Do Democrats want to try to force Baltimore Sun sale by threatening Eminent Domain?

Documents link Democrats to “non-profit” effort to take over Maryland’s largest paper by threatening Eminent Domain if they didn’t sell

Documents obtained through the Public Information Act appear to link elected Democrats and a non-profit group seeking to take over The Baltimore Sun.

What We Know

A Zoom call was initiated by the office of Senator Sarah Elfreth (D-30) that was scheduled for August 17th at 4:30 PM. The topic of the call was listed as “Capital Gazette.” The scheduled attendees of the call were:

  • Senator Sarah Elfreth;

  • Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D);

  • Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley (D);

  • Damian O’Doherty;

  • Matt Gallagher.

Damian O’Doherty is a founding partner of KO Public Affairs, a lobbying organization with ties to prominent Democrats. KO runs Center Maryland, which has often blurred the line between being news or being activism. He is part of the Save Our Sun group trying to take over The Baltimore Sun.

Matt Gallagher is the CEO of the Goldseker Foundation and the former Chief of Staff to Governor Martin O’Malley. Gallagher also served on the Kirwan Commission Funding Formula Workgroup. He is also part of the Save Our Sun group trying to take over The Baltimore Sun.

One of the documents obtained in a PIA request from Senator Elfreth’s office details a proposed op-ed to be submitted by Elfreth proposing the idea that Alden Capital, the owners of The Baltimore Sun, should be forced to sell the paper to a non-profit and that, if they don’t, should be threatened with having the paper seized by eminent domain. The proposed op-ed is below in the appendix, however, the operative part of the letter reads:

State and local governments have tools to protect the public interest, the free press, and our democracy. As a carrot, for example, State and local governments can structure new tax credit programs the incentivize the sale of media companies from vulture capitalist marketers over to local nonprofits committed to preserving our engines of free speech and government accountability.

As a stick, eminent domain gives state and local officials the power to condemn land and private property for the public interest. For example, the most swiftly passed legislation in modern Maryland history was to condemn the Baltimore Colts. Eminent domain statutes also protect The Preakness Stakes from ever leaving Maryland. Such action could grant Tribune Publishing and other self-mutilating media companies fair market value for their media property, halt the elimination of a free press, and render a transfer of ownership to local foundations and non-profits interested in promoting local journalism and protecting free speech.

Emails show a discussion between O’Doherty and Elfreth regarding the op-ed, and suggested that KO Public Affairs could help place the letter in the papers or at Center Maryland:

From: Damian O'Doherty <do@kopublicaffairs.com>
Date: Sun, Aug 16, 2020 at 2:37 PM
Subject: Protecting The First – A path for local and state governments to preserve local journalism
To: Sarah Elfreth <sarah@sarahelfreth.com>

Sarah-

I ran this by our legal. But, we will edit it down and copy edit it if you think it is fir for your signature or one of your colleagues in the capital. The sub text (or actual text) is a refutation to those that think the 1st Amendment should protect these vulture hedge funds. You can’t cut out newsrooms and eliminate journalist after journalist and proclaim to be anything more than a platform – like those being examined in Congress today.

Maybe we could try The Post, then MD Matters, then Center MD…

-No Pressure-

Damian

Elfreth forward this email to Janine Fratantuono, an assistant to Steuart Pittman, as “some greater background on today's 4:30pm call” in reference to the August 17th Zoom meeting.

O’Doherty responded back to Elfreth on August 25th (after the meeting) with further edits to the piece, offered additional help placing the piece, and hinted that the “forced transfer” of the paper would be a national story.

From: Damian O'Doherty <do@kopublicaffairs.com>
Date: Tue, Aug 25, 2020 at 9:00 AM
Subject: Capital Gazette and The Sun .docx
To: Sarah Elfreth <sarah@sarahelfreth.com>

Senator -

Here is another proofed version. The length is good for Center MD and Maryland Matters. If we want to try WaPo, we probably need to cut it back another 50-70 words.

I think the forced transfer through eminent domain is a national story, for whatever my opinion is worth.

Damian

To date, Elfreth has not proposed such law regarding the seizure of The Baltimore Sun and a forced sale to a non-profit. No other Democrat has proposed such law, either.

We also know that Pittman and Buckley were among others who appeared with Capital-Gazette journalists at a Labor Day rally in Annapolis in support of the paper.

The original Public Information Act was sent to Pittman regarding any contracts KO Public Affairs may have with Anne Anne Arundel County. After receiving that request, further requests about KO Public Affairs, The Baltimore Sun, and the August 17th Zoom meeting were sent to Elfreth and Buckley. No new information was received from the Buckley request because, as Buckley Chief of Staff Susy Smith stated in an email, “Gavin does not use his email or his computer.” 

What We Don’t Know

There are still a number of important questions that we don’t have the answers to:

  1. In the Public Information Act requests to Elfreth and Buckley I specifically requested any “any recording and/or notes” from the August 17th Zoom meeting. Neither request generated any notes, recordings, or any other reference to the meeting except for the invitation to the meeting itself. So what exactly was discussed on the call;

  2. Who pitched the proposed op-ed; did O’Doherty pitch the op-ed to Elfreth, or vice-versa?

  3. Did O’Doherty or anybody else associated with the Save Our Sun efforts reach out to any other legislator regarding this effort to force Alden Capital to sell The Baltimore Sun?

  4. Was The Abell Foundation, Ted Venetoulis, or anybody else associated with the Save Our Sun effort consulted before O’Doherty discussed this op-ed with Elfreth or before he took the August 17th Zoom Meeting?

  5. Was the Baltimore Sun Guild, the union for Baltimore Sun reporters, ever made aware of the O’Doherty’s efforts and, if so, when?

  6. What other lobbying efforts, either formally or informally, has O’Doherty or Matt Gallagher engaged in as it relates to the Save or Sun effort generally, or the efforts to seize the paper by eminent domain specifically.

The Bottom Line: Opinion and Analysis on What We Know

It appears through these documents obtained from these Public Information Act requests that Damian O’Doherty was working with Democratic elected officials to force Alden Capital to sell The Baltimore Sun and its associated properties to a non-profit, presumably their own Save Our Sun group.

This raises all sorts of questions and concerns. This was something I identified almost a year ago when the Save Our Sun effort was publicly announced:

The presence of the Baltimore Sun Guild, two agenda-driven non-profits, and four prominent and connected Democrats raises all sorts of alarm bells.

The presence of prominent Democrats, O’Doherty and Gallagher in particular, had already raised concerns about political bias with a potential sale of the paper to a group involving them. The idea that O’Doherty would attempt to lobby prominent Democrats to support his idea of using a legislative change to force Alden Capital to sell the paper to a group like his is the perfect manifestation as to why this particular ownership group would be bad for the paper.

Is what they are doing legal? Yes, absolutely. But it also ratchets up concerns about journalistic integrity, especially considering that Baltimore Sun reporters via the Baltimore Sun Guild would be partners with O’Doherty, Gallagher, and the others in running the paper. 

If the public is going to trust any new ownership group, whether non-profit status is attained or not, the group needs to have firewall procedures between the editorial board and corporate leadership and between the newsroom and corporate leadership. Between this lobbying effort and KO’s use of Center Maryland and its centrist facade, it’s hard to put any faith that a Baltimore Sun under Save Our Sun leadership would be anything but a paper owned by Democrats for Democrats. 

We’ve already seen what is happening in New York, where The New York Times is being destroyed from within by staff members who value wokeness more than journalistic integrity.

It’s dangerous when journalistic institutions jettison truth-telling for ideological narrative. Is there any reason to think that a Baltimore Sun under the control of an O’Doherty and Gallagher and their allies would be any different?

Appendix: Draft Op-Ed discussed by O’Doherty and Elfreth regarding ownership of The Baltimore Sun 

Protecting The First – A path for local and state governments to preserve local journalism

The journalists at the Capital Gazette risked their lives to deliver local news to the people of Annapolis. Now, with $80m in cash in their coffers, hedgefund dominated Tribune Publishing is ejecting these same journalists from their Annapolis newsroom and moving the entire press operation to Baltimore to share space with the frequently furloughed, fired, and shortchanged journalists at The Sun. The Capital Gazette will no longer be reporting from Maryland’s capital city.

Both, the Capital Gazette and The Baltimore Sun are owned by Tribune Publishing and essentially controlled by Alden Global Capital and its CEO Heath Freeman. “Freeman himself has become a symbol of the withering of the free press and the risks it poses to our democracy,” according to Washington Post reporting. Twenty-one United States Senators wrote to Mr. Freeman urging him to stop his “reckless acquisition and destruction of newspapers.”

Freeman’s 200 newspapers have seen a 70% reduction in unionized staff. His plan is to turn venerable institutions of accountability and free speech into marketing platforms devoid of any local journalism. As a result, 11 newsrooms around the country, led by reporters at The Sun, followed with open revolt against the ownership and called for local control in their own cities, including the Capital Gazette.

On a recent earnings call, a Tribune Publishing investor remarked that Tribune Publishing was flush with more cash on hand than Apple (proportionate to the two companies market capitalization). Despite Tribune Publishing’s strong cash position, Alden continues to press for cuts to journalists to pave their way for a network of ghost papers that essentially aggregate content from non-Tribune outlets and surround the same cut and paste content you might

find on The Drudge Report with a bevy of digital advertising. So grotesque is their assault on the free press, a Baltimore Sun reporter recently tweeted with horror when his local coverage was surrounded by advertising that openly attacked the media and the free press. Last week, deadbeat Tribune Publishing decided to skip the rent to local Annapolis real estate owners, like they have in other cities, in favor of consolidating the entire Capital Gazette

staff at The Sun’s Port Covington – 30 miles north of State Circle.

After all, if you wanted to destroy a free press in America, wouldn’t you acquire it, consolidate it, decimate it, and turn it into something other? Alden is essentially turning the news organizations into the kind social advertising platforms that are finally earning real scrutiny and legislative oversight. The series of direct attacks on the free press in Maryland leaves local and state leaders to contend with solutions that protect our democracy. Major foundations in Maryland – Baltimore’s Goldseker Foundation and the family foundation of the former Sun owners, The Abell Foundation, have made every effort to acquire The Baltimore Sun Media Group, that includes the Capital Gazette, The Sun and other local Maryland papers. The foundations are willing to pay a premium – beyond their actual value - to restore local ownership to The Sun and the Capital Gazette. They will reinvigorate journalism through a non-profit model. Disinterested in the significant returns demanded by the vampire hedge funds, a non-profit news organization can reinvest every dollar into The Sun and the Capital Gazette’s Pulitzer Prize winning local journalism.  Tribune Publishing greeted these extremely generous offers with halting indifference. Evidently, the bloodletting must continue to feed the insatiable appetites of the hedge fund owners as they work to end the free press in Maryland and develop new content platforms.

State and local governments have tools to protect the public interest, the free press, and our democracy. As a carrot, for example, State and local governments can structure new tax credit programs the incentivize the sale of media companies from vulture capitalist marketers over to local nonprofits committed to preserving our engines of free speech and government accountability.

As a stick, eminent domain gives state and local officials the power to condemn land and private property for the public interest. For example, the most swiftly passed legislation in modern Maryland history was to condemn the Baltimore Colts. Eminent domain statutes also protect The Preakness Stakes from ever leaving Maryland. Such action could grant Tribune Publishing and other self-mutilating media companies fair market value for their media property, halt the elimination of a free press, and render a transfer of ownership to local foundations and non-profits interested in promoting local journalism and protecting free speech.

The Capital Gazette has been operating in Annapolis since 1884. In 2018, a man levelled the largest single attack on journalists in U.S. history in their newsroom – turning 5 everyday newspaper employees into Time Persons of the Year and genuine martyrs for the First Amendment. Now, the attack on a free press comes from inside with corporate raiders set to terminate local journalism and our free press. As the heroes from the Capital Gazette newsroom said after the shooting and in defense of their press, ““I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper.” And, very soon we will empower the people of Maryland to protect their paper, the free press, and our democracy. If necessary, we will relieve the aspiring social platforms of their business interest, a business hellbent on the destruction of Maryland’s local journalism and the Free State’s free press.