Thursday’s post on Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen, and his incessant lobbying to repeal the estate tax (”Frank Blethen, Get Well Soon“), prompted an e-mail from a prominent member of the media, reminding me that this is not the first time the Blethens have donated space in their own paper to run an anti-estate-tax ad — an ad so dishonest, that not even a Times reporter would dare to uncritically repeat its claims unchallenged.
I have long criticized the Times’ lack of objectivity in championing estate tax repeal, but the writer raises some interesting questions by pointing out that this is not the only issue on which the Blethens have used their editorial bullhorn to further the family’s own financial interests. In attempting to justify dissolution of the Joint Operating Agreement — a calculated move that is intended to shutter the competing Seattle P-I — the Times has argued that its status as a “family-owned newspaper” somehow makes it more sensitive and responsive to the values and needs of the community. But the writer makes an observation that might strike some as counter-intuitive… that Seattle might be better served by absentee owners.
This is yet further validation of my view that a newspaper run by absentee corporate owners is far less threatening to journalistic and editorial balance than is a newspaper run by local owners.
To further the Blethens’ own financial interests, the Times editorializes (1) against the estate tax, (2) against ownership of multiple local media outlets (translation: don’t let the Hearst Corp. own both a newspaper and a TV station in Seattle because that sort of potential synergy might let the newspaper stay alive), (3) in favor of massive development of the South Lake Union area, which will drive up the value of the Blethens’ properties in the area, and, as I recall, (4) a few years ago, in favor of a proposal to reroute the light rail line up the Eastlake corridor instead of Capitol Hill, an idea that likewise would have fattened up the values of the nearby Blethen properties.
The Hearst Corp., by comparison, doesn’t require its local newspaper to editorialize one way or another because Hearst has no vested interest in doing so. All it cares about is that its newspaper out there in faraway Seattle makes some money.
You will not often read, watch, or hear this type of criticism in the local MSM, because most of Seattle’s working journalists either rely on Frank to sign their paycheck, or envision the possibility that they may have to rely on him in the future… and so I have kept the writer’s name anonymous. I, on the other hand, have little to lose by speaking my mind. Alas, nobody pays me anything for my rabble-rousing, and as to potential employment with the Times, I’ve probably already burnt that bridge in numerous, incalculable ways. (Although I welcome Frank to prove me wrong by offering me a paid column.)
As to the writer’s arguments, I find them very compelling on the facts, despite my deep reservations about media concentration and corporate ownership. Unlike the Times, the P-I’s editorial staff appears to be largely free from ownership interference… much like my excellent home town daily, the Philadelphia Inquirer, which has maintained a remarkable degree of editorial independence from newspaper giant Knight-Ridder (who, by the way, owns 49 percent of the Times.)
I suspect that the editorial boards of both the Times and the P-I attempt to take positions on important issues of the day, based on what they genuinely feel to be the best interests of the community. The difference is, the former is strongly influenced by the vested interests of its owners, while the latter is not. I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with the editorial pages of both papers, but I can’t help but sense that the process by which the P-I comes up with its opinions is slightly more honest and forthright than that of the Times.
Neither, of course, could possibly be as forthright as HA. This is an admittedly liberal blog with the oft stated goal of promoting progressive candidates and causes, and thus, unlike the MSM, I make no effort to feign objectivity in the opinions I express. But we all editorialize for the same reason… not simply to vent (though that’s fun too), but to influence public opinion and policy.
It is in this light that the writer reminds us of the dangers posed by uncritically accepting the Blethens’ blatant lobbying and electioneering on behalf of their own financial interests.
If you were Patty Murray or Maria Cantwell, and your state’s largest newspaper reminded you over and over that its owners are watching closely which way you vote on the estate tax repeal — and are not only editorializing but lobbying against it — that might cause you to consider putting your re-election prospects ahead of your conscience, mightn’t it?
And that, of course, is exactly what Frank Blethen wants… for Sen. Cantwell to vote against her conscience and the interests of the vast majority of American families, in order to pander to the selfish interests of the owners of a paper that could make or break her in an extremely close election. Meanwhile, it should be noted that Sen. Cantwell is not getting the same sort of pressure from the owners of the P-I — the privately held Hearst Corporation — even though the Hearst family heirs have much more to gain from permanent repeal of the estate tax than the Blethen family could ever dream of.
So perhaps it’s not a question of family ownership after all. It’s merely a question of what sort of family, and how much they respect the journalistic standards and editorial balance of their newspapers.