The new owner of The Baltimore Sun is a local power broker who’s donated millions of dollars across Baltimore, Maryland and national politics, put a referendum on city ballots, and criticized the “mainstream media” from his perch as the executive chairman of the nationwide network of Sinclair television stations.
David Smith’s personal purchase, the details of which are not public, was announced in a story in The Sun on Monday. The next afternoon, Smith, a figure known to the newspaper’s journalists as the man behind the curtain of WBFF Fox45, met newspaper staffers at The Sun’s office downtown.
“Welcome to the new world,” he told them, according to several people who attended the meeting but were not authorized to speak publicly. He said he paid “nine figures” for The Sun and several community newspapers.
Smith’s purchase from Alden Global Capital returns the paper to local ownership for the first time in nearly four decades, but he’s no small-time local businessman. Though not as well known as fellow media titans Rupert Murdoch or Jeff Bezos, Smith’s influence as the leader of a network of more than 190 television news station trickles into millions of living rooms across the country.
In his quest for what he has described as balance, Smith and his stations have been accused of leaning too far to the political right and have run afoul of federal regulators, once racking up a record-breaking $48 million in FCC fines for deceptive practices during an attempted 2020 merge with Tribune.
“There are two companies doing truly balanced news today: Sinclair and Fox,” he told a Rolling Stone reporter in 2005. But he has insisted that his stations have no ideological bent.
“If people believe you more than they believe somebody else, they’re more likely to watch you,” he told The Guardian in another interview in 2018. “And you know what that means? We might get a higher rating. And you know what that means? We will therefore make our spots worth more. And you know what that means? That means I will make more money, which means I can pay you more money.”
Former Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. called Smith “an American success story.”
“They’ve built quite a business enterprise,” said Ehrlich, who once forbade his communications team from answering questions from Sun reporters. “I think that bringing a sense of balance to local and national news, more of a conservative perspective, is certainly a motivator for him.”
A family tree with powerful branches
Smith rarely grants interviews and declined to speak to The Baltimore Banner.
One of four sons, Smith grew up in Bolton Hill and graduated from City College in 1969, the year after racial unrest roiled the city for more than a week. Several graduates of that era became movers and shakers in the region and nation, including Elijah Cummings and David Rubenstein. As a senior, Smith was the top athlete on a middling tennis team, according to his high school yearbook.
His father Julian, an engineer, first dabbled in radio before launching WBFF in 1971, debuting as a “telemovie” channel that aired a mixture of old movies, syndicated reruns and children’s shows. Early newscasts weren’t sharp. “It was kind of ‘rip and read,’” David Smith told The Sun in 1991. “We did what we could economically in those days. It obviously wasn’t the greatest product in the world.”
Multiple published profiles have reported he was a partner in a business called Ciné Processors, which made bootleg copies of adult films in the basement of a building owned by another of his father’s companies, the Commercial Radio Institute, and was raided by police in the 1970s.
But Smith’s future was in the family business. After selling a company that manufactured broadcast transmitters, he served as general manager of a television station they owned in Pittsburgh for a few years. Then, in 1986, according to his company biography, he became “instrumental” in the creation of Sinclair Broadcast Group.
In 1990, the four brothers bought out their parents’ interest in the business. David took the helm, though would insist it was only on paper, with the brothers holding equal interest and even sitting with their desks in a row. The following year, WBFF launched the only 10 o’clock evening news program, vowing to carve out their place in the market and touting themselves as the only TV station with local ownership.
“We can cause the news to go in the direction we think is in the best interests of the station and the community,” David told The Sun. “We can do that because we live here.”
The eldest son, Dr. Frederick G. Smith, worked as an oral and maxillofacial surgeon before becoming a vice president of Sinclair in 1990. He married Dr. Venice Paterakis, also known as Vanessa, the daughter of billionaire baker John Paterakis Sr., forever linking two of the region’s most powerful families.
Paterakis Sr. made his fortune selling hamburger buns to McDonald’s. He became known as the ”Bread Man” for both his H&S Bakery and the major financial support he gave to generations of city politicians, earning him clout in Baltimore and beyond. Paterakis Sr. later branched into real estate, developing the once-downward neighborhood of Harbor East into a bustling nightlife, tourism and business hotspot. “My dad became the Godfather,” his son Bill Paterakis mused to The Baltimore Sun in 2016.
Harbor East’s development was bolstered further by Atlas Restaurant Group, which originated in the neighborhood and now operates more than 30 restaurants across the country, mostly in Baltimore. The business is owned and operated by Frederick Smith’s sons, Alex Smith and Eric Smith.
Sinclair continued to acquire stations across the country, thwarting FCC rules by using a shell company to acquire multiple stations in some cities. The company was fined $40,000 but continued the maneuver, causing one FCC commissioner to write that its verdict “merely points out that lines have been crossed while allowing Sinclair to run over these lines and to continue its multiple ownership strategy.” While Sinclair owns a FOX station in Baltimore, other properties run the gamut of network affiliations.
The FCC blocked Sinclair’s $3.9 billion bid to buy Tribune Media in 2018, saying that the company aimed to deceive regulators by selling off stations in markets where it would control multiple properties to companies with ties to the Smith family. The regulatory agency fined Sinclair $48 million for the deceptive practice. It also fined them $13 million after 64 of the network’s stations aired paid sponsored content as news segments more than 1,400 times. The FCC required Sinclair to enter into a consent decree as a result of the agency’s investigations.
Smith and his brothers grew more politically active after they bought out their parents from Sinclair. When Carl Stokes was the leading candidate for Baltimore mayor in 1999, he said he got a call from a friend inviting him to a fundraiser in his honor with the Smith brothers acting as co-hosts. He hadn’t previously interacted with them. “People were coming up to me, handing me huge checks,” Stokes told GQ magazine in 2005.
In an interview with The Banner, Stokes said he has maintained a friendship with Smith that sees the two having lunch every few months. Stokes said while they have very divergent political views, they found common ground in support for charter schools.
“He’s interesting — he’s very passionate, and we don’t agree on some of the things he’s passionate about or some of the things I’m passionate about, but we both have agreed over the years in terms of school for poor kids,” Stokes said.
Since 1995, the four Smith brothers who control Sinclair Inc., which owns Sinclair Broadcasting Group Inc., have donated nearly $1.3 million to political committees and campaigns on the federal level. Most of that money went to Republican causes and candidates across the country, such as Rep. Andy Harris in Maryland and Sen. John Thune in South Dakota. But the family also gave to some Democratic officials, including Sen. Ben Cardin and Sen. Chris Van Hollen.
David Smith has given generously over the years to conservative and local causes through his David D. Smith Family Foundation. Tax forms obtained by The Banner show that since 2015 he has given $581,000 to Young Americans for Liberty, $536,000 to Project Veritas, $150,000 to Turning Point USA, and $121,000 to Moms for Liberty.
The family also got behind then-U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., throwing fundraisers that one person recalled to GQ were “the most elaborate presentation you could imagine. They wanted to meet the right people, and they knew how to do it.” After Ehrlich secured the governorship, it was revealed that the Smiths had lent him a helicopter to travel around the state, which Ehrlich had not disclosed on campaign finance reports.
In 2004, Sinclair ordered its ABC stations not to air a Nightline episode that included the names of all U.S. troops killed in the Iraq War, releasing a statement saying it “appeared to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq.” It also directed stations to air “Stolen Honor,” a documentary critical of then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
“I’d do one of those Stolen Honor specials every month if we could,” Smith told Rolling Stone later. “The lesson was very straightforward: That we can do this kind of content, pre-empt the networks and make more money.”
Sinclair also aired segments with conservative commentator Armstrong Williams interviewing Bush administration officials, while Williams’s public relations firm was being paid by the Department of Education to promote Bush’s policies.
Smith told The Sun on Monday that Williams will be part of the team running the newspaper.
National news outlets reported in 2018 on an arrangement between Sinclair and the Trump administration, though Smith said he was simply offering Trump television time like he would to any official. But the company required its stations broadcast pro-Trump commentaries from former aide Boris Epshteyn, who served as Sinclair’s chief political analyst.
The network was roundly mocked for having anchors at all of their stations read a script about the “troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country.” In 2018, Vox reported that Sinclair’s stations reached 39% of US households.
According to Sinclair’s financial filings, David Smith also has a controlling interest in MileOne. MileOne operates 64 automobile dealerships in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, according to the company’s website.
“We find [print media] to be so devoid of reality and serving no real purpose”
In the few interviews Smith has sat for over the years, he returns to one topic again and again: the inaccuracy and bias of the mainstream media.
In 2018 emails with a reporter for New York magazine, Smith railed against the print media as a monolith. “I must tell that in all the 45 plus years I have been in the media business I have never seen a single article about us that is reflective of reality especially in today’s world with the shameful political environment and generally complete lack of integrity. Facts and truth have been lost for a long time and likely to never return.”
“The print media is so left wing as to be meaningless dribble which accounts for why the industry is and will fade away. Just no credibility,” he said, adding that print media was “so devoid of reality and serving no real purpose.”
When Smith addressed The Sun newsroom on Tuesday, he reiterated a claim he had told one of the newspaper’s reporters the day before: that he had only read The Sun a handful of times and only in recent months.
“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the media is left of center,” he told Rolling Stone. “Paula Zahn or Peter Jennings or anybody who is attempting to pass himself off as reporting news — they’re not telling the whole story. Dan Rather wants you to believe that Saddam Hussein is a nice guy!
“Fox proved one thing: People like controversy.”
Hard and soft local influence
Smith now lives at a Cockeysville estate, located at an address hidden from Google Street View not far from Sinclair’s headquarters in Hunt Valley. Though Smith tends to donate to conservative federal donors, local Democrats have received his money, too. Instead, he functions as a quiet power broker, often donating, along with his family, thousands of dollars to his preferred candidates and attempting to pull strings when possible.
This past year, Smith personally tried to recruit potential challengers to Mayor Brandon Scott, including the unsuccessful courtship of Comptroller Bill Henry, who opted to run for re-election.
His distaste for Scott, a first-term mayor who came out on top of a crowded 2020 Democratic primarily field, has dictated much of Smith’s recent politicking, and is in line with Sinclair’s flagship station’s coverage. Since the 39-year-old Scott took office, WBFF Fox45 has aired coverage of him that CNN media critic David Zurawik has described as a steady drumbeat of criticism toward the mayor.
Sheila Dixon, the city’s first female mayor who resigned from City Hall’s top office in 2010 as part of a plea deal on state perjury and embezzlement charges, narrowly lost to Scott in 2020. Since last summer, she has appeared regularly on Fox45′s airwaves, a media strategy the bulk of city Democrats eschew. Armstrong Williams, Smith’s partner in his Sun venture, praised Dixon’s city management skills in an hourlong Fox45 appearance last summer. Dixon will face Scott again in this spring’s 2024 mayoral primary.
Scott often responds to questions from Fox45 reporters at news conferences with a mix of righteous defensiveness and agita. The station’s staffers “want to create hysteria,” he told one Fox45 reporter in 2022.
Smith was the primary financial supporter of a ballot initiative group that will soon greatly change Baltimore’s political landscape. He put more than $500,000 toward the People for Elected Accountability and Civic Engagement, known as PEACE, which in turn canvassed the city to collect the required 10,000 signatures to put a charter amendment setting term limits for elected officials on city ballots. In 2022, voters overwhelmingly passed the measure, which will go into effect this year.
PEACE tried and failed to collect enough signatures for a ballot measure to recall elected officials for poor performance. Sinclair’s flagship station aired segments about such a policy, including one that cited “an unscientific FOX45 News poll, with 242 respondents” in which “95% of people said they would like to see Mayor Scott recalled.”
On Tuesday, Smith told Sun staff the publication would conduct similar polls, advertising them on the front page. “You’re in the poll business now,” he said.
PEACE began pursuing a ballot measure that would reduce the size of the City Council from 14 districts to eight. In a statement regarding The Sun’s new ownership, PEACE chairman Jovani Patterson, a former Republican candidate for City Council president, said he’s happy for Smith. “I’m wishing him well in the new endeavor,” Patterson wrote in an email.
The latest round of city and state campaign finance reports are due by 11:59 p.m. Wednesday night. Political observers are keen to discover how deep Smith’s pockets are this election cycle.
Alvin C. Hathaway Sr. is a retired pastor who today runs Beloved Community Services Corp. According to Hathaway, he’s also a lifelong friend of Smith and graduated with him from Baltimore City College in 1969.
“He always had a kind of angst that Alden group was controlling the Sunpapers,” Hathaway said. “He always felt if there was an opportunity he would acquire it so it would be locally owned.”
The two stayed in touch after high school, but went their separate ways, Hathaway said; Smith went into business, while Hathaway went into the ministry. But in the past five or six years, Hathaway said they found “synergy” and have been in close contact.
In 2020, tax filings show Smith’s family foundation contributed $290,000 to Hathaway’s social services nonprofit. That same year, Hathaway appeared in Fox45 coverage and his creation of a group called “Act Now Baltimore,” which was said to be formed to combat corruption in City Hall and crime.
Hathaway said Smith cares deeply about Baltimore and thinks the city could be doing better, especially when it comes to education.
Smith buying The Sun is good news for Baltimore, Hathaway said, because he’s invested in the city.
Marc Steiner, a longtime Baltimore public radio figure who hosted programs at WYPR and WEAA and now hosts his namesake program on The Real News Network, sees it differently.
“I’m not a man who is usually at a loss for words, but this moment is really frightening,” Steiner said.
“David Smith is a very right-wing conservative ideologue,” he said. “He’s not buying the newspaper to save it. He’s buying it for his own political purposes.”
Baltimore Banner reporters Giacomo Bologna and Lee O. Sanderlin contributed to this report.