If the goal was to cause confusion and stoke anger among Baltimore voters while trying to tarnish the images of two of the city’s top Democratic leaders, then you would probably call WBFF’s town hall meeting Tuesday a success.
But by almost every other standard of public affairs broadcasting and democracy, you would have to call the production staged by the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Baltimore station not just a failure, but a reminder of the trouble media outlets can cause when they try to inject themselves into the political process.
The controversy involves WBFF claiming Mayor Jack Young and City Council President Brandon Scott were last-minute no shows Tuesday night in the town hall meeting after confirming that they would attend. Both Young and Scott deny the claims.
"WBFF produced a town hall at Coppin State University to give the public an opportunity to express their concerns with elected city officials and community leaders,' the station’s news director Mike Tomko wrote in an email to The Sun Wednesday. "Both Mayor Young and Council President Scott confirmed they would attend the town hall as panelists. "
Tomko’s email continued, “Fox45 made every panelist aware of the town hall subject matter at the time the invitations were made and the discussions began ... The mayor backed out of the town hall and his office made it clear no one from his cabinet would participate as well. Commissioner Michael Harrison was a confirmed panelist, but withdrew shortly after the mayor. City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises also confirmed, but withdrew hours later. In a phone conversation, Council President Scott’s campaign withdrew from our town with less than 24 hours notice of the event.”
In a tweet Wednesday, Scott wrote: " Yesterday’s town hall was originally pitched to me as a conversation between elected and citywide officials. Over the past week, the makeup of the panel changed fundamentally and continued to be in flux until the day of the event."
He followed that with more tweets saying: “The station did not proactively communicate these changes to my office, which raised serious concerns about the true nature and purpose of the town hall. For everyone who expected to see me because of the ads, I apologize. Last night, I was fulfilling commitments I previously made, attending 4 separate public events. This summer, I hosted 9 town hall events across Baltimore on my legislative proposal and heard community concerns. Unfortunately, the planning process here was not done in good faith."
Young’s spokesman, Lester Davis, told The Sun’s Kevin Rector that the mayor’s office had told Fox “a couple weeks ago” that the mayor would not be participating in the event — and didn’t budge, including after the station began to “threaten” them with having an empty chair being put on the stage with Young’s name on it.
“We’ve come to expect unscrupulous behavior from them,” Davis said of WBFF.
Young told Rector he didn’t go to the Fox event because he didn’t want to: “I didn’t pull out, I just didn’t go,” he said. “I didn’t want to go.”
Thiru Vignarajah, who like Scott, has declared his candidacy for Baltimore mayor in the next election, did attend. He could be seen in images distributed on social media sitting onstage alongside two empty chairs with the names “Scott” and “Young” on them. Young has not yet said whether he will run for mayor next year.
Vignarajah told The Sun Wednesday that he felt WBFF had communicated clearly with him about the town hall.
He also said, “There was so much anger and frustration in the room about how things are going in Baltimore ... It only inflamed people that their city politicians were not there."
Confusion, finger pointing and anger in the hall ― some of it directed at the mayor and city council president who say they made it clear to WBFF they would not be attending. So, why wasn’t the public told that beforehand?
WBFF says one thing, the mayor and city council president say other things. Whom to believe?
Sadly, it is impossible to adjudicate such competing claims in a political era where everyone from the president of the United States on down seems to feel it is OK to lie.
But here’s what I say, and I have said it before in The Sun: Any Democrat who participates in a debate, town hall or any kind of political forum on WBFF is a fool. Sinclair Broadcast Group and Fox 45, a Sinclair affiliate, have shown their true color to be red, helping Robert Ehrlich when he ran for governor and using a lead anchor to voice robocalls against Martin O’Malley when he was governor.
And Sinclair seems even further to the right today with its hiring and showcasing of former Trump communications aide Boris Epshteyn as chief political analyst, and former Fox News host Eric Bolling, who left the channel in the wake of #MeToo allegations, now hosting a weekly show, “America This Week" for the Hunt Valley based company.
Here’s a sample of Epshteyn’s brand of political analysis from a recent news letter: “President Trump has proven to the American people that he loves and cherishes all Americans and will not be deterred by false accusations of racism or misogyny that the left constantly spews.”
And here’s his analysis on the current whistleblower complaint against Trump: “This is a hoax of epic proportions and the truth is clear — it’s party and power over country for the Democrats.”
I have been critical of what I see as Young’s penchant for keeping the media in the dark whenever he can on city business. But I’m with Young’s aide Lester Davis on what Democrats in Baltimore can expect from Sinclair, and if I were Young or Scott I would not have attended either.
There are myriad ways a host of a forum can shade and politicize perceptions of the event, from stacking the panel at the last minute with critics of a frontrunner, to asking tougher questions of them and then selectively editing the videos that thousands who did not attend the town hall will see online.
Latest David Zurawik
Let’s hope WBFF won’t engage in such manipulation in the future.