Local TV news conglomerate Sinclair Broadcast Group has filed a lawsuit against Baltimore City Public Schools over the school system’s denial of a public information request from one of Sinclair’s reporters.
Chris Pabst, an investigative reporter hired by the conservative-leaning media firm to head up “Project Baltimore,” wrote on Fox45 on Wednesday that his team has sued City Schools “over the withholding of information FOX45 believes taxpayers have a right to see.”
Pabst had filed a Maryland Public Information Act request for the entirety of an internal investigative report about allegations of grade-changing at Northwood Appold Community Academy in Northeast Baltimore’s Hillen neighborhood. Teachers there told him after the 2016-17 school year that grades they submitted for students were altered so their pupils could graduate, allegations that school administrators denied.
Two days after Fox45 ran one of its reports, City Schools launched an investigation. Officials concluded ultimately that grade-changing accusations were “unsubstantiated,” according to Pabst, which spurred his team to file an MPIA request. City Schools denied that request in a letter on Nov. 28.
Among the reasons, a City Schools attorney wrote: Fox45 isn’t a “person of interest” eligible to review school personnel records; releasing the report would be “contrary to the public interest” and could have a “chilling effect” on future investigations; and the report is protected by a so-called state work-product doctrine, a legal provision that protects litigation materials from being reviewed by opposing counsel during discovery in court cases.
While “Project Baltimore” staff claim they have a right to read the report, City Schools said in a statement Thursday that administrators must “maintain the integrity of internal investigations, which depend on protecting privacy to the maximum extent provided by law so staff members will feel safe coming forward and not fear retaliation.”
The school system took some jabs at Sinclair’s “Project Baltimore,” which has obsessed over the shortcomings of the city’s public schools. Fox45 has run 55 stories on Baltimore public schools since March, many focusing on low state test scores and reading and math proficiency at individual schools.
“Claiming to champion accountability, Project Baltimore has instead pursued sensationalism,” the statement said. The school system also accused the media giant of “relying on uncorroborated sources, confronting employees at their homes and schools, making broad and inaccurate generalizations, presenting publicly available information as if it were the result of investigative reporting, covering the same story repeatedly, and positioning opinions to be interpreted as facts.”
Sinclair Broadcast Group is currently awaiting the Federal Communications Commission’s green light to let the media company take over Tribune Media’s 42 local TV stations. The company has been instructed to sell a dozen of its stations for the deal to go through, though Sinclair would have a whopping total of more than 220 local TV stations on its roster, far more than any other media giant in the country.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh has opposed the merger, calling it a “bad deal for Marylanders” due to its deprivation of options for media consumers. Beyond its large size, Sinclair is also known for its “must-run” conservative-leaning political analysis and has made headlines for its pro-Trump coverage. For examples, see commentary from Mark Hyman and Boris Epshteyn.
Jaisal Noor, a producer for the Baltimore headquarters of The Real News Network, has unpacked some more of “Project Baltimore’s” obsession with Baltimore City Public Schools in a story this week for the Baltimore Beat.
Editor’s note: The author is a former employee of Sinclair Broadcast Group.