February 6, 2024

When it was announced early this year that Sinclair Broadcasting chairman David Smith and fellow conservative Armstrong Williams had purchased The Baltimore Sun, the city’s two nonprofit newsrooms stepped up to take advantage of what they saw as an opportunity to attract long-time readers fleeing the storied Sun.

Journalist-turned-TV-writer and self-described “lefty” David Simon, known for critically acclaimed “The Wire” and “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” took to X, formerly known as Twitter, to rally his followers to subscribe to The Baltimore Banner, a larger digital rival of the Sun launched in 2022.

Seeing Simon’s support of the Banner, Lisa Snowden, editor and co-founder of The Baltimore Beat, a nonprofit newsroom focused on producing content for the city’s underserved Black residents, tweeted at Simon and other dignitaries with Baltimore roots, seeking support in a fundraising bid of her own.

“We know that the creator of The Wire understands like few others the power of Black stories,” The Baltimore Beat tweeted at @AoDespair, Simon’s handle, linking to its donate page and thanking him, in advance, for his donation.

Only, Simon didn’t donate to The Baltimore Beat. Simon instead accused the Black-led Beat of playing the race card and trying to shake him down. He then blocked the Beat.

The episode highlighted, once again, the disparity in support between Black-owned publications and their well-networked, white-led counterparts. Launched in 2017, The Beat raised $1 million in 2022 (which is $1 million more than most other Black-led newsrooms start with) while the Banner launched the same year with $50 million.

The way Simon lept to negative assumptions when the Beat’s Snowden benignly reached out to him, characterizing it as a “shakedown,” reflects the lack of trust that Black leaders commonly encounter in fundraising. And Simon blocking the Beat is symbolic of how Black founders are often locked out of powerful networks that can make all the difference between failure and success, not to mention the future of a more inclusive and empowered multicultural democracy.

I won’t bother getting into the criticism Simon received in response. Suffice it to say Simon made his name, and his fortune, telling stories largely about Black Baltimore, which earned him legions of fans, including Black fans. Many on X weren’t too happy to see him stiff-arm the Beat, a news outlet that represents and reflects a city that is more than 60% Black.

I pointed out to Simon, and others following the thread, that the Banner is a good publication about Baltimore, while the Beat is a good publication for Baltimore. There’s no need to pit one against the other, and I understood why the Beat would reach out to one of Baltimore’s favorite sons to help amplify their fundraising efforts. Simon was unmoved.

Not surprisingly, The Baltimore Sun helped create the uneven playing field where Black-owned publications fight to succeed. The 185-year-old paper in 2022 acknowledged specific offenses such as accepting classified ads for selling enslaved people and publishing editorials that promoted racial segregation and disenfranchisement of Black voters, and apologized.

Now it has been purchased by conservative provocateurs, a new version of disenfranchisement may ensue. Fortunately for funders such as the Press Forward local news initiative, there are nonprofit alternatives in Baltimore: the Banner and the Beat.

David Simon has made his choice. At The Pivot Fund, we invest in news outlets that have earned the trust of the communities they serve, so we’re contributing $150,000 toward the Beat’s $100,000 fundraising campaign. I hope others who want to level the playing field will join us.

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Tracie Powell is the founder of The Pivot Fund. A 2021 research fellow at Shorenstein Center at Harvard Kennedy School, she holds a J.D. from…
Tracie Powell

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