comment on the incident.

Terry Owens was an anchor at rival WMAR-TV in Baltimore.

"A great many of us admired Fox 45. They had the most talented videographers in the market, and were great at editing stories," he says. "Somewhere along the way the editorial direction seemed to change — less focus on storytelling and much more critical of the city and the direction it was going."

"It's one thing to report the news," Owens says. "It's another thing to have an agenda — to go after the city, that's been disturbing to watch."

How will The Sun cover stories that involve its new owner?

More recently, Sinclair's Fox 45 has reported intently on matters in which Smith takes a direct interest without public disclosure of the ties - including lawsuits that Smith secretly financed against a past mayoral candidate and the city's schools. Smith's connection was disclosed by a rival - the non-profit Baltimore Banner, which has hired away a slew of the Sun's established reporters.

Sheila Dixon resigned as Baltimore's mayor in 2010 as part of a plea agreement in a corruption case. She is running to regain that seat, and has received donations from <em>The Sun</em>'s new owner, David D. Smith.
Rob Carr / AP
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AP
Sheila Dixon resigned as Baltimore's mayor in 2010 as part of a plea agreement in a corruption case. She is running to regain that seat, and has received donations from The Sun's new owner, David D. Smith.

A spokesperson for the station has said its journalists were unaware of the ties. Yet, as the Banner reported, the Republican politician who brought the suit said a Fox 45 producer arranged the meeting at which Smith convinced him to file it. The station said it will make any necessary disclosures to its audiences.

What does this portend for Maryland's largest daily newspaper?

There has not been any radical transformation so far. But life has gotten a lot more complicated for its reporters, including a wave of acknowledgements in its pages of the new owner's frequent involvement in local politics.

When a lawsuit against a restaurant owned by Smith's nephew Alex was dismissed, The Sun gave the development front-page treatment. David Smith is a key investor.

The comeback attempt by former Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon is real news. Records show Smith, his relatives and companies contributed at least $124,000 toward her campaign and a parallel political action committee, as The Sun has noted in passing.

Smith has urged Sun reporters to drill deeper on corruption.

The Sun helped drive Dixon from office years ago by exposing her criminal behavior. Its reporters later won a Pulitzer Prize for revealing the corruption of a subsequent mayor, Catherine Pugh.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.