Hell of a Times
These are edgy times at the Washington Times.
Still one of the most important right-wing organs in the nation, the paper has a circulation base of around 100,000. According to a source close to senior management, in the past two decades it has burned through far more than the $1.7 billion previously reported. During that time its editorial stance has consistently leaned to the hard right, as its favorite targets have ranged from liberal comsymps to President Bill Clinton to, most recently, "illegal aliens" and their allies in the "open borders lobby." Throughout, the Times has served as a major key on the conservative movement's Mighty Wurlitzer.
A nasty succession battle is now heating up at the paper, punctuated by allegations of racism, sexism and unprofessional conduct, that has implications far beyond its fractious newsroom. According to several reliable inside sources, Preston Moon, the youngest son of Korean Unification Church leader and Times financier Sun Myung Moon, has initiated a search committee to find a replacement for editor in chief Wesley Pruden--a replacement who is not Pruden's handpicked successor, managing editor Francis Coombs.
Preston Moon wants to wrest control of the paper from Pruden and Coombs, according to a Times senior staffer, in order to shift the paper away from their brand of conservatism, which is characterized by extreme racial animus and connections to nativist and neo-Confederate organizations. A Harvard MBA, Preston Moon is said to be seeking to install an editorial regime with more widely palatable politics. His search committee is reportedly headed by Times editor at large Arnaud De Borchgrave, the former editor in chief of UPI who edited the Times from 1985 to 1991. Once an ardent anticommunist who oversaw a Times fund for the Nicaraguan contras, De Borchgrave has been critical of the Bush Administration's unilateralist approach to foreign policy. According to a senior staffer and a source close to Times senior management, De Borchgrave favors UPI's editor emeritus Martin Walker as Pruden's successor. Walker is a former correspondent for the liberal British newspaper the Guardian and has been a vocal supporter of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's early New Labour politics. (De Borchgrave declined to respond to questions about his alleged role in the Times succession battle.)
Also rumored to be on the short list: Former UPI executive editor and National Review editor at large John O'Sullivan, a former adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. A Times senior staffer says O'Sullivan met with his former boss in Washington in mid-September, where she pledged to throw her weight behind his candidacy.
Both Coombs and Pruden, meanwhile, are facing a litany of complaints from former and current colleagues of racism and sexual harassment. More than a dozen well-placed sources spoke to The Nation. Many wished to remain anonymous, for fear of jeopardizing their jobs. Others spoke on the record. But the sources are consistent about the atmosphere Pruden and Coombs have fostered inside the paper, which they describe as profoundly demeaning and abusive to women and minorities. Preston Moon has hired the powerhouse Washington law firm Nixon Peabody to interview Times staffers about the allegations of racism and sexism.
Approaching his seventieth birthday, Pruden is described by several sources as an "absentee landlord" who has tacitly handed control over to Coombs. Now Coombs is driving the paper to the far shores of the right. Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Project executive director Mark Potok credits the Times with helping to fuel the nativism that has taken hold this year in Republican political campaigns. "The Times is a terrible little newspaper that unfortunately has vastly disproportionate influence on the right wing of the Republican Party," Potok said. "The vast majority of people who read it don't realize that this paper is in bed with bigots and white supremacists. The Times is a key part of the radical right's apparatus in the United States."
Pruden and Coombs have stonewalled Preston Moon's investigation and threatened to hold a public news conference, during which they would denounce "the crazy Moonies" and claim that Preston Moon and his father are pressuring them to inject pro-Unification Church propaganda into the paper's coverage, according to a senior newsroom staffer. Times president Douglas D.M. Joo is backing Coombs and Pruden to the bitter end. Joo is a business rival of Preston Moon who, the senior staffer says, would be stripped of his post at the Times and redeployed to Korea if Pruden and Coombs go down. "This is a cancer that goes all the way to the top," the senior staffer said of the paper's tolerance of bigotry. "And if you don't root out the cancer, it will kill you. If this ever got out to the mainstream press, we would be finished as a paper."