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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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Wednesday, February 21, 2001

Volume 9, Number 3

Billionaires and Priests: Networks Showcase Estate Tax Supporters

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 government property.

It’s 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 thanks.’"

"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 more.

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 explained.

"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.


Rich Noyes



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