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Media & Technologyby Fern Shen7:55 amMar 3, 20240

Baltimore Sun’s reader poll on Harborplace plan draws fire

Noting that people can vote multiple times in the online survey, a critic of the controversial proposal asks The Sun, which recently changed hands, to take it down

Above: Baltimore Sun owner David D. Smith with minority-stake partner, TV commentator Armstong Williams. (Twitter)

Readers have been watching for changes in the Baltimore Sun since its purchase in January by conservative broadcast mogul David N. Smith.

Last week the critics saw a big one:

It was the publication of a “Sun Reader Poll” – exactly the kind of provocative (and totally unscientific) gimmick that’s a staple at Fox45 News, the flagship station of Smith’s sprawling Sinclair Broadcast Group.

To the question, “Do you support the current plan to redevelop Baltimore’s Harborplace?” the poll reported 61% in favor and 33% opposed based on “2,308 total votes.”

Michael Brassert, of Federal Hill, was among those crying foul.

“I was able to vote 19 times by using different browsers, IP addresses and devices,” Brassert, an organizer of the Inner Harbor Coalition, reports.

His group opposes the sweeping Harborplace rezoning, Master Plan revision and City Charter change for Baltimore’s waterfront park that would pave the way for a developer to demolish two low-rise pavilions and replace them with four sprawling buildings, including two apartment towers.

Backed by Mayor Brandon Scott and written on behalf of the city’s hand-picked developer, MCB Real Estate, the legislation is certain to receive final City Council approval tomorrow.

“I suggest you remove this poll immediately, publish an apology and find a better polling widget that has at least basic features for a fair poll,” Brassert wrote in an email to Sun publisher and editor-in-chief, Trif Alatzas.

The poll was featured prominently on the Sun’s homepage which had a link to a story reporting the poll results that includes both text and MCB’s colorful mock-up of its plans.

The story was classified not as “Opinion” but as “Local News,” just like reported stories on homicides or Annapolis legislative debates.


The Sun’s online Reader Poll about a project that promises to add some 900 private apartments to the city’s public waterfront. (baltimoresun.com)

Responding to questions from The Brew, Alatzas defended reader polls, likening them to letters to the editor, “best of” lists and other forms of “reader engagement.”

He pointed out that the Harborplace survey story clearly states that the poll is “unscientific.”

“This question shows that readers are passionate about the topic,” Alatzas said, adding that they “have worked to address concerns about people voting more than once.”

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He also said the Sun has “published reader polls like these for years and this is not the first one since new ownership took over.”

To this assertion, Brassert again cried foul, saying he’s never seen the city’s newspaper of record run such a poll, certainly not about a local issue vastly more consequential than “Baltimore’s best pizza.”

He also noted that, in contrast to the Sun’s promotion of the unscientific poll results, its editorial board has taken no pro or con position on the Harborplace legislation.

(The newspaper ran two editorials after the bills were introduced last fall, here and here. They were noncommittal and published before the ownership change.)

Other Signs of Change

To those following the Sun’s new ownership, it’s no surprise to see a major city issue getting the online reader poll treatment.

At a recent meeting with Sun staff, Smith was dismissive of their work, remarking that he had not read the paper for the last 40 years, and saying he planned more online polls and other metrics to better guide news coverage.

Smith repeatedly compared the Sun unfavorably to Fox45, whose homepage recently polled readers on “Should illegal immigrants be eligible for Social Security benefits?”

Posted by Armstrong Williams on his X page, a photo of him with former president Donald Trump. (@Arightside)

Posted by Armstrong Williams, a photo of him with former president Donald Trump. (@Arightside)

Among other signs of his editorial intentions: the strong presence of conservative commentator and businessman Armstrong Williams on the op-ed page and in news articles.

Williams, who has an ownership stake in the Sun and is a close associate of former Trump cabinet official Ben Carson, has complained about “the mainstream liberal media” disparagement of Smith.

“The goal is simple,” his pinned post on X says. “Deliver fair, balanced news to our readers.”

As a new Sun columnist, Williams seems to be everywhere, weighing in against plastic bag bans, condemning the playing of the Black National Anthem at the Super Bowl and urging readers to honor past U.S. presidents “both outstanding and corrupt . . . regardless of their moral character.”

He also turned up in a Sun feature story about a North Carolina gospel singer who was appearing on his nationally syndicated “Armstrong Williams Show” and in a piece he filed from Las Vegas describing the scene at the Washington Commanders’ Super Bowl cocktail party he attended.

Williams reaped further laudatory attention from a Sun op-ed penned by attorney Benjamin Crump, who focused on Williams as a “Black American entrepreneur,” while steering clear of his conservative politics and ethical controversies, including secretly accepting $240,000 to promote George Bush’s No Child Left Behind education law.

Left: Baltimore Sun front-page coverage on 2/28/24 of the Atlas Restaurant Group's

Left: The Sun’s 2/28/24 front-page coverage of Alex Smith’s new restaurant. Right: Reaction on X to Sun tweets that promoted the Smith story. (baltimoresun.com, @FoxForceFlacco)

Breaking News?

Readers are also watching the paper’s coverage of family and friends linked to Smith, most notably the Atlas Restaurant Group that Smith has invested in and is owned by his nephew, Alex Smith.

Its recent coverage of “The Ruxton,” a new restaurant in the company’s growing empire, caught one commenter’s eye.

The establishment, “in the tony Harbor East neighborhood,” got a 1,159-word front-page story that detailed everything from the 36-ounce Wagyu tomahawk steak to the chicken fried Maine lobster tails topped with hot honey butter.

“David Smith’s new downtown restaurant, where the cheapest cocktail cost $20,” @FoxForceFlacco marveled, “is such important breaking news that David Smith’s newspaper tweeted about it from three different accounts within 90 minutes . . . Annapolis and Baltimore County?”

More Balanced?

Another longtime Sun reader, Debbie Feldman Jones, called out Williams’ announcement that the paper would cease endorsing political candidates.

“On February 14, the Sun published a guest commentary by conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that was nothing more than a campaign message,” Jones said in a letter to the editor of the Sun that has not been published, but which she posted on Facebook and elsewhere online. Pro-Kennedy letters to the editor subsequently appeared, including from out-of-state writers.

Feldman Jones concluded that the paper’s new owners have come up with “a stealthy way to offer endorsements while pretending otherwise.”

What ensued was the kind of back-and-forth that has been playing out ever since Smith’s purchase of the paper came to light.

Some countered that the new owners are adding welcome “balance,” while others said they are steering it “hard right,” will dumb it down and advised her to cancel her subscription.

Still others pushed back and implored her to support the remaining journalists on staff.

“Smart people know enough to skip the Armstrong ‘opinions,’ and the op-eds by the conspiracy people,” one commenter told Feldman Jones, urging her not to cancel.

“The person who thinks that ‘no one pays for news anymore’ is a person who does not read or care about being informed.”

Too late – she canceled, Jones replied.

“A half-page ‘commentary’ from the vice chair of the Cecil County Repub1ican committee with the title ‘Tr*mp is the Ideal Choice for Maryland?’” she fumed.

“I’ve read this paper for 60 years, but I’m done.”

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