Mr. Smith Takes On Washington

The name David Smith may not be one of the most well-known in media circles, and I’m willing to bet if you search it on Facebook there will probably be hundreds such possibilties for you to search through to find the one who’s making news this week.  You can if you want to; personally, I’ll pass.

This David Smith is someone I’ve professionally known for decades.  As the head of first the eponymous Smith Broadcasting, a small group of independent TV stations that began with a weak UHF outlet in his hometown of Baltimore, and in later years as the driving force behind Sinclair Broadcasting, he’s someone you could not avoid doing business with–or at least try to.  If you were trying to sell sitcom reruns or original kids’ shows,  he’s been someone you had to get to like you both for your product’s sake and, often, your own well-being.   He often dictated his own terms, often pennies on the dollar from asking prices.  In many of his markets, he was without significant competition who offered a remote chance of getting the same ratings; when they did, he often bought them outright or arranged complicated combinations of local marketing agreements (LMAs) and similarly squirrely arrangements.  Wikipedia notes how creative Smith has been to control the landscape in Bal-more:

Sinclair purchased Abry Communications, owner of WNUV, in 1994. As duopolies were not allowed at the time, channel 54 was spun off to Glencairn Ltd., a company owned by former Sinclair executive Edwin Edwards. However, Glencairn’s stock was almost entirely owned by the Smith family. In effect, Sinclair now had a duopoly in Baltimore—and had emasculated its major rival in its hometown. Sinclair further circumvented the rules by taking over WNUV’s operations under a local marketing agreement (LMA), with WBFF as senior partner.  

On May 15, 2012, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Fox agreed to a five-year extension to the network’s affiliation agreement with Sinclair’s 19 Fox stations, including WBFF, that will run through 2017. This included an option (that was exercisable from July 1, 2012, to March 31, 2013) to allow Sinclair to purchase WUTB, resulting in the creation of a virtual triopoly with WBFF and WNUV.  On November 29, 2012, Sinclair exercised its option to purchase WUTB through Deerfield Media for $2.7 million. Following the completion of the sale, WUTB began to be operated by Sinclair under a local marketing agreement, as with Deerfield’s other stations.[11] In January 2013, Fox announced that it would not exercise its option to buy any of the Sinclair stations included in the earlier purchase option.[12] On May 6, 2013, the FCC granted its approval of WUTB to Deerfield Media.[13] Sinclair officially took over the operations of WUTB eight days later, although the sale was not formally consummated until June 1.[14] With the completion of the WUTB sale, this makes Baltimore the largest market where one company (outside of non-commercial public television station groups) operates a virtual triopoly between full-power stations. 

If that strategy of swallowing and controlling your competition sounds familiar, it may be because that’s exactly how FOX gained control and market share in many of its markets, especially five of the largest that yours truly once tried to program. David Smith was inspired and empowered by that strategy; not only was that his template in Baltimore, but as Sinclair expanded he often would use the power of duopolies et al to grow his empire.  In more than half of the 89 markets his nearly 300 stations are spread out among, he owns more than one full-power competitor.  And just this week, it was announced the 41 he owns that are FOX affiliates are reupping with the network; many of them early renewals.

So yes, it can be safely assumed he has more than a touch of Murdoch envy.  And this week, he expanded upon that emulative quality in a manner that has shaken up what’s left of the newspaper landscape.  Per THE NEW YORK TIMES’ Ken Belson:

The Baltimore Sun, the largest newspaper in Maryland, has been sold to David D. Smith, the executive chairman of the nationwide Sinclair network of television stations and other media.

Mr. Smith, who grew up in Baltimore, bought Baltimore Sun Media, which includes The Sun, in a private deal from Alden Global Capital, an investment firm that has become the country’s second-largest newspaper operator. Sun Media also includes The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., and several other Baltimore-area publications.

That was Monday.  On Tuesday, Smith sat down with the Sun staff.  As Belson reminds, these weren’t exactly amateurs he inherited: Baltimore Sun Media has earned 16 Pulitzer Prizes. The Capital Gazette won a special Pulitzer citation for its coverage of a shooting attack that killed five employees in its offices in June 2018.  And CROOKS AND LIARS’ Ed Scarce adds that the SUN won the 2020 Pulitzer for local reporting.

Yet Scarce also reported that Smith’s meet-and-greet was one of almost Logan Roy-like proportions of frostiness:

In a tense, three-hour meeting with staff Tuesday afternoon, new Baltimore Sun owner David Smith told employees he has only read the paper four times in the past few months, insulted the quality of their journalism and encouraged them to emulate a TV station owned by his broadcasting company.

Smith, whose acquisition of the paper from the investment firm Alden Global Capital was announced publicly Monday evening, told staff he had not read newspapers for decades, according to several people who attended the meeting but were not authorized to speak publicly.

Smith, who is the executive chairman of Sinclair Inc., which operates more than 200 television stations nationwide, told New York Magazine in 2018 he considered print media “so left-wing as to be meaningless dribble.” Asked Tuesday during the meeting whether he stood by those comments now that he owns one of the most storied titles in American journalism, Smith said yes. Asked if he felt that way about the contents of his newspaper, Smith said “in many ways, yes,” according to people at the meeting.

True to its reporting chops even as this was going down, the SUN’s own story on this attempts to portray Smith as a savoir.  But even in these parochial details are harbingers of his true motivation:

Through his purchase of The Sun, Smith said he aims to help turn around a struggling newspaper industry, a decline he blamed on the industry’s inability to adapt to a changing market and to the internet, which has upended consumption and delivery of news and advertising.  Smith criticized “mainstream media” in general for focusing on issues he said affect only a few people as opposed to those affecting greater numbers, adding that he finds it “curious that the mainstream media in this town often chooses not to cover things that affect everybody,” in particular concerning problems and corruption in government.  Smith said he will be joined in the newspaper venture by one partner, with an undisclosed share of ownership: Armstrong Williams, a well-known conservative political commentator who hosts a nationally syndicated television show on Sinclair network affiliates.

So it’s kinda clear what direction Smith would like to take the SUN, and it’s neither left nor north.  Indeed, he’s taking aim at Washington, where it just so happens that another storied legacy masthead, THE WASHINGTON POST, is owned by one Jeff Bezos.  The POST has been frequently lumped in with the NEW YORK TIMES as exemplary of that meaningless dribble that Smith drips vitriol on.  It’s an election year, too.

So the reaction of the staff that did share what they could on that social media site that’s apparently another emotional impulse buy by someone defending “freedom of speech” was to be expected.  But it was the reaction of a former staffer, one who elevated the SUN to national recognizability—David Simon, creator of HBO’s acclaimed THE WIRE—that was able to crack through into the entertainment press cycle yesterday.  Per THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER’s Alex Weprin:

“What is left to say about American newspapering?” Simon said on X, afyter being tagged by the sportswriter and political pundit Charles Pierce.

“Everyone who is in within the sound of an honest Bawlamer accent needs to subscribe to the @BaltimoreBanner right f****** now. If you do not you are simply complicit,” he added, tagging the Baltimore nonprofit news organization The Baltimore Banner. (The founder of the Banner, Democrat businessman Stewart Bainum, had tried purchasing the Sun unsuccessfully before launching the rival nonprofit.).

But as Belson notes, newspapers have become the equivalent of Corvettes or Viagra for billionaires in some sort of existential crisis.  Rupert Murdoch has turned to his beloved NEW YORK POST after each one of his divorces.  Bezos bought the WASHINGTON POST during some troubled times with his now-ex Mackenzie.  He’s clearly more distracted these days (ironically, by someone who once was employed by two different divisions of FOX).  So there may be an opening for a louder voice in the Beltway at large.

But if you really want to have some insight on exactly where Smith’s business form of penis envy eminates from, consider this:  My first encounter with him was at a NATPE convention in Houston where he insisted a number of friends who were trying to do business with him have a nightcap at a notorious strip club called Rick’s, one that had come to prominence as a place where some New York Mets had gotten into some after-hours hijinks a couple of years before.  Things got out of hand, I’m told.  My friends sheepishly showed up late for the next day’s sales efforts, shuffling in to the convention hall looking a bit disshelved.  Apparently they had spent the night in jail, and Smith reportedly posted bail for the whole entourage.  Reportedly, he deducted his expense against the license fees for the shows he eventually bought on his terms.

And as LAW AND CRIME’s Colin Kalmbacher reported years later, that night was apparently a dress rehearsal of sorts:

The former president and current executive chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group was previously arrested for an “unnatural and perverted sex act” with a sex worker.

According to a 1996 article in The Baltimore SunDavid Deniston Smith was arrested in an undercover sting aimed at a downtown corner highly frequented by street prostitutes. Smith and his alleged purchased mistress were both charged with committing an unnatural and perverted sex act–allegedly oral sex.  After spending the night in jail, Smith was released on his own recognizance. Smith eventually took a plea deal and was convicted of a misdemeanor sex offense.

Gotta admit, that’s one heck of a window for receipts.  And he didn’t even need Michael Cohen.  Just buy out the entity that reported you were naughty.  Seems more cut-and-dry than catch and kill, no?

Sure sounds like this Mr. Smith is hoping to spend more time and have more pull in Washington than did that other one.  He might just get his chance.

Until next time…

 

 

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