News organizations are supposed to cover events, not create them. We’re not supposed to manufacture controversies and issues while pretending they arise naturally from the communities we cover.
In the last two weeks, The Sun has directly linked the conservative ownership of Sinclair Broadcast Group, owner of nearly 200 television stations, including Fox 45 in Baltimore, to three local political efforts — to get Thiru Vignarajah elected Baltimore State’s Attorney; to give city voters the power to recall the mayor, and to place term limits on the mayor, the comptroller and members of the Baltimore City Council.
Public records show that three adult children of Sinclair executive chairman David Smith each donated $6,000 to Vignarajah’s campaign. They and a fourth sibling then ponied up $50,000 each for a super PAC that supported Vignarajah.
A former prosecutor who lost his second campaign for state’s attorney this summer, Vignarajah has been a frequent critic of the criminal justice system in Baltimore, and he has enjoyed plenty of exposure on Fox 45, a news operation that constantly portrays the “city in crisis” as a violent, dysfunctional mess run by incompetent leaders.
In fact, less than a year after Brandon Scott became mayor, Fox 45 raised the issue of recall, a way for voters to remove someone from office. The city charter does not allow for it. One of the station’s first news reports on the issue suggested that the city’s incessant violent crime had “renewed debate over whether voters should be allowed to recall city elected officials — in particular, Mayor Brandon Scott.” The only person identified and quoted in this “renewed debate” was Sean Kennedy, a critic of city leadership from the anti-government, libertarian Maryland Public Policy Institute.
But the issue did not dissipate into the ionosphere.
This year, David Smith became the prime financial backer of People for Elected Accountability & Civic Engagement, the group that pushed for recall and term limits. According to campaign finance reports, Smith, who lives in Cockeysville, gave $385,000 to the group. A petition drive for recall failed, but the one for term limits succeeded and the question will be on the city ballot in November.
So there it is: The ownership of a TV station supports a certain candidate; that candidate gets not only plenty of airtime, but huge donations from the owner’s family. Additionally, the owner apparently believes the mayor should be subject to recall, so he not only puts money behind the effort to amend the city charter, but his station essentially manufactures the issue and reports it as news.
People can make campaign donations to any candidate they like, any cause. But when those people own a TV station and the station’s news coverage eschews journalistic objectivity for polemics that align with the ownership’s agenda, it’s hard to see coincidence. It looks more like what conservatives usually gripe about, but in reverse.
For decades, the right has complained that the mainstream news media, including The Baltimore Sun, is infested with liberal bias — that our news coverage is slanted against conservatives and favors Democratic candidates and progressive causes. But here is Sinclair, with a local news operation heavily focused on the worst aspects of city life and blatantly slanted against Baltimore’s leadership, all Democrats, and bolstered by Smith family money. We’re in the constellation of Murdoch Minor.
Several efforts to get some comment on this from David Smith have been fruitless.
I was specifically interested in his connection to Jovani Patterson, chairman of the Smith-financed campaign to get recall and term limits on the November city ballot. Patterson is also listed, with his wife, Shawnda, as lead plaintiffs in another effort to highlight city problems — a taxpayer civil suit against the Baltimore public school system.
The suit alleges that school officials have violated state law by failing to sufficiently educate Baltimore children. It claims administrators wasted millions of dollars and took other wrongful actions, relying heavily on Fox 45 reports to support its allegations.
In an interview, Jovani Patterson, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for City Council president, said the suit did not emanate from personal unhappiness with the schools. (The Pattersons’ 10-year-old daughter has been enrolled in a city school through at least fourth grade; they refused to say which one.) Rather, he said, the suit is about highlighting how the schools’ repeated failures have hurt the prospects of young people and the quality of life in the city.
I asked if the Pattersons had financial support for the lawsuit, but they refused to say. The attorney for the plaintiffs is Scott Marder, who has represented Fox 45 and Sinclair in other legal matters. He did not respond to a question about who was funding the lawsuit. Civil rights attorney Ben Crump joined Marder as co-counsel in July.
Lawyers for the system have responded to the suit, challenging its legal standing, saying the schools get plenty of oversight from the Maryland State Department of Education and that problems described in the suit have been acknowledged and addressed.
The 42-page amended lawsuit reads like a screed against the school system, the problems of which are well known and complex. A lot of what happens in the school system is depressing, a lot of it impossible to defend. Everyone would like to see better schools and better outcomes for Baltimore’s children, starting yesterday. But suing the schools? It might be good for the “city in crisis” news business, but not much for the kids.