In his inaugural meeting with reporters and editors yesterday, David D. Smith, the Baltimore Sun’s new owner, made it abundantly clear that he has little interest in the paper’s storied history or its approach to journalism.
So what led the Hunt Valley businessman to spend nine figures – or at least $100 million – to purchase a media outlet he says he hasn’t read for years because it is too liberal?
Smith isn’t saying. “He’s not doing any media interviews at this time,” a spokesman told The Brew today.
According to a range of political insiders, what motivates Smith is not so much right-wing ideology or the smell of profits as the prospect of assuming a kingmaker’s role in Baltimore.
“Who buys a major newspaper four months before a mayoral primary?” asked a person with knowledge of Smith’s thinking.
He answered the question by calling the purchase “the single biggest donation to a political campaign in city history.”
Sinclair Broadcast Group, the TV conglomerate that Smith built through aggressive acquisitions and hands-on control, already owns Fox45, the local TV station.
“David has always thought of the Sun as an obstacle to Fox45, so why not buy it and turn it into Fox45,” he said.
Politically, the chief beneficiary of the buyout is former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who is locked in a close contest with incumbent Mayor Brandon Scott.
As the Democratic Party primary, which determines who becomes the next mayor, approaches on May 14, the importance of the region’s largest-circulation newspaper to endorse her candidacy is paramount.
The support of the Sun editorial board is something Dixon never got in her two previous runs for mayor, losing out to Catherine Pugh in 2016 and in 2020 to Scott.
“David Smith might not read the paper, but he knows endorsements are important in a tight race. He also knows that being on the front page of The Sun with a negative story is bad in primary season,” said a local Democratic Party fundraiser.
“You sure aren’t gonna see that kind of story now,” added the fundraiser, who asked not to be identified.
Recruiting Sheila Dixon
It was over the summer that rumors circulated that Dixon had been handpicked by Smith and his circle of wealthy friends to run for mayor – a third attempt to return to City Hall after she resigned in disgrace in 2010 after an embezzlement conviction.
As of last January, her campaign committee has just $4,940 in the bank and “she wasn’t prepared to run again,” said Carl Stokes, a former city councilman.
But in late April or early May, Stokes got a call from Smith, who he had known for years and who supported Stokes when he ran for mayor in 1999.
“I got a proposition. I want to put together 10-12 people and give Dixon enough money to win the race” – David Smith speaking with former Councilman Carl Stokes.
“David says to me, ‘I don’t know Sheila. Can you introduce me? I got a proposition. I want to put together 10-12 people and give Dixon enough money to win the race.”
Stokes passed on Smith’s phone number to Dixon, and “she took it from there,” he said.
Over the next months, Stokes watched Dixon become a fixture on Fox45, featured in “exclusive” interviews, Fox town halls and Baltimore in Crisis segments that gave her unchallenged air time to speak about her “passion” to improve city services, reform juvenile justice and “tear down the entire [Baltimore City School] system and start over.”
In July, the Better Baltimore PAC was set up on behalf of Dixon to accept unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, labor unions and other PACs.
So far, the PAC – which is where Smith’s and his associates’ contributions are likely to be funneled – has not been activated.
Quid Pro Quo
According to three sources, Dixon secured Smith’s support by agreeing to his “checklist” of demands if she became mayor.
The reported checklist that Dixon accepted included the firing of Police Commissioner Michael Harrison (who resigned last June) and the dismantling of Safe Streets, Mayor Scott’s signature crime reduction program whose alleged corruption has become a recurrent topic of Fox programming (here and here).
Also on the reported list: the firing of Schools Chief Sonja Santelises, a villain in Fox’s Project Baltimore series.
Dixon has called for the suspension of the Safe Street program and the resignation of Santelises. She reiterated those positions in a November 20 interview with WCBM radio host Kimberly Klacik, the Republican Party’s unsuccessful nominee in 2020 for Maryland’s 7th congressional district.
Asked also about the Baltimore Police aerial surveillance program, dropped amid a public furor over noise and civil liberties concerns, Dixon replied, “I think it’s definitely worth reassessing to see if it’s another tool we can use.”
She told Klacik that she considers herself a moderate Democrat, adding, “I’ve even gotten a little bit conservative” – words that would please Smith.
Dixon and a top campaign aide could not be reached for comment this afternoon.
Update: Dixon Responds
In a phone interview tonight, Dixon said, “I don’t have a relationship with David Smith. Let’s get that clear. Wherever you’re going with this story, I’m not going to play into it. I don’t have a relationship with David. It’s just not how I function, I operate.”
Asked if she had met with Smith over the last year, she said, “I meet with a lot of people, period. So have I met with him about what?”
About her mayoral campaign and about his potential financial contributions to it, she was told.
“We have never had that discussion. And, secondly, Carl never put me in contact with anybody. Carl’s information is incorrect. That never happened.”
She continued: “I was not going to run, but I became frustrated about the dysfunctionality of city government. It was after talking to many people and doing a poll and praying and talking to my family that I decided to run. And we’ve been doing just grassroots events.”
She also said she didn’t have a special relationship with Fox45 or its management. “They invite everybody on. I had a conversation with the mayor and told him, ‘You don’t run away from Fox. I don’t run from the media cause I want to get my message out.’”
Finally, she said, “I never rely on media endorsements, particularly The Sun’s endorsement. Does The Brew endorse?”
Told it does not, she said, “I didn’t think so. I was just being a little sarcastic.”
No Barrier (if You Have the Money)
Growing up in Roland Park (with summers at a family farm in West Virginia), attending City College and taking over his father’s Ultra-High-Frequency station on Parkdale Avenue with his younger brothers, Smith has long been a committed conservative with a strong libertarian streak.
But “in his backyard, he works with Democrats,” notes an associate who has strategized with Smith.
“He really believes Baltimore needs a new direction – juvenile justice and fixing public schools are his top priorities,” the associate said.
At the same time, “David has become unfamiliar with the concept that he can’t buy whatever he wants.”
Noting that there is no Federal Communications Commission or other regulatory barriers to purchasing a newspaper, he said Smith was positioned to gobble up The Sun quickly and quietly at the right price.
“He didn’t have to go through the hoops that Sinclair goes through to buy a TV stations. Buying the paper on his own dime, apparently without Sinclair money, makes the transaction even cleaner from a legal standpoint.”
“David has become unfamiliar with the concept that he can’t buy whatever he wants,” says an associate.
Smith yesterday made it clear to the Sun staff that he detests the paper’s “liberal” editorial stance on just about all issues.
His remarks don’t appear to have touched on election coverage, though influencing the outcome of elections through news coverage did:
“My firm belief is that when you tell people what’s happening they are more likely to do something about it – vote,” he reportedly said.
In both 2016 and 2020, the candidate that the Sun editorial board endorsed won the Democratic primary and went on to win the general election.
In 2016, it was Catherine Pugh, who narrowly edged out Dixon in the Democratic primary.
In 2020, Dixon lost the primary again, falling short of beating Scott by about 3,000 votes.
Did The Sun’s editorial board’s full-throated endorsement of Scott influence that small margin between victory and defeat?
According to the associate, Smith won’t have to take that kind of risk.
“He’s made this acquisition at the right time. Voters have soured on Scott, and they’re not going to get any countervailing journalism from what we once knew as the newspaper of record.”