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Hell of a Times | The Nation

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Hell of a Times

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These are edgy times at the Washington Times.

Additional reporting by George Zornick.

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Max Blumenthal
Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles...

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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."

Since its founding in 1982 by eccentric cult leader and self-proclaimed Messiah Sun Myung Moon, the Times has been a favorite outlet for the right. President Ronald Reagan granted Times reporters special access to the White House, and he publicly called it his favorite paper--pointedly not the Washington Post. During the Clinton era, the Times helped push media coverage of Ken Starr's ultimately fruitless Whitewater land-deal investigation. It has long served as a nest for fledgling conservative talent like its former editorial page editor Tony Snow, now White House press secretary and a key link between the paper and the Bush Administration. National Review's O'Sullivan told The Nation, "The Times is an extremely important paper for conservatives because it's in Washington and it has great influence with the Administration."

In January 2005 Bush hosted Coombs, Pruden and a handful of Times principals for an exclusive interview and tour of the Oval Office. Two months later Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was queried about her presidential ambitions by Pruden, Coombs and several Times reporters at the paper's offices. (Among Rice's revelations was that "shopping is fun.")

But even as it has enjoyed cozy relations with Washington politicos, from its earliest days the Times has been a hothouse for hard-line racialists and neo-Confederates. Pruden, who started at the paper in 1982, was their wizard. His father, the Rev. Wesley Pruden Sr., was a Baptist minister who served as chaplain to the Capital Citizens Council in Little Rock, Arkansas, the leading segregationist group in town. When President Dwight Eisenhower sent Army troops to protect nine black teenagers integrating Little Rock's Central High School in 1957, Pruden Sr. reportedly told an assembled mob, "That's what we've got to fight! Niggers, Communists and cops!"

In 1993 Pruden gave an interview to the now-defunct neo-Confederate magazine Southern Partisan, which routinely published proslavery apologias and attacks on Abraham Lincoln. Pruden boasted, "Every year I make sure that we have a story in the paper about any observance of Robert E. Lee's birthday.... And the fact that it falls around Martin Luther King's birthday."

"Makes it all the better," interjected a Partisan editor.

"I make sure we have a story. Oh, yes," said Pruden.

George Archibald, a former correspondent nominated for four Pulitzers during his twenty-three years at the Times, told me that when Pruden assigned him to travel to Arkansas in 1992 to dig for damaging information on Bill Clinton, a man named "Justice" Jim Johnson was the first source Pruden instructed him to meet. Johnson was a leader of the Capital Citizens Council chapter that Pruden's father belonged to. (In 1995 Pruden published two anti-Clinton op-ed articles by Johnson, who was later linked to right-wing billionaire financier Richard Mellon Scaife's Arkansas Project, a $2.4 million scheme in which "sources" were paid to help concoct anti-Clinton stories.)

When Coombs joined the Times in 1988, he became a charter member of Pruden's neo-Confederate cabal. Reared by a military family in rural Virginia, Coombs attended a private high school and William and Mary College, where he was known as a hard partyer with a vast collection of rock-and-roll records. After graduating Coombs cut his teeth at several Virginia papers and the States News Service. He pursued journalism as an extension of his family's military tradition. His motto, which he would recite time and again in the Times newsroom: "Journalism is war."

In his 1993 Southern Partisan interview, Pruden proudly recounted Coombs's speech that year at the Capitol hailing Confederate President Jefferson Davis. "I read the speech and it was quite good," Pruden told the Partisan. "I was originally asked to speak, but I was going to be out of town and Fran filled in for me. He was telling me what a thrilling thing it was to stand there and sing 'Dixie' in the statuary hall of the U.S. Capitol. I would have liked to have been there just for that."

While Coombs sympathized with Pruden's Lost Cause nostalgia, his politics were even harsher. "The thing about Wes is, he has other vices," said a Times senior staffer. "He loves a good meal, loves to have his ego stroked, he loves women, the social scene. As for bashing blacks and Hispanics, he shares Fran's views, but he has other preoccupations. Fran is the really hard-core ideological white supremacist."

Coombs believes immigration is "the number-one issue in America today," and he has played an instrumental role in pressing far-right positions into the mainstream. In a move that many sources considered emblematic, on August 22 Coombs splashed a favorable review of Pat Buchanan's book State of Emergency across the paper's front page. Buchanan's book is a diatribe calling for an immediate moratorium on all immigration, to stave off the demise of Western civilization. "There were a lot of other things going on [in the news] that day," a Times senior staffer said. "Any other paper would have reserved that for the book review section, but Coombs had to have Buchanan on the front page." Coombs, the staffer continued, "will literally stand there and scan websites and look for anything that's anti-Hispanic, that's immigrant-bashing, and he will order the editors to go with it." According to Archibald, in 2001 Pruden issued a memo instructing reporters to stop using the term "illegal immigrant" and instead use "illegal alien"--a lead the rest of the conservative media soon followed.

Coombs oversaw the Times's coverage of the anti-immigrant Minutemen patrols along the US/Mexico border in 2005. A 2006 report by the ACLU, "Creating the Minutemen," singled out the Times for inflating the number of volunteers and overlooking the involvement of white supremacists in the Minutemen ranks. The Times correspondent tasked by Coombs with reporting on the patrols, Jerry Seper, was subsequently honored by an anti-immigration think tank, the Center for Immigration Studies, for his "dogged, committed" coverage. (Seper, for his part, is an ex-cop whose anti-immigration leanings are driven more by his close relationship with Border Patrol agents than by nativist ideology. He is described by a Times senior staffer as "disgusted" at Coombs's views on race and has been posited as a potential successor to Coombs as managing editor.)

In an interview, Coombs spoke proudly of his influence on the immigration debate. "Every article used to be about how the government abuses immigrants," Coombs told me. "Not one showed the negative impact of immigration. I don't want to suggest we led the way, but we were the first or one of the first to discuss immigration not from some feel-good perspective."

Countering the "feel-good perspective" on race appears to be Coombs's passion. George Archibald told me that when he showed Coombs a photo of his nephew's African-American girlfriend, Coombs "went off like a rocket about interracial marriage and how terrible it was. He actually used the phrase 'the niggerfication of America.' He said, 'Not in my lifetime. If my daughter went out with a black, I would cut her throat.'"

Archibald recounted a discussion in 1992 among several Times reporters and editors: "We were having a conversation about abortion. We were all prolife, antiabortion, and we were trying to explain how we would discuss this in the paper. All of a sudden Fran blurts out that he is pro-abortion. I argued with him and he said, 'How do you think we're going to stop the population growth of the minorities and all the welfare people?'" Another Times senior staffer recounted similar statements about abortion and race by Coombs at a party, where Coombs called himself a "racial nationalist." A former staffer alleged that Coombs used racial slurs including "spic" and "towel-head" inside the Times.

Coombs told The Nation that while he favors abortion rights, "Anybody who told you that I support some kind of genocidal abortion policy is beyond deluded." When asked if he has ever used racial slurs, Coombs exploded: "Are you going to accuse me of being the twentieth Al Qaeda hijacker next? I mean, please. I find those terms to be beneath contempt. Do you truly believe that in a modern American newsroom a person could use phrases like that? That is beyond preposterous. That is just unbelievable. Anyone who says that is a complete liar."

But why were so many of his former and current colleagues leveling these allegations about him? Coombs could only speculate. "Maybe there's a chorus there," he said.

Inside the Times newsroom, Coombs has played a critical role in expanding Pruden's neo-Confederate cabal. For years, one of Coombs's closest friends at the paper was the late Samuel Francis, a right-wing intellectual who joined the Times as an editorial writer just as he plunged headfirst into white nationalism.

Pruden felt compelled to fire Francis in 1995 after conservative author Dinesh D'Souza reported on Francis's remarks at the American Renaissance conference, a gathering of academic racists, international neo-Fascists and neo-Nazis. (Francis said, "The civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people.") Recently Coombs praised Francis as "the voice of the Founding Fathers speaking down through the ages," on a website promoting a posthumous collection of Francis's writings called Shots Fired.

In 1997 Coombs and his wife organized a dinner for American Renaissance founder Jared Taylor, a man the SPLC describes as "a courtly presenter of ideas that most would describe as crudely white supremacist."

That same year Coombs recruited a reporter from a paper in rural Georgia, Robert Stacy McCain, to work at the Times as his national assistant editor. McCain belonged to the neo-Confederate hate group League of the South, which routinely promotes slavery apologias and favors a "second secession" of the South from the Union. By 2002 McCain had been promoted by Coombs to edit the Times's Culture Briefs section. In short order, McCain turned that section into a bulletin board for the racialist far right. At Coombs's behest, McCain attended four American Renaissance conferences as a Times correspondent, only once reporting criticism of the group's white supremacist agenda.

By deliberately soft-pedaling the racial ideology of groups like American Renaissance and the Minutemen, the Times under Coombs has coated them in the balm of mainstream conservatism. True to form, Coombs defended McCain and American Renaissance against allegations of racial extremism. "My understanding," Coombs told me, "is there were some academics at the conference, people like Joe Sobran, and other people who don't fall into that [racist] category. So maybe there's some guilt by association." (Sobran is a right-wing columnist drummed out of his post at National Review for his anti-Semitism and Holocaust revisionism. The Times syndicated his columns until 1999.)

But McCain's views on race are well-known among his colleagues. In August 2002, according to Archibald, during a discussion in the newsroom about civil rights, McCain defended slavery as "good for the blacks and good for property owners." "We were just appalled," Archibald said. "He is just a complete animalistic racist." Describing Archibald's allegations as "bullshit," Coombs said McCain "has not made any comments in the newsroom like that, and if he had, there are African-Americans in the room who would kick his butt."

Marlene Johnson, the former Times arts section editor and an African-American, bristled at Coombs's remarks. "All African-Americans don't beat people up when they have a disagreement," Johnson told me. "That just shows what a racist Fran is. You had a guy, Stacy McCain, who was an avowed segregationist, and Fran always overlooks that, he overlooks McCain's behavior." Johnson said that while at the Times, she was given an order from Pruden, delivered to her by Coombs, to stop doing "so many black stories."

Finally, this August, Coombs and Pruden placed McCain on administrative probation. Their reason, according to the Times senior staffer, was not McCain's racism but rather his anemic work ethic. When asked about his probation, McCain said, "I'm too lazy to be evil."

While McCain attended American Renaissance wearing his journalistic credentials, Coombs's wife, Marian Kester Coombs, told me she has gone to the conference to meet with old friends like Nick Griffin, leader of the whites-only British National Party (BNP). Indeed, she is more deeply embedded in the racist right than her husband is. A self-described former leftist who says she became "an extremist" after she "detoxed from the sixties," Marian Coombs portrays herself as a classic populist. "I would say in many ways I'm an unreconstructed Marxist," she told The Nation. "I basically am pro-working class and I think globalization and the policy of mass immigration is bad for the common man."

Asked whether her husband agrees with her politics, Marian Coombs said, "Pretty much," but claimed his personal views were not reflected in the pages of the Times. But she has contributed some thirty opinion pieces to the paper. In a November 2001 article she cited the BNP's Griffin, who was prosecuted twice in Britain for inciting racial hatred with his anti-Muslim rhetoric, as an expert on Muslim culture. Marian Coombs's byline has appeared in many of the far right's flagship publications, from Chronicles to Vdare to The Occidental Quarterly, which was edited by her friend Sam Francis until his death in 2005. And on American Renaissance's website, she posted this comment in 2001: "Whites do not like crowded societies, and Americans would not have to live in crowds if our government kept out Third-World invaders."

After ten years of publication, the Times's leadership searched for a defining theme to replace anticommunism at the cold war's end. A new demon loomed on the horizon. Against the recently inaugurated Clinton Administration the Times took up the crusade for "family values." The paper's "family values" columnist, Suzanne Fields, dubbed Clinton "The Playboy President." Pruden, in two of his columns, accused Clinton of "oral adultery."

But all along, on Pruden's watch, Coombs was developing a troubling reputation in the newsroom for boorish behavior and misogyny. One senior staffer recalled Coombs saying, "Women are naturally inferior to men" and that women "tend to be dumber, more emotional and less dependable than men." One female former Times staffer described Coombs as hostile toward female employees. "I'm anything but a feminist. If anything, I'm against them. But it was illuminating--his tactics toward women are to terrorize them and scream and intimidate. This guy was a sicko."

In 2004 Coombs was accused of sexual harassment. The accusation stemmed from a series of incidents involving then-Times marketing consultant Melissa Hopkins during the Republican National Convention. In a letter written by her lawyer, Lynne Bernabei, that was delivered to then-Times senior counsel Allen Farber and made available to The Nation, Hopkins alleged that over cocktails one night at the convention Coombs grew belligerent and called her work "lame," and then suggested she go to his room for a "nightcap." When Hopkins refused, she claimed, the harassment increased. According to the letter, the next evening, while sharing a cab back to their hotel, Coombs pulled her toward him and attempted to kiss her. "Ms. Hopkins, who as Mr. Coombs is aware, is married and the mother of three children," the letter states, "resisted and tried to pull away, but Mr. Coombs succeeded in forcibly kissing her."

In her letter Hopkins said she complained to Pruden and Times vice president and general manager Dick Amberg. Pruden promised he would investigate the incident, but nothing happened. Amberg told her she was being "overly sensitive." And Hopkins claimed that Coombs, meanwhile, initiated a sabotage campaign against her, removing videos she had shot at the convention from the Times website, and "directed reporters and editors not to communicate with her." (Amberg, in an interview with The Nation, claimed that his "sensitive" remark referred to her reaction to the removal of the video, and had nothing to do with sexual harassment.)

Three weeks after Hopkins formally complained to the Times's human resources department and a subsequent investigation by Farber, the paper's lawyer, went nowhere, she demanded a settlement, which Bernabei's letter made the case for. Instead, a year later, in October 2005, after the statute of limitations in which she could have filed a criminal complaint against Coombs expired, the Times terminated her contract without explanation. Archibald, a close friend of Hopkins, said, "Fran absolutely vilified Melissa [Hopkins]. She almost had a nervous breakdown."

"An allegation was made," Coombs explained to me. "It was independently investigated, numerous witnesses were called in. I had nothing to do with it, and an outside lawyer conducted an independent investigation and I was totally vindicated. She was told that and chose to pursue it no further." When confronted with specific allegations by Hopkins and questioned on whether the investigation was actually handled by an "outside lawyer" or by the Times's own counsel, Coombs objected: "This town is full of major players who know me and know this stuff is bullshit. If I had that kind of behavior I would not be in this job." He went on: "I'm what they call a Southern gentleman. A Southern gentleman does not take advantage of ladies."

Through all these disturbing incidents, Times president Joo has stood by Pruden and Coombs. In June, according to a source close to senior management, Joo received a memo detailing specific charges of sexual harassment and racism against Coombs. According to the source, Joo dismissed the memo, telling Times owners from News World Communications, including Preston Moon, "I don't fucking care."

Insiders say Joo's desire to inject himself into US negotiations with North Korea has been Pruden's ace card. Joo's interest in détente with North Korea is so profound that Times employees have nicknamed him "Kim Jong Il." According to a source close to Times senior management, Joo has taken numerous trips to the Hermit Kingdom to meet with the dictator Kim. He fancies himself a potential interlocutor between North Korea and the Bush White House. "What Wes does," Archibald explained, "any time any crisis happens, he just goes marching into Joo's office and he says, 'I can call George W. Bush up any time I want. You need me. I'm running this ship.' It isn't true that he can get Bush on the phone, but that's what he says."

One source close to senior management claimed Pruden has guaranteed Joo that he will deliver an appearance from President Bush at the Times's twenty-fifth anniversary in 2007, and the source says Joo is bedazzled by Pruden's promise.

Pruden, for his part, sees Coombs's promotion as an extension of his legacy and a guarantee of his golden parachute. "Pruden will defend Coombs at any cost so he can walk out with a quarter-mil-plus comp package. He doesn't want anything to interfere with that, so he's defending his boy Fran," Archibald said, explaining that Coombs and Joo have promised Pruden a position as "editor emeritus" that will allow him to maintain his biweekly column and hefty paycheck.

Pruden, Coombs and Joo are now operating like a troika to eliminate threats, real and perceived, to their continued control over the Times. "This is everything to them," a senior staffer said. "And they will do anything they have to in order to survive. It's slash and burn." Pruden has enlisted the PR firm Hill and Knowlton to attempt to discredit media reports alleging racist and sexist behavior by him or Coombs.

Like cornered animals, Pruden and Coombs are growing increasingly aggressive in their tactics. Archibald said that the conservative magazine Human Events had planned to publish an article by him this September detailing instances of racism and sexism at the Times but that, under pressure from Pruden and Coombs, Human Events editor in chief Thomas Winter spiked the piece.

On September 6, the day before the story was killed, Marian Coombs sent Archibald an e-mail warning, "I've just seen what you're writing about the Times, my husband, Wes Pruden, and others.... Have you no shame? If you possess any residual genuine belief in God, you must also realize that such shameless, hate-filled behavior will harm your own soul terribly." Just how Marian Coombs obtained a copy of Archibald's draft from Human Events remains unclear. (Reached by phone, Winter immediately hung up when questioned about Archibald's piece.)

Coombs, according to a staffer, has called numerous Times reporters during the past few weeks to warn them that his departure could result in a new "left wing" editorship that will fire them en masse. But the sentiment may have already turned against them. "If Fran and Wes were to be replaced," the staffer said, "the newsroom would be like Rio if Brazil won the World Cup. The champagne would be popping like crazy." Many inside the newspaper already refer to Pruden's and Coombs's possible departure as "liberation day."

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