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Relationship between Sinclair-owned WBFF and mayoral candidate Vignarajah raises questions | COMMENTARY

Baltimore mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah during a campaign appearance at Northeast Market Fri., Feb. 21, 2020.
Baltimore mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah during a campaign appearance at Northeast Market Fri., Feb. 21, 2020.(Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

As mail-in votes for Baltimore mayor are being cast over the coming weeks, a question that’s been hanging over the race for months needs to be addressed: Is the relationship between Sinclair-owned WBFF and former Maryland Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah appropriate for a TV station and a candidate?

The issue was forced into the open last week when three of four candidates invited to WBFF for a debate declined the offer and the station wound up airing an hour-long conversation with Mr. Vignarajah. It was one of several solo appearances by Mr. Vignarajah on WBFF during the campaign.

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One letter declining the invitation, which was written by candidate Mary Miller’s campaign manager, Ann Beegle, raised the issue of WBFF’s coverage of the election being biased in favor of Mr. Vignarajah.

“We are concerned about bias in Fox 45′s coverage of the mayoral election,” the letter said, also noting the issue of persons connected to the station making large financial contributions to Mr. Vignarajah’s campaign. The letter was obtained by Sun reporter Talia Richman.

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As reported by Ms. Richman and reporter Emily Opilo, Sinclair Chairman David D. Smith’s children and their spouses donated a combined $30,000 to Mr. Vignarajah, according to campaign finance reports. Smith family members also made contributions to other candidates. Frederick Smith, a Sinclair vice president and board member, gave Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young a $4,000 contribution, while his sons, Eric Smith and Alexander Smith gave Mr. Young $6,000 after a fundraiser at one of their restaurants.

In an email response to a Sun request for comment on the letter last week, Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s news vice president, denied any bias, adding that Ms. Miller and other top candidates have been invited to appear on the station.

“I don’t have any idea of what anyone associated with Sinclair does with their money,” he wrote. “Our focus has been on what’s in the best interest of the people of Baltimore.”

William Fanshawe, general manager of WBFF, also denied any bias in his station’s coverage.

“We extended invitations to the top candidates to make regular appearances on our news set to be interviewed by our anchors,” he wrote in an email. “Some have taken us up on our offer, others have declined.” (Mr. Fanshawe made that comment in an earlier email to me and referred me to it when I asked him this week if the station had shown bias toward Mr. Vignarajah.)

Mr. Vignarajah said he has merely taken advantage of every offer of airtime given by WBFF, while his opponents have not.

“I am beholden to no one, and I will accept every opportunity to share my vision and answer every question asked of me,” he wrote in a text message Tuesday.

Given Sinclair and WBFF’s histories of involving themselves in politics as participants rather than purely neutral journalistic entities, I am glad to see Ms. Miller’s campaign call out WBFF.

That history extends from Sinclair’s relationship to a company that granted then-gubernatorial-candidate Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. deeply discounted use of a luxury executive helicopter in 2002, to a push-poll robocall in 2012 voiced by WBFF’s lead anchorman asking potentially damaging questions about then-Gov. Martin O’Malley. Mr. Ehrlich is a Republican, while Mr. O’Malley is a Democrat.

In 2017, Sinclair hired Boris Epshteyn, a communications aide to President Donald Trump, as its chief political analyst and forced its news-producing stations around the country to carry his slavishly pro-Trump commentaries. (Mr. Epshteyn left Sinclair’s airwaves in December.)

Mr. Trump returned the favor of Mr. Epshteyn’s fawning analyses in 2018 tweeting: "Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”

This mutual admiration came at a time when Sinclair was trying to win approval from the Federal Communications Commission for a $3.9 billion takeover of Tribune Media.

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That didn’t end so happily for Sinclair, with the company failing in its bid and the FCC last week leveling a record $48 million civil penalty against the broadcaster.

“Sinclair’s conduct during its attempt to merge with Tribune was completely unacceptable,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement announcing the fine.

That’s a lot of history. But all of it needs to be remembered with citizens now voting for the next mayor.

TV stations should be scrupulous in avoiding even the appearance of favoritism in an election, and WBFF has not done that. Furthermore, Baltimore residents need to ask themselves if they want a company and TV station with a history of supporting Republican candidates like Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Trump playing as large a role as Sinclair and WBFF have in this Democratic primary.

In all my years of writing about the intersection of TV and politics in cities ranging from Detroit to Dallas to Baltimore, I cannot recall seeing an election in which candidates felt the relationship between a broadcaster and one particular candidate was so biased that they declined free airtime on that station.

A note of comparison: WBAL-TV produced a virtual debate Tuesday and all six of the mayoral candidates invited took part in the event.

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

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