Right-wing media mogul buys the Baltimore Sun
David D. Smith, the executive chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group (Sinclair), purchased the Baltimore Sun — the largest newspaper in Maryland — for an undisclosed sum. The acquisition means another powerful media outlet will be under the control of a wealthy conservative businessman with a history of using local media outlets to push an ideological agenda.
Smith is the son of Sinclair founder Julian Sinclair Smith and, along with his brothers, controls the company. Sinclair, a publicly traded company, owns or operates 185 local television stations across 86 markets. A 2018 study published in the American Political Science Review found that stations purchased by Sinclair "coverage of national politics at the expense of local politics" and undergo "a significant rightward shift in the ideological slant of coverage."
Sinclair regularly requires its local affiliates to run segments pushing right-wing talking points. In 2018, Sinclair affiliates were required to have local anchors read a script warning views about "fake stories" being published by other media outlets "to push their own personal bias and agenda." The trend was described as "extremely dangerous to a democracy." The argument, which included no actual examples, matched then-president Donald Trump's rhetoric about the media.
When Sinclair faced criticism for puppeteering its local anchors, Trump defended the company. "So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased," Trump said. "Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke."
Sinclair stations were also required to run political commentary from Boris Epshteyn, who previously served as a Trump advisor and surrogate. Sinclair hired Epshteyn as its chief political analyst. Epshteyn's segments for Sinclair were mostly indistinguishable from his work for the Trump campaign. "The American people demand change, and they demand action, and that’s exactly what they’ll get from this administration going forward," Epshteyn declared in one piece.
Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and advisor, said that in 2016, the Trump campaign provided Sinclair stations with extensive access to Trump in exchange for friendly coverage that did not include fact-checking. "We are here to deliver your message," Smith told Trump in a 2016 meeting. Sinclair executives denied there was anything unusual or unethical about its dealings with the Trump campaign. Sinclair affiliates have also promoted right-wing conspiracy theories, including claims that DNC staffer Seth Rich was murdered by a hitman as payback for sharing sensitive emails to Wikileaks.
The history of using Sinclair-owned stations to push a right-wing agenda predates Trump. In 2004, "Sinclair ordered its stations to broadcast an hour-long documentary — preempting prime-time programming — titled Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal that blamed Democratic nominee John Kerry for the torture of American prisoners of war in Vietnam."
In an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Smith defended Sinclair's news coverage "as balanced and apolitical." According to Smith, Sinclair is "not perfect" but overall is "much better than a lot of folk."
Smith, not Sinclair, is purchasing the Baltimore Sun — although that may be a distinction without a difference. Smith said, "he envisions opportunities for partnerships between The Sun and Sinclair, such as promoting each other’s stories, and other synergies in the future."
The checkered history of Smith's right-hand man
Smith did not purchase the Baltimore Sun alone. He brought along one partner: Armstrong Williams, a right-wing pundit and operative.
Williams has his own syndicated show on Sinclair stations. His social media accounts are full of incendiary statements about Democrats and liberals. "Each day Joe Biden has sat in office, we have gotten closer and closer to a fascist communist nation," Armstrong wrote on January 10. On January 5, he accused Biden of "destroy[ing] American democracy." On December 19, Armstrong decried "the real time consequences of being infiltrated by radical left-wingers and the acceptance of their insane political agendas." (The issue was the Pope slightly softening his stance on same-sex marriages.) On December 6, Armstrong called Biden "a senile senior citizen" who "barely knows right from left." Armstrong also called the prosecutors pursuing cases against Trump as "terrorists" and promoted false narratives and conspiracy theories about the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Armstrong served as an advisor to former presidential candidate and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson. He claims to have paid for Justice Clarence Thomas' wedding reception. In 2005, Armstrong lost his syndicated column after it was revealed that he had been paid $240,000 by the George W. Bush administration to promote their signature education initiative, No Child Left Behind.
Follow the money
Smith has used his vast wealth to support a variety of far-right causes. The Baltimore Banner reports that since 2015, Smith, through his family foundation, has donated large sums to Young Americans for Liberty ($581,000), Project Veritas ($536,000), Turning Point USA ($150,000), and Moms for Liberty ($121,000).
Smith does not support Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D), and has sought to recruit opponents to unseat him. Sinclair stations have provided highly favorable coverage to former Mayor Shelia Dixon (D), who is running against Scott this year. Armstrong conducted an interview with Dixon on a Sinclair affiliate last summer that consisted mostly of "praise for Dixon and criticism of current elected officials."
In 2022, Smith backed a successful ballot initiative to impose term limits on Baltimore's elected officials. Currently, Smith is "underwriting Renew Baltimore, a ballot drive to cap and lower the property tax rate."
Now, Smith has a new tool in his arsenal to shape Baltimore's politics: the city's paper of record.