On Wednesday, February 14, the New York Times ran a front-page
news item reporting that some super-rich billionaires were signing
onto a newspaper advertisement (which would appear four days later
in the very same New York Times) opposing efforts to repeal the
estate tax, the tax which at the moment of death can transform as
much as 55 percent of a wealthy person’s assets into federal
peculiar enough for a newspaper to use its news pages to promote a
paid ad, but by Sunday, February 18, all three broadcast networks
had joined in. "The ad in today’s New York Times was a stunner,"
thundered Eric Engberg on the CBS Evening News, four days after NBC
and three days after ABC had reported the same story. (The CBS
transcript was retrieved using the Nexis database, since all but
five minutes of Sunday’s Evening News were pre-empted in the Eastern
and Central time zones.)
Making up for lost time, Engberg pushed the news value of the ad:
"Public support for a tax that soaks the super-rich by the
super-rich — people with names like Rockefeller, Paul Newman, George
Soros." The ad argued that the estate tax is actually good because
it promotes charitable giving and that it’s bad for society when
individuals get a lot of money they haven’t earned.
"I myself don’t think it is healthy to give huge amounts of money
to one’s children," Steven Rockefeller told Newsweek, which
headlined its article "Billionaire Backlash." While fretting about
the moral consequences of unearned inheritances, there’s no sign the
group plans to protest state lotteries, which divert money from the
poor and hand it over to a few newly-created "super-rich" — after
skimming off a percentage to fund state government programs.
For his part, the senior Gates expressed the socialistic idea
that money is created through collective effort, thus no individual
is any more worthy of wealth than anyone else. "This is money which
exists, in large part, because of the society which we’ve created
here," he was shown saying on Sunday’s Evening News, "and in order
to sustain that society, we do need a certain level of tax revenue."
Not a single network reporter labeled these pro-tax activists as
"liberal," preferring instead to emphasize their wealth. Yet many of
those who signed the ad, which was produced by "Responsible Wealth,"
a project of the group "United for a Fair Economy," are easily
identified as liberals. Legalizing drugs is a pet cause of financier
George Soros, who has spent part of his fortune funding needle
exchange programs to combat the spread of AIDS. The elder Gates runs
the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which gives millions to support
Planned Parenthood, a pro-abortion group.
The networks delighted in presenting these liberals’ support for
continued taxation as a selfless act, an irresistible man-bites-dog
story in which a few fat cats lobby against their own perceived
interests. On the February 14 Nightly News, NBC’s David Gregory
called the group "unlikely opponents of a tax cut." On World News
Tonight the next evening, ABC’s Betsy Stark paraphrased that "icons
of American wealth are telling George Bush, ‘Thanks, but no
"These are precisely the kind of people who will fall under the
55 percent tax, but they came out against President Bush’s plan to
repeal it," substitute host Chris Wallace told Nightline’s audience
on February 15. Reporter John Donvan practically advocated
continuing the so-called "death tax," insisting that "when the
super-rich do pay their taxes, they still have plenty of dollars
left over." Actually, they’re dead — and when the tax man is
finished, their heirs have fewer dollars while the government has
By jumping all over the story, the networks showed just how
opposed they are to any repeal of the estate tax. It’s hardly news
when liberals — even rich liberals — espouse liberal policies. The
super-wealthy aren’t arguing that they themselves will spoil their
children or leave charities high and dry unless Congress maintains
the estate tax; what they really want is to make sure that others in
their tax bracket, including thousands of self-made businessmen and
women whose estates are far smaller than Buffett’s and the
Rockefellers’, can’t make different choices about how they wish
their assets distributed.
"The dirty little secret of the death tax is that the people who
are clobbered by this tax are not billionaires," wrote economist and
Club for Growth President Steve Moore in a National Review Online
article February 20. "They are ordinary Americans with medium-sized
estates... the risk-takers in our society who have spent a lifetime
pouring sweat equity into their family owned firms."
In contrast to liberal claims that the estate tax reduces the
number of slothful heirs and heiresses, Moore also noted that "the
death tax rewards the very life of lavish, unproductive consumption
it is intended to discourage...your goal is to die broke, the
ultimate form of tax avoidance. Meanwhile, the frugal men and women
who scrimp and save and selflessly amass a legacy to leave their
children get clobbered."
Echoing the concerns of the billionaires, the CBS Evening News on
February 19 showcased an Episcopal priest ("Father Bill") who called
the President "crazy" for his push to end the estate tax, asserting
that charities such as his soup kitchen would lose money. Reporter
Jim Axelrod showed GOP Representative Jennifer Dunn, who is
sponsoring the repeal legislation in the House, say that she thought
charitable giving would be little affected by the change in tax law.
"There is a very deep thread of altruism that runs through us," she
"I think that’s just dead wrong," Father Bill told Axelrod, who
seemed to side with the priest. "Father Bill will pray she’s right,"
Axelrod, referring to Rep. Dunn, sympathized, "but on the soup lines
and the front lines, he won’t take it as an article of faith."
But "the reality is that the estate tax does more to affect the
timing of giving among the wealthy than the amount," wrote Bruce
Bartlett of the
National Center for Policy Analysis in a recent op-ed. "It is
reasonable to assume that in the absence of an estate tax, those
with large incomes and great wealth would simply give more during
their lives than they do now. After all, even if Mr. Bush's tax plan
were to be enacted, a rich person would still save 33 cents in
federal income taxes for each dollar given to charity. That will
remain a powerful incentive to give."
Unfortunately, the media can’t seem to escape from the notion
that government has a claim on all of our income and assets, and has
the right to redistribute wealth to improve society. That’s why they
present estate tax repeal as a "gift" to the rich at the expense of
the poor — and why they aren’t skeptical of liberal billionaires
pushing liberal ideology.