As former TV and media critic for The Baltimore Sun, I covered WBFF Fox45 and its Hunt Valley-based owner, Sinclair Inc., for three decades. When I left The Sun in 2021, I was only too happy not to have to bear daily witness to, and deal any longer with, what the station and the company that owns it had become.
But with David Smith, chairman of Sinclair, buying what’s left of The Sun and telling his new employees that they should emulate his flagship TV station, I think I owe it to my hometown to express how dangerous I think Sinclair is to journalism, democracy and Baltimore. I have no doubt Smith will shred any journalistic integrity left at The Sun and turn the paper into part of a right-wing messaging machine that nationally now works to put Donald Trump in the White House and locally will work to put Smith-favored candidates in office.
In the model of Fox News, which was founded by Roger Ailes, a political operative, Fox45 and Sinclair have never really been news operations. They call their product news, but they have long been willing to compromise that product for political and ideological ends.
In Fox45 reports, the blame for the city’s problems with crime, education and other issues are placed entirely at the feet of Mayor Brandon Scott and others in the city’s Democratic, largely Black leadership. Underlying factors such as poverty, segregation, the history of redlining and other discriminatory practices, and unfair allocation of resources to city residents compared to others in this region are not examined.
I remember being told by Sun editors that in the interest of fairness, I should refer to Sinclair as “conservative-leaning” rather than “right-wing.” This was even after the media company hired Boris Epshteyn in 2017 straight out of the Trump White House to be its chief political analyst and insisted all its news-producing stations carry his pieces.
I wrote in The Sun and said regularly on CNN that Epshteyn’s segments were as close to propaganda as anything I had seen in what was then three decades of covering television news. It wasn’t “conservative-leaning.” It was full bore MAGA, and that’s how I characterized it. You can see some of Epshteyn’s work in a piece I wrote about an interview he did with then President Trump in 2018. Epshteyn left Sinclair in 2019. You might have seen him in the news lately as a member of Trump’s legal team.
In fairness, WBFF covers Baltimore public schools, crime and City Hall more aggressively than any other TV station in town. But it is primarily one-dimensional, tabloid-level, over-the-top and presented in such a way as to support a favorite right-wing talking point that says this is what you get in cities with decades of Democratic leadership.
The “City in Crisis” branding banner it uses for much of its Baltimore coverage encapsulates that message. In the summer of 2021, in one of the last pieces I did for The Sun, I wrote about a WBFF-produced special that went one step further, with the title, “City Dying.” In this bleak production, the woes of Baltimore are explicitly blamed on “progressive policies from a crusading state’s attorney … tying the hands of officers who want to keep the peace.”
The theme was hit again later in the WBFF report with narration saying: “That brings us back to the city that is dying. So many symptoms: progressive policies releasing criminals, police citizens don’t trust. The list keeps growing.”
That’s how ideology drives coverage. In my report, I compared the Sinclair piece unfavorably to a special report that aired the same night on WBAL, the Hearst-owned NBC affiliate in Baltimore. The WBAL report covered some of the city’s problems, too, but also included attempts at solutions.
Beyond balance, the WBAL special served as a reminder that locally owned doesn’t automatically mean better journalism, despite what some are saying about Smith’s ownership of The Sun. WBFF is the only locally owned station producing regular newscasts in Baltimore. The other three — WBAL, WJZ and WMAR — all have out-of-town owners. I would take WBAL and WJZ any day over WBFF by almost any measure, from talent to social responsibility.
I am proud of the effort I made to help Sun readers understand how dishonest I found Sinclair and its news products to be. And I would despair about Smith now owning the largest newspaper in Maryland along with WBFF — if not for The Baltimore Banner.
I urged former colleagues and other news consumers who contacted me asking what I think the future of journalism and democracy will be in Baltimore to look to The Banner. It hired the best journalists in Baltimore from the Sun and complemented that group with top talent from across the country. In two years, it has established itself locally and nationally as a highly skilled and honest platform of information and analysis that its readers can trust to address them as citizens, not consumers. Here’s hoping this is the future of media and democracy in my hometown.
As for what’s left of The Baltimore Sun, it will be lost to the politics of David Smith. And its final days are not going to be pretty.
David Zurawik was media critic at The Baltimore Sun for 32 years. He is now a professor of practice at Goucher College.