Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen must not be feeling well this morning. How can I tell? Well, every time Frank catches a cold, he blows his nose all over the editorial page with yet another op-ed attacking the estate tax.
A new death tax, rising to 16 percent of assets, is levied on children who inherit businesses and property from parents who have died, which will unfairly force heirs to sell family businesses they had hoped to operate.
Translation: Frank, and the rest of his family, are mortal.
The Times likes to remind us that it is a “family owned” newspaper, implying that the extended Blethen family’s 50.5 percent stake (the rest is owned by media giant Knight-Ridder) somehow makes it a more honest guardian of community interests than the apparently evil, corporate drones over at the Hearst-owned Seattle P-I. But their unrelenting obsession with the estate tax shows that the community they care most deeply about is that which gathers around the Blethen family’s Thanksgiving Day dinner table.
Indeed, in a February 2003 interview in the Seattle Weekly, Frank was quite blunt about the family’s priorities:
“We have–and this is part of the governing documents–equal responsibility for perpetuating the family ownership and for practicing independent journalism.”
And what happens when these responsibilities conflict with each other? Well for one, you get the Time’s cynical adoption of the term “death tax.” A truly independent journalist would wince at the thought of using such a shamelessly loaded piece of Republican sloganeering. And then there’s the Times’ OCD-like focus on the issue itself, editorializing against the
death estate tax six times in the past six months.
The Times’ eligiac lament for the days of family-owned newspapers is also misleading… evoking a romanticized image of three generations of Blethens bravely pounding away at their Underwoods as they fend off the sudden assault of a faceless, out-of-state, modern media giant. The 142-year-old Seattle P-I has been published by Hearst since 1921, and the paper’s editorial board and staff are just as much a part of our community as that of the Times. Indeed, the Blethen family’s holding company is no mom-and-pop shop itself; its assets include a number of online news, information and advertising web sites, printing and distribution subsidiaries, plus nine newspapers in Washington and Maine, including the Yakima Herald-Republic, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, The Issaquah Press, and Maine’s largest circulation papers, the Portland Press-Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram.
While the Blethen family’s holdings are dwarfed by those of Hearst, both the Times and the P-I are in fact, family-owned newspapers… the Hearst Corporation having been privately held by the Hearst family for its entire 118-year history.
I actually empathize with the Blethens, and wish them the best of luck in transferring the business intact to their fifth generation. But it is arrogant of them to ask us to eliminate a century-old tax, shifting burden to the already over-burdened poor and middle-class, in the interest of easing the Blethens’ selfish — if admirable — goal of maintaining their family legacy. While millions of American children are forced to get by in substandard schools, and without adequate health care, it is hard for me to squeeze out a few tears for the children of wealth and privilege.
Three generations of Blethens have managed to keep their inheritance in the family despite a much higher estate tax than the Times now rails against. If the current generation proves unwilling to make the same kind of sacrifices as their elders, then the Blethen family should blame itself, not the tax code.