FedEx CEO challenges New York Times to debate after critical story

FedEx CEO Fred Smith attacked the New York Times for its story about his company’s taxes, and he challenged the newspaper’s publisher.

The Times on Sunday ran a front-page story, “How FedEx Cut Its Tax Bill to $0,” in which it said that FedEx’s work in favor of the 2017 corporate tax cut allowed the delivery company to eliminate its federal taxes the following year. The story said the tax cut did not result in increased investment by either FedEx or businesses overall, as Smith and other advocates of the tax bill vowed would happen if it passed.

Smith issued a statement calling the article “distorted and factually incorrect,” although he did not detail what in the story was inaccurate. FedEx reported its total income taxes were $1.6 billion in the fiscal year ending May 31, 2017, but it had a negative income tax bill, or a credit, of $219 million in the fiscal year ending May of 2018. Its most recent fiscal year reported income taxes of $115 million.

Although companies complaining about critical news coverage isn’t unusual, Smith’s response was unique.

“I hereby challenge A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times and the business section editor to a public debate in Washington, DC, with me and the FedEx corporate vice president of tax,” he wrote. “The focus of the debate should be federal tax policy and the relative societal benefits of business investments and the enormous intended benefits to the United States economy, especially lower and middle class wage earners.”

Don’t expect Sulzberger or anyone else from the Times to show up for Smith’s proposed debate.

“FedEx’s colorful response does not actually challenge a single fact in our story. We’re confident in the accuracy of our reporting,” said Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha. “FedEx’s invitation is clearly a stunt and an effort to distract from the findings of our story.”

Smith’s statement also called out the New York Times Company’s own tax bill, which he said showed zero federal taxes paid for 2017, and $30 million in 2018, which he said represented 18% of its income that year.

It’s not clear where in the Times’ financial filings he pulled those numbers. The Times’ annual filing shows a federal income tax expense of $105.9 million in 2017, and only $913,000 in 2018, which would seem to make an even stronger point that the Times as well as FedEx benefited from the corporate tax cut.

— CNN Business’ Brian Stelter contributed to this report