Can This Paper Be Saved?

4th Nov 2008

On a recent visit to the Washington Times, the only glimpse I catch of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon—South Korean leader of the Unification Church, convicted tax felon, minister of mass weddings, and self-proclaimed Messiah—occurs when publisher Tom McDevitt emerges from a conference room. A portrait of Moon, the paper’s proprietor, hangs on a wall at the far end of a long table and I notice it before he immediately closes the door. Moon is just one of many peculiar features of “America’s Newspaper,” as the Times calls itself. There was its infamous (and incorrect) story accusing Michael Dukakis of seeing a psychiatrist. There was its use of the word “homosexual” instead of “gay” in news stories. And there was the curious tendency of its editors to assign front-page news stories about right-wing books, like Pat Buchanan’s anti-immigration screed, State of Emergency.

But pick up a copy of the Washington Times today and, aside from its still vociferously conservative opinion pages, you might mistake it for a regular newspaper. And that’s largely because it is. Less than a month after he assumed the executive editorship of the Washington Times on January 28, former Washington Post reporter John Solomon sent out a brief email to the paper’s staff informing them of five changes to the paper’s style guide. No longer would headline writers be permitted to use “Hillary” to describe the former first lady. “Gay” would replace “homosexual,” “except in clinical references or references to sexual activity.” (Gone, too, were the scare quotes that had once surrounded “gay ‘marriage.’”) “Moderate” would be approved over “centrist,” though the latter was still allowed. And, finally, “illegal immigrant” would replace “illegal alien.”

The news elicited a hue and cry from some of the far-reaches of the right-wing blogosphere, who accused the paper of surrendering to the forces of political correctness. But style guide changes (and a long overdue redesign of the physical paper) were just the more palpable adjustments that Solomon has introduced to the Times, which since its founding in 1982 has aimed to be the conservative id to the Washington Post’s center-left ego. From almost day one, Solomon has been moving the paper from its status as the messenger from the nation’s capital to the conservative heartland into a publication with mainstream credibility. When I asked Solomon what prompted the style change from “homosexual” to “gay,” for instance, he does not say that it was an effort to move the paper away from social conservative rhetoric. It was, rather, “a conscious effort to make sure that readers weren’t focusing on a few choice words rather than the power of the story.” The same goes for his decision to replace “illegal alien” with “illegal immigrant.” Even conservative talk show hosts, he says, “supposed supporters of the use of ‘illegal alien,’ use the words ‘illegal immigrants.’” Long ridiculed as the city’s “Moonie Paper,” the Washington Times is slowly coming back to earth.

* * * *

“They no longer cover immigration the way they have,” complains Robert Stacy McCain, listing but one of many grievances he has with the new Times. Stories on the “Minutemen…border patrol, raids at plants in Iowa used to make Page 1. They don’t make Page 1 anymore. There’s less interest in that kind of coverage.” Gone, too, is the “Capital Pulpit,” a weekly feature that excerpted sermons delivered at D.C.-area churches.

McCain, a former Times assistant national editor, was one of the paper’s more colorful personalities, second only, perhaps, to Moon himself. A regular on Washington’s conservative party circuit, he’s the closest thing to a right-wing Hunter S. Thompson, a confederate-nostalgic gonzo journalist. A former member of the League of the South, McCain had odd news instincts, for instance, covering annual conferences put on by American Renaissance, a white nationalist magazine. (McCain reported on the events as if they were school committee hearings.) According to current and former Times staffers, McCain, Solomon’s predecessor Wesley Pruden (who still writes a column for the paper), and former managing editor Fran Coombs formed a trifecta of hard-right ideologues in the newsroom, all three with neo-Confederate sympathies. (Solomon has since changed the paper’s “Civil War” page—the Times was the only paper in the country to have a weekly section on the Civil War—into a section called “America at War,” which offers stories on American military history over the past 150 years.)

Solomon’s mission, as he explains it, doesn’t seem to differ much from that of any other newspaper editor struggling for relevance in the digital age: to “come up with and break stories that other people don’t have,” and “help transition the Times from being a newspaper into a full multimedia company.” It is at this latter task that his effort has been most impressive. In May, the Times unveiled its new website, and the physical paper underwent a complete redesign in June. Solomon is also introducing a new Sunday magazine to replace Insight, which the paper discontinued in 2004 and now exists only in cyberspace. (It “broke” the story, since debunked, that Barack Obama had attended an Indonesian madrassa as a toddler.) The paper recently built a television and radio studio to facilitate media appearances by its reporters, a task that had previously been complicated by the Times’s physical dislocation from the hub of downtown Washington. (The Times’s offices in Northeast Washington are located so far from civilization that editors have to “steal cable,” a former reporter told me.) Now, Solomon says, Times reporters and editors make two to three dozen media hits per week. Finally, Solomon is eliminating Saturday’s paper edition and converting the Sunday edition into a tabloid.

* * * *

Like many a conservative institution, the Times has been resistant to change. Yet the frightful prospects for the newspaper industry worldwide apparently led Moon’s son Preston (who runs the paper for his father) to decide that the Times should finally start earning a profit. With the help of outside business consultants, management realized that an effective way to go about accomplishing this goal would be to increase the paper’s popularity with a broader audience. Bringing the paper into the black is the most audacious aspect of the Timess revamp, and not just because all newspapers are suffering. In 26 years of operation, it is estimated that Moon has lost well over $1 billion on the Times. In the last few months, the paper has cut dozens of employees.

Solomon tells me that under his watch, the Times is “not pandering to a specific constituency,” a not-so-subtle signal that the paper will no longer be the Fox News of print. But refashioning theTimes into an agenda-less newspaper may prove difficult for Solomon, given that it was founded explicitly to serve ideological purposes. Moon started the Times in part to help America win the Cold War (and also, his detractors allege, to spread his tentacles in the pursuit of world domination) and the paper has always been consciously partisan in its news coverage. McDevitt recalled for me the heady days of the paper’s beginnings with the misty-eyed nostalgia of a true believer. “There was a new freshness and kind of a sense of promise,” he says. “The [Washington] Star had folded, Reagan was in power, the prevailing trend in the media at the time tended to be liberal, center-left.”

The paper’s anti-communist enthusiasm sometimes went beyond mere pontificating. Arnaud De Borchgrave, the derring-do Newsweek foreign correspondent who served as the paper’s editor from 1985 until 1991, established a “Washington Times Nicaraguan Freedom Fund” to aid the contras there. Ronald Reagan said it was his “favorite newspaper.” Throughout the 1990s, the paper devoted intense coverage to conservative pet causes like immigration and women in the military, and hounded the Clintons with a passion rivaled only by the American Spectator. Over a ten month period from 1993 to 1994, a study found, the Times ran 70 percent of its stories about the Whitewater investigations on the front page, a far higher proportion than any other paper. When he served as press secretary to then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Chris Matthews refused to take phone calls from Times reporters.

Given the sorry state of newspapers at the time (the Washington Star, which absorbed the floundering Washington Daily News in 1972, folded in 1981), the birth of the Times was a boon for journalism in the nation’s capital. But the paper was always more than just a conservative alternative to the Post; it has been a pugnacious participant in the country’s culture wars. “The problem wasn’t that it was a conservative paper but that it was appealing to the worst elements of the conservative movement,” a former Times reporter told me. Recognizing this reputation, Solomon seeks to change the paper’s role from a right-wing organ into a neutral purveyor of information, a dramatic change in mission given the paper’s history. The “perfect model” for the Times, Solomon tells me, is “to become for Washington what the Wall Street Journal is for Wall Street.”

Solomon drew criticism from liberals during his years at the AP for investigative pieces he wrote about Harry Reid, criticisms that were re-aired upon his hiring in January, and in our interview he immediately tries to dispel the notion that he’s a conservative wolf in non-partisan journalist sheep’s clothing. He begins by listing his achievements: 20 years at the AP, “more than 100 front-page stories” in just a year at the Post, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism award for his work on a 60 Minutes documentary exposing the FBI’s use of faulty bullet analysis to try criminal defendants. He shows off the Murphy bed in the corner of his office that de Borchgrave would sleep on during all-nighters.

“[Solomon] decided he wants the news pages to be devoid of any slant, and he’s going to be totally in the middle. By going to the center it’s going to be moving to the Left,” a former Times staffer told me. Only at a newspaper which so ardently wears its politics on its sleeve would such a strategy be viewed as an affront. McCain told me that while the beautiful people in Washington and New York may look down upon the Times, the paper has always had a loyal following with conservatives outside the Beltway. He recalls annual forays to the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference, delighting in the cachet that came with working for the Times. “Oh the Washington Times!” the CPAC attendees said. “You’re with the Washington Times? Wow!”

Solomon doesn’t flinch when I ask him about the Times’s reputation as a “weird paper.” “I could say to you that the faith of the owners means as much to me as Don Graham’s faith did when I was at the Washington Post,” he says, a somewhat more artful version of what a previous Times executive editor, Smith Hempstone, said back in 1982 when asked if he had any qualms about cashing checks from a cult leader: “I’ve worked for a lot of publishers who thought they were God.” And Solomon sounds more like an old-fashioned newspaperman than an ideologue, something which cannot be said for his predecessor. Whereas Pruden was notorious for re-writing stories to advance conservative points of view (a process that some staff termed “Prudenizing”), Solomon tells me of his love for “one of the lost skills of journalism, the interview.” He points to the paper’s recent sit-down meeting with Condoleezza Rice where she opened up about the history of racism in America, a topic about which she rarely speaks. The interview “led Brian Williams’s newscast,” Solomon boasts. And it was in a Washington Times interview that former Senator and top McCain economic advisor Phil Gramm bemoaned the “nation of whiners.” Times staff seem to be reacting well to their newfound, mainstream credibility. “If there are people who don’t like [Solomon’s changes] they have laid extremely low,” a Times staffer told me.

While lovers of quality journalism can applaud Solomon’s modernization agenda, is it wrong to rue the fact that one of Washington’s more peculiar right-wing institutions is going the way of direct mail? “It’s a question of what the Washington Times is about,” Robert Stacy McCain says. “The whole concept of 1982 was that Washington was too important a town to have one newspaper delivering the news from one perspective only. So the Washington Times was conceived as an alternative to the Washington Post. If there’s no difference in the news coverage, how then is it an alternative?”

Recent Articles

Sign up to receive articles by email:

powered by TinyLetter