Publishers' gifts put newsrooms in tough spot

by JOEL CONNELLY, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Big bucks given by several news organizations to the campaign for Initiative 920, which would repeal our state's inheritance tax, suggests an old maxim: Want a free press? Buy one. RELATED STORY
- "Papers fund plan to kill estate tax"

The money has come in chunks of $25,000 from Pioneer Newspapers (owners of papers in Ellensburg and Skagit County), $25,000 from The Wenatchee World and $5,000 from The Columbian in Vancouver.

As well, Jill Mackie, vice president at The Seattle Times Co. and a main lobbyist on repeal of the federal estate tax, has contributed her time -- $1,000 worth of it, she told Times political writer/blogger David Postman.

"We have also helped connect family businesses who oppose this tax with the campaign," Mackie told Postman.

The biggest pro-920 donations have come from downtown developer Martin Selig. He's in for $839,825, the latest donation of $32,325 coming Oct. 6.

Publishers, reporters and columnists -- or "colyumists" as Dwight Eisenhower called us -- are entitled to opinions, and to express them. Media free speech is not limited to shouting Fox News pundits and right-wing radio talkers.

At the same time, however, in our free society, the "mainstream media" face obligations of fairness as well as the appearance of fairness.

Scribes should be walled off from even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The Seattle Times rightly forced columnist John Hinterberger to withdraw as a candidate for water district commissioner.

A broad span of folk at the two Seattle papers, myself included, raised hell in 1995 when the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild was on the sponsor list for an anti-Newt Gingrich rally.

Why? Some of us had to cover Gingrich. Our union withdrew its endorsement.

With publishers, however, there are no common law restraints to participatory journalism.

In their book "Wealth and Our Commonwealth," Bill Gates Sr. and Chuck Collins noted the "talents and tenacity" of Times Publisher Frank Blethen in his longstanding campaign to repeal the federal estate tax.

"Blethen deployed The Seattle Times and his other newspapers to advance the repeal agenda," they wrote. "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 imaginative Web site that served as a hub of information and campaign activity. ...

"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 U.S. 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. ..."

The response from donors: Don't worry.

"An editorial stance, a donation or being part of a group doesn't change a reporter's need to be objective," Lou Brancaccio, The Columbian's editor, wrote in a column last weekend.

In his 11 years at Fairview Fannie, opined Postman, "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 Co."

David, you're a lucky dog.

In 2002, however, Frank Blethen told a staff meeting that he would move to put the Seattle P-I out of business. A reporter wrote a story about this potential (later actual) bid to breach Seattle newspapers' joint operating agreement. The piece was spiked on grounds that the publisher's remarks were "off the record."

Three points here:

First, news organizations' donations and involvement in the pro-920 campaign breach what might be called the appearance-of-fairness doctrine. They indicate a predisposition at a time when fair coverage, at least on the news pages, is needed.

Second, the print press plays a disproportionate role in voters' search for information on ballot measures.

A few nights ago, I listened as No on 920 spokesman Sandeep Kaushik expounded on newspapers' donations to the opposition. A big-screen TV at the Montlake Ale House showed the 10 o'clock news in the background. It was a succession of police cars and fire engines. It's not a place to expect discussion of money that our schools would lose if I-920 passes.

Finally, success in the pro-920 effort would encourage the kind of wretched excess seen up north. Vancouver is North America's most media monopolized city. The CanWest Global Corp. owns both daily newspapers, a news weekly and a TV station.

A member of the family that controls CanWest, National Post boss David Asper, introduced a Conservative Party candidate at a Canadian election rally.

CanWest has donated to the governing Liberal Party of British Columbia. When B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell was arrested for drunken driving in Hawaii, The Vancouver Sun spiked a news interview with the premier's Maui cellmate, and killed a critical column by a member of the newspaper's editorial board.

Newspaper monopolies are not healthy for voters and other living creatures.

article originally published at http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/connelly/288570_joel13.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey