Standing in a conference room on the 22nd floor of a downtown office tower, with views of the courthouse and City Hall to his right, new Baltimore Sun owner David D. Smith started sharing opinions.
He gave his opinion on how Freddie Gray’s 2015 death and the subsequent prosecution of Baltimore Police officers left the department unwilling to do its job. But that wasn’t all.
The public interest and his desire to make money are always aligned, he said. Graduates of Baltimore City Schools were destined to be welfare recipients for the rest of their lives, products of an “inner city lifestyle.” And Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones are scared of what Smith’s area TV station could do to them.
Smith is also executive chair of Sinclair Inc., the company that operates Fox45 and more than 200 other television stations across the country. He personally purchased The Sun from Alden Global Capital for “nine figures” last week, he said, which would mean more than $100 million.
With his immense media holdings, Smith is one of the most influential figures in American journalism. Yet he rarely gives interviews, in part because of the contempt he has expressed toward mainstream media — he claimed it has “no credibility” and would “fade away,” in a 2018 email to New York Magazine.
The Baltimore Banner, which reported initial details of the meeting, has reviewed multiple recordings of Smith’s remarks and answers to staff questions. The recordings provide a look into Smith’s worldview, the reasons behind purchasing his hometown paper, and his feelings about government and journalism’s role in society.
The following are excerpts from the meeting along with the context in which they were said.
Baltimore City Public Schools
Sun journalists asked Smith what sort of obligations or duty he felt the news organization had to the residents of Baltimore City who may not have the disposable income necessary to pay for a subscription. Smith answered by bringing up Fox45′s Project Baltimore, a series that is critical of city schools.
“Let me tell you something I can’t do anything about. I can’t do anything about a person who is a product of the Baltimore City school system. … Can’t do anything about that. As a news organization, you might be able to do something about it by focusing on those people, that class of people, who are products of the Baltimore City school system, who have never had a job. They’re always going to be a product of the government. They’re always going to be on welfare. Always going to be on some structure that the government takes care of. The only way you’re going to fix that is to fix the school system.”
“And it’s not just Baltimore City. It’s Baltimore County. It’s Cincinnati. It’s in every place I have business, it’s in Portland, Maine. It’s everywhere. And it’s government controlling the system that is causing in large part, failure. So people who can’t read or write, who do you blame for that?”
“You can blame the family because you can say there is no family. We had a story last year of a woman who has six different kids by three different men. Nobody knows who the kid’s father [is]. They’re products of the Baltimore City inner city lifestyle. I can’t do anything about that. I can do something about this theoretical school system if I tell the story long enough and loud enough at a personal level so people can say, ‘I can relate to them, now tell me what I can do about it.’ The answer is you have to go vote. The only thing to solve the problem is to vote. You have to vote for people whose view is, ‘I got to fix this. This is nonsense.’”
Later, Smith accused the school system of committing widespread fraud.
“Let me define what taxpayer fraud is. Take any school in Baltimore City and assume this is going on. They have kids who are not in class, yet they tell the state government this is how many kids we have in class. And guess what, they get money for that, even though there’s no kids in the class. That’s called fraud last time I looked. It’s called taxpayer fraud. If you knew how many stories we’ve done like that in the last five years, of that clear unambiguous taxpayer fraud, you would pass out on the floor.”
In a statement Thursday, city schools spokeswoman Sherry Christian called Smith’s remarks “offensive.”
“While we welcome constructive criticism and open dialogue, it is disheartening to read inflammatory and incorrect statements about our city residents, students, and hard-working staff. These comments not only hinder the progress of our beloved city and its schools, but they are also hurtful to families and young people within our school district,” Christian wrote in an email.
At one point, Smith said that police officers are “terrified” to do their jobs because of what “the state government is going to do to them.”
“Yes. The police will categorically tell you, behind closed doors, because they’re political animals like anybody else. The person you should be asking is the politician which is, ‘Do you understand, police don’t want to do their job because of the laws you’ve created.’”
“Many of them are terrified. Because they saw what happened to the police officers, who Marilyn Mosby wanted to prosecute that were all charged — they ruined those peoples’ lives.”
Smith was referring to the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 from injuries he sustained while in police custody. A loud back-and-forth ensued, including one Sun staffer yelling, “Because [police] they killed somebody! They killed somebody, it sparked national uprisings.”
In response, Smith said, “I’m just telling you the law said otherwise. You may believe they killed someone — I’m not here to tell you they did or they didn’t. But the law said otherwise.”
Bill Ferguson and Adrienne A. Jones
Smith bragged that Fox45 chooses to cover and hound politicians, which has an almost immediate effect. He told his staff to pay attention, because in 60 days, Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson would change his stances on juvenile justice reform.
“In the political context, let me tell you what the reality is. If I do a poll that asks a very simple question: Should Bill Ferguson be thrown under the bus? You know what the answer is? Unequivocally, yes,” Smith said.
“Why would that be a poll that we’d run?” a Sun employee asked.
Smith replied: “I’m being philosophic, hypothetical. I’m saying, you know what Bill Ferguson’s view of that poll is? It scares him to death. And you know what it says to him? Maybe I better rethink what my political posture is.
“I’ll give you an example, we’ve done polls on Ferguson and [Maryland House of Delegates Speaker] Adrienne Jones. Very simple polls. Now Bill Ferguson and Adrienne Jones last year said the juvenile justice, whatever that legal system is, works the way it should. Well when 24 district attorneys got on television and said that’s bullshit, there was a problem.
“When we started focusing on Bill Ferguson and Adrienne Jones, you know what they did? They started moving away from their position. Adrienne Jones, literally, I know this because we’re so plugged in to what goes on in Annapolis and the governor’s office, we normally find out. When, I think, it was [Fox45 reporter] Mikenzie Frost was walking toward Adrienne Jones, she was almost running to her car to get away from her. That story was so scary to her, you know what she did within an hour? She said we have to do something now. We have to do something now, because I don’t want to be bothered by these people. That’s very telling. But it took Mikenzie Frost with a microphone chasing her, asking her a very simple question that she wouldn’t answer. Now she’s changed her view. Is that right or wrong? I’m not here, I just say we simply ask the question. That’s all as a journalist, you ask the question.”
Voters in 2022 approved term limits for elected officials in Baltimore, a ballot initiative Smith provided financial support to. In a back-and-forth with staff, he called it a “test.”
“As a test, because I was curious, a couple of years ago, I arranged to have put on the ballot, I funded an operation to put on the ballot an initiative to see if term limits in Baltimore City government would fly. I was curious. Does anybody here know what the result was?”
Sun employee: “You won.”
Smith: “By how much?”
Sun employee: “Overwhelmingly.”
Smith: “Seventy-two percent of the people said we want term limits. If that isn’t an indictment of what people think of government, not just Baltimore City, it’s Baltimore County, it’s everywhere. ... If I did that in any city in the country ... it would be the same thing.”
On buying The Baltimore Sun
Smith told staff he paid nine figures, or more than $100 million, for the newspaper and for various smaller publications, including the Capital Gazette.
“I took a gamble because I was prepared to say, honestly, I don’t care if it ever makes any money, I’m going to fix this paper. And if I lose money, I’m going to stick with it, and I’m not going to lose any money because I think it’s absolutely fixable. So I took the risk of a nine-figure number. I said, I’m going to make it work. ‘Cause it’s my money. I didn’t borrow the money from somebody. It’s my personal money. That’s the real world.”
To “fix” the paper, Smith said reporters would need to write stories the public wants to read, which in turn would make him more money.
Asked whether the public interest and his desire to make as much money as possible were ever in conflict, Smith replied, “I think they’re completely aligned.”
On how he shapes news coverage nationally
Smith, via Sinclair, is in charge of dozens of television stations across the country. He told staff he applies tactics and directions that are deemed successful at Fox45 to his other TV stations.
“Let me tell you how I inject myself into Channel 45′s news operation, every news operation in the country. What we tend to do, I look at Channel 45 as a test bed. A test bed in the sense of, let’s go in this direction and see what the reaction is. If the reaction is great, then we say to our other 70 operations, move in that direction. Let’s pivot. This is clearly what people want. And what we learned is, it’s absolutely predictable.”
Does Smith care about politics?
He told the Sun staff he does not, and that they are “meaningless” to him, despite his large contributions to political causes.
“I don’t trust any politician. I’ve been around Chuck Schumer. I’ve been around him too long. And everybody thinks I’m a right-wing radical. Call Chuck Schumer and ask him who David Smith is and he’ll tell you. Matter of fact, he’ll tell you I’m one of the few honest guys in the media business. He says to me, frankly, ‘I don’t want people to think you’re right-wing because you’re not.’”
This story will be updated.
This story has been updated to correct the name of Adrienne A. Jones.