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Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office files FCC complaint against WBFF alleging biased, inflammatory, dangerous coverage | COMMENTARY

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby holds a press conference outside the courthouse in downtown Baltimore on Friday, March 26, 2021.
Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby holds a press conference outside the courthouse in downtown Baltimore on Friday, March 26, 2021. (Ulysses Muñoz)

The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office says it filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday requesting an investigation of WBFF, the Sinclair-owned Fox-affiliated TV station in Baltimore.

The letter of complaint written by Zy Richardson, communications director, alleges a pattern of coverage of the state’s attorney’s office that is “blatantly slanted, dishonest, misleading, racist, and extremely dangerous.” It further charges that the station has engaged in what “appears to be an intentional crusade” against Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, “which given today’s politically charged and divisive environment, is extremely dangerous.”

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An FCC spokesman wrote in an email that the agency does not comment on or confirm individual complaints.

The agency has the power to investigate, levy fines and even strip a station of its broadcast license based on its findings in the kind of investigation the state’s attorney’s office is requesting. In 2020, the FCC levied the largest fine against a broadcaster in its then 86-year history, $48 million, against the Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast Group in part for some of its actions during its failed effort to win agency approval for its purchase of Tribune Media for $3.9 billion.

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In response to the complaint from Mosby’s office, Sinclair defended its reporting.

“WBFF is committed to journalism in the public interest with its award-winning investigative unit being a key part of delivering on that commitment,” said Billy Robbins, vice president and general manager of WBFF. “While we understand that it’s not always popular with the individuals and institutions upon which we are shining a light, we stand by our reporting.”

The complaint alleges a “dangerous pattern” to WBFF’s coverage of the state’s attorney’s office and Mosby, “beginning with a slanted, rigged, misleading or inflammatory headline … followed by a conspiracy theory . . . and supported with guest commentary from disgruntled ex-employees or political opponents that lend false credibility to the biased coverage or omission of facts.”

The complaint also notes the frequency of coverage of the office and Mosby by WBFF versus other stations in the market. According to Richardson, WBFF ran 248 stories in 2020 about Mosby and the office, while WJZ ran 46, WBAL ran 26 and WMAR ran 10 during that year.

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The figures were compiled using Google news alerts set up with keywords for the office and Mosby, plus scrolling and monitoring of news coverage, Richardson wrote in an email response to questions about the methodology.

“While the frequency of the coverage in question by WBFF would give any reasonable person pause, it is the tone of coverage that violates FCC rules,” the complaint says. “The coverage by WBFF represents acts that are not merely against the public interest; they also represent acts that are inflammatory against the public safety of an elected official.”

The complaint alleges that in 2020, WBFF “deliberately broadcast the home address” of Mosby and made a “formal inquiry attempting to find out the schools” her children attended.

Those actions “rise beyond mere professional irresponsibility and become what can reasonably be deemed malicious, against the public interest, and a pointed threat to the State’s Attorney’s life and that of her family,” the complaint says.

The complaint includes links to six WBFF reports that it cites as evidence for its allegations about animus toward Mosby. They mostly question her competence and integrity, as shown by the headlines from the two most recent in April: “Rollout of new policies by Mosby needed more collaboration, experts say” and “Marilyn Mosby claims 93% conviction rate - here are the cases she doesn’t count.”

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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