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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Newspaper publishers, led by Frank Blethen, are putting money into Initiative 920

There's only one person in the world who's going to decide what I'm going to do and that's me...

--The character Charles Foster Kane, in Citizen Kane
I’m coming to understand more about how newspapers in this state have decided to throw in with conservative attempts to repeal the estate tax via Initiative 920, and it’s not a pretty picture.

I’m going to have to leave the relative merits of the estate tax debate aside in order to discuss the role of newspaper publishers in trying to repeal it, but a quick place to start learning is at the No on I-920 web site.

Many newspaper companies are giving directly to a campaign committee that supports I-920, an effort that has been in motion for many years.

The campaign committee receiving newspaper donations appears to have been set up to distance the newspaper publishers from an unseemly character associated with the main campaign.

The “newspaper campaign,” which goes by the unwieldy name “The Yes on 920 Campaign - Keeping Washington Business Alive,” has received donations from The Seattle Times, Pioneer Newspapers, The Columbian and The Wenatchee World, to the tune of at least $55,000 total.

As most people know, using the estate tax as a successful wedge issue is most often traced to Republican consultant Frank Luntz, who discovered that if the misleading term “death tax” is used, people will be more inclined turn against the estate tax.

Color me slow on the uptake, but a recent post and comments thread over at Postman on Politics provided me with an insight into what has been going on for a long time. Namely, that newspapers didn’t just wake up one day and decided to support I-920, but that the current effort has its roots in a long running effort by Frank Blethen, owner of the Seattle Times.

Times lobbyist Jill Mackie has long been involved in trying to repeal the estate tax, presumably at the state and federal level. According to Times chief political reporter David Postman, Mackie has been donating consulting time to help the pro-920 newspaper club. While the $1,000 in-kind donation doesn’t sound like a big deal, it’s worth noting what Mackie’s role has been for Blethen in regards to the estate tax.

Mackie shows up on a site called, which is wholly owned and operated by the Seattle Times Company. This from the “Death Tax Newsletter” in Sept. of 1999:
Most recently, Jill served as vice president/government affairs and human resources for the Pacific Lumber and Shipping Company in Seattle. Prior to that, she served as a government affairs representative for the company.

Jill has more than 10 years experience working with government and public affairs and holds a BA in Sociology from Seattle Pacific University where she minored in Business and English Literature.

I met Jill several years ago when her then boss, Bob Spence of Pacific Lumber, and Ted Natt approached me to work on death tax repeal.
So The Times’ lobbyist appears to be coordinating things and appears to have been doing so for a very long time. What that coordination involves right now is not clear. Astute media observers will note that Natt was the owner of the Longview Daily News for many years. Natt sold the paper just before his tragic death in a helicopter accident in Aug. of 1999.

But back to that post at Postman on Politics. Sandeep Kaushik, the former Stranger reporter who is currently the press spokesman for the No on 920 coalition, pointed out a number of items in the comments.

Too much to list here, but he quoted a passage from Wealth and Commonwealth, the book co-authored by William H. Gates, that details the history of estate taxes and defends the concept. (You know, William H. Gates, whose son founded that big software company up in Redmond? Can’t recall the name of it for some reason. Oh yeah….Microsoft.)

Normally I would be hesitant to quote a book secondhand, as it were, but since William H. Gates is featured on the front of the No on 920 coalition web site, I’m guessing Kaushik managed to quote him correctly. Here’s a passage from Gates’ book, according to Kaushik:
"Blethen deployed the Seattle Times and his other newspapers to advance the repeal agenda. He hired Jill Mackie as director of external affairs at the Times, whose top mandate was to lobby for repeal. Blethen newspapers have editorialized against the tax numerous times since 1997 and in favor of candidates who share their pro-repeal position. The Seattle Times staffed an poorly designed web site ( that served as a hub of information and campaign activity.

One of the most important things that the Seattle Times did was to organize other independent newspapers. It sent out frequent newsletters and lobbying updates to the thirty members of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association and organized at least one hundred other newspapers to join the repeal cause...

Starting in 1997, the Seattle Times convened annual "Death Tax Summits" in Washington, D.C., with co-sponsorship from the Newspaper Association of America, the US Chamber of Commerce, and various other groups supporting repeal of the estate tax. At these events, business owners could hear from “congressional champions” and lobby representatives, and later they could join a reception with 'those who work for repeal daily in Washington.' We wonder if they served free pizza..."
Kaushik goes on to comment, in so many words, that whether or not they served pizza, they were certainly serving falsehoods.

Here’s part of what Kaushik had to say:
Reading Gates Sr.'s book, we learn that the Times' lobbying operation has indeed developed some powerful anti-estate tax messages that have found their way into pro-repeal newspaper advertisements, fact sheets, and talking points.

That might be acceptable if it were not for the fact that these messages are "full of distortions and misinformation." For instance, the claim, disseminated widely by the Times, that "the IRS spends 65 cents for every dollar it collects from the [federal estate] tax."

Sounds damning, until you learn (if you ever do) that it is a completely false claim. As Gates points out, the federal estate tax generated $28 billion in revenue in 1999, at a time when the entire IRS budget - for all tax collection - was $8 billion.

Yet just last Friday I debated a representative of the Yes campaign on a Spokane radio show, and she claimed -- thank you, Jill Mackie -- that two-thirds of estate tax revenues are frittered away in administrative and collection costs. Let me repeat, that is not true. There is no large estate tax collection bureaucracy in Washington state (or for that matter at the federal level).
The newspaper donations have put newspaper editors and other employees somewhat on the defensive. Columbian editor Lou Brancaccio tried to defend what his newspaper is doing in his weekly “Press Talk” column, which was published the day before they endorsed I-920. From Brancaccio’s ”Press Talk” column:
Reporters are always faced with issues they must and do put aside. A donation to a cause, be it the estate tax issue or the anti-casino issue, isn't a player for covering a topic.

If you think it through, newspapers have always taken editorial stances on their Opinion pages on issues.

That kind of thing is simply standard operating procedure. And reporters have always been able to do their jobs covering a topic. An editorial stance, a donation or being part of a group doesn't change a reporter's need to be objective.
But Brancaccio’s reasoning won’t wash, at least when it comes to endorsement editorials, for a very simple reason. Newspaper owners are bidness guys, and they aren’t going to donate to a campaign only to have their own publication tell them they are wrong.

When this is over, I would like to see how many of the donating newspapers came out against I-920, because we can already guess the probable answer: none. Forgive me, because I can indeed be slow to understand things, but how can the public presume these endorsements to be anything but a form of paid advertising on behalf of I-920?

No newspaper editor whose publisher is giving money to the Yes on 920 campaign will be free to call for a “vote no” endorsement. The Seattle Times has already spoken, and it’s a good bet only a miniscule number of readers were fully aware of the intense involvement the Seattle Times Company, under the auspices of Frank Blethen, has engaged in.

Newsrooms are likely a different story. David Postman has, after all, had the integrity to report on his blog about all of this, although it would be nice to see more of that information in the newspaper. (It’s worth nothing that since I’m in Clark County, I rely exclusively on the on-line version of the The Times.)

Postman is quite emphatic that nobody is messing with him. Which I thoroughly believe.
In my 10 years at The Times not once has anyone even hinted at trying to influence coverage of this issue or any other because of the position of Frank Blethen or the Seattle Times Company. Blethen plays no role in the newsroom, either officially or unofficially and no one does his bidding there, either.
Postman has come under fire at times from both progressives and the right wing, and has generally held his fire except when his integrity it questioned.

My personal view is that Postman is willing to consider facts that many reporters won’t consider, and he’s willing to dig around to find links between things. In short, he’s a great reporter.

Part of what happens, I’m guessing, is that progressives are so outraged after years of abuse at the hands of Fox “News” Channel, the other cable outlets and rabid right radio that we tend to see any disagreement in terms of partisan actions. It’s a regrettable fact of the times we live in, but we should take care to distinguish between legitimate reporters and the likes of Michelle Malkin.

I can quite easily imagine that most professional reporters and editors will do a great job maintaining the “firewall” between the business and reporting side. But the newspaper donations on behalf of I-920 nonetheless create a public perception of bias that should worry editors and reporters.

In an age where most ordinary news consumers already have so many serious doubts about the media, it’s sad to see newspaper owners in our state take the public trust for granted.

It’s also worth trying to understand why the newspaper owners have created what amounts to their own campaign committee to support I-920. Darryl did a guest post at Horse’s Ass last month about Dennis Falk, the sponsor of I-920, (which NPI’s Executive Director covered back in June) in which Darryl points out this P-I story from June that gives a little information about the main backers of I-920. From the P-I story:
The two most generous contributors to the Initiative 920 campaign are downtown developer Martin Selig, who has donated $137,500 so far, and John N. Nordstrom, of the department store family, who has kicked in $50,000.
Ok, whatever. Rich guys wanting more money, par for the course I suppose. But this little nugget is a far different matter:
Besides decrying the damage the repeal would do to public education, critics have taken aim at I-920's sponsor, campaign manager and chairman, Dennis Falk, a former Seattle police officer and a longtime leader of the ultraconservative John Birch Society.

In 1978, Falk co-chaired Save Our Moral Ethics, an unsuccessful initiative campaign to repeal a Seattle law barring housing and employment discriminations against gays and lesbians.
So the genesis of the current initiative campaign can be traced to a far-right reactionary? No wonder the newspapers are trying to create distance.

MORE--The Yakima Herald endorsed I-920 on Monday. It's owned by the Seattle Times Company.

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