City Paper is not for tourists
For almost 30 years, The Washington Times has devoted itself, so far as anyone inside or outside the paper could tell, to two main purposes: Carrying the banner of free-market conservative Republicans, preferably in outlandish and over-the-top style; and losing money, preferably in the same way.
Which is why the fashion in which the Times emerged from the wrenching purgatory of the past year on Tuesday was perhaps inevitable. As polls opened across the country, the Times staff found itself summoned to its much-depopulated headquarters at 3600 New York Avenue NE for a rare morning meeting, on the rare day they had all planned on showing up anyway, and the first time in more than two years that the gathering didn’t involve another round of beloved veterans getting purged. The Times was finally being saved, and by the same man who created the newspaper, the Rev. Sung Myung Moon, the Korean-born self-proclaimed Messiah who purports to be carrying out the mission Jesus botched by failing to conceive an heir.
“Why are you all gathered here today? Is there a vote going on here?,” Douglas Joo, a longtime loyal disciple of the Unification Church, joked to the staff assembled in a neglected small ballroom in the office building. But by this time everyone knew the good news: Moon had finally committed to reopening his deep pockets to the Times, meaning a restoration of the Moonie cash the newspaper had depended on before the Dark Age that began a year ago.
The Times only ever existed in the first place because of the near-bottomless benevolence of Moon, a convicted tax cheat whose church controls a vast global empire of profitable operations. And as angry conservatives marched to the polls around the country, restoring GOP rule on Capitol Hill, the Unification Church marched back into the newspaper’s offices, restoring Moon’s hardline disciples to rule on New York Avenue NE. Tuesday’s “sale” (to borrow the scare quotes that the paper used to use to refer to gay “marriage”), from Preston Moon, Moon’s Harvard MBA-educated eldest son, to a Delaware-based limited liability corporation led by Joo, who ran the paper back in the early 1990s and is known as “Mr. Joo” in the newsroom, will keep the paper in business.
Preston Moon had started taking control four years ago, with vague dreams of turning the Times into a more mainstream media enterprise that better suited his business education. But somewhere along the way he’d displeased another faction of the Unification Church; his rivals maneuvered to cut off the newspaper’s access to the $40 million or so in annual subsidies it needed, and it wasn’t long before Preston realized they weren’t coming back, and he was stuck paying salaries and expenses out of his own pocket. So a year ago, he fired all but a skeleton staff, axing three quarters of the newsroom just as Bob McDonnell won the governor’s race in Virginia, heralding the official beginning of the Republican comeback that reached an apogee Tuesday. Circulation was temporarily curtailed outside the immediate Capitol Hill area and for the time being, sports and photo, arguably the two most vital components of any profit-seeking newspaper’s Web traffic generation structure, were eliminated entirely. (The sports section closed days before Dan Snyder, the power-mad mogul behind another local institution, hired Mike Shanahan as the head coach of the Washington Redskins, a beat that had previously given the Times a hook with local readers who didn’t really care what the Communists were up to overseas or what nefarious deeds the Democrats were doing in the Capitol.)
For the last year, the staff had toiled in a seemingly interminable limbo. Employees still showed up for work—somewhere other than the dreary newsroom, if they could help it—but they no longer feared the thousandth cut nor pondered the existential torment of a few strategy shifts ago. There was no “strategy” to speak of, or to shift, anymore. It seemed like the paper would just slide slowly into its eventual demise.
Meanwhile, the conservatives the Times had always championed were surging back toward power. “It’s been a bit of a missed opportunity, hasn’t it?” remarks Times editor in chief Sam Dealey very, very wryly. A former Time and U.S. News & World Report writer and fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution who got his start in political journalism as a research assistant to the late Robert Novak, Dealey took the job at the beginning of the year, “optimistic” the Moons and their lawyers would soon agree on how to re-open the cash spigot.
The Unification Church has a rich and well-recorded history of bailing out right-wing opinion leaders and their causes, from Jerry Falwell to Oliver North to direct-mail legend Richard Viguerie, in times of fiscal crisis. Why should it refuse a life preserver to its own vanity project? The church had never belonged to anything like the S&P 500; angry stockholders have never forced management to divest its money-hemorrhaging media asset or coaxed a Wall Street analyst or business reporter to ponder its baffling business model. If it had, the paper would never have survived long enough to become the subject of so many stories about its decline.
Suddenly, optimism bloomed in the newspaper’s headquarters again, or at least in the rhetoric coming out of the Moonie suits who showed up at a staff meeting Tuesday morning to rally the beleaguered troops. The vanquished sports, metro and entertainment sections would come back, Mr. Joo promised, joking repeatedly that they had never really left, that they’d all simply been on an extended “vacation.” The Times was, in short, back to pretending it was a normal newspaper.
The oddity of it was, the past year on a shoestring budget had been the first the Times had ever felt in a fundamental way like a real normal newspaper. Like its bretheren, the Times had been forced to confront the crushing realities of the free market. And while the market clearly had them roundly defeated, the newsroom had gained something in its brutal famine year, simply by surviving. There’s a shared pride among the 68 remaining editorial staffers that was conspicuously absent when I worked at the Times for five months in 1999, and reporters seemed resigned to its demeaning status as the welfare queen of a Korean cult.
But back then, an intern at the Post made about three times what some of the first year reporters pulled in at the Times; normal, non-Moonie newspapers were still awash in cash, which highlights another huge shift in the landscape. Ten years later, when “conservative” is pretty much the only variety of news media that’s making any money, why should the Washington Times—which practically invented the genre—resign itself to an eternity as a wholly-owned subsidiary of a fringe religion?
The short answer is simply that journalism (as opposed to punditry) does not make money, and the Times, for all its “alternative” bias, is an operation largely engaged in the reporting of facts. The longer answer is less conclusive, and potentially more auspicious for the future of Washington’s other newspaper, but it requires an appreciation for the singularly odd history of how America’s (weirdest) newspaper came to exist.
In the beginning, the Times lost money by design. The Unification Church had suffered a decade of relentlessly bad press, culminating in the Rev. Moon’s imprisonment on charges of tax fraud. The main purpose of the Times’ 1982 founding was to restore his tarnished image. The economics almost even made sense: The Washington Star had just folded; the idea that Washington might support two daily broadsheets didn’t seem completely insane.
But over the years, the Times has hired thousands of legitimate journalists at legitimate wages who legitimately paid their taxes—and still no one has ever hit upon a grand theory of what makes the Times tick other than to keep losing money. The economics were never really supposed to make sense. “I never got the sense that the church wanted any of its businesses to be profitable,” says one former reporter. “The way some of its deals were structured, it was just so unfavorable to the Times, it defies logic,” adds an editor.
Back in 1982, though, restoring Moon and his church to a modicum of official prominence in international affairs had economic benefits well outside the media sector. Moon’s worldwide reputation had suffered less from the Internal Revenue Service battle than the revelations, in the late 1970s, that much of the multimillion dollar investment that had seeded an aggressive expansion of the Unification Church in the United States was supplied by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, as part of an elaborate South Korean government campaign to divert attention away from its record of torturing dissidents and other human rights abuses. But Moon’s self-image and ambition had always been vastly bigger than anything South Korea could contain. Within a few years of his arrival in the U.S. in 1971, the church boasted offices in all 50 states, a large real estate portfolio crowned by the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan, and three fisheries that would eventually comprise part of the seafood empire that today controls the American wholesale sushi tuna trade. A repaired reputation could bring with it all sorts of commercial upsides.
Moon’s new newspaper would also announce itself rapidly. In 1985, the octolingual Belgian-born Arnaud de Borchgrave became editor in chief. An outspoken anticommunist, de Borchgrave had been fired from his job as Newsweek’s chief foreign correspondent five years earlier. He’d co-written a bestselling novel, The Spike, about a KGB conspiracy to infiltrate the Western press. (A series of stories about a “network” of leftist ideologues who secretly controlled the media appeared in the Times shortly after his hiring.) He unequivocally defended Moon as the victim of a liberal plot to persecute anti-Communists, organizing (and touting on the front page of the Times) an Oliver North-masterminded, Moon-sponsored pledge drive to raise $14 million to fund the Nicaraguan contras’ war with the Sandinistas.
But de Borchgrave also elevated the Times’ stature by snagging exclusives like a 90-minute interview with Jacques Chirac (in which the French prime minister and future French president mused that the attempted bombing of an El Al flight had been a Mossad-orchestrated framing of Syria), spending millions opening foreign bureaus, and hosting preposterously lavish dinner parties. De Borchgrave slept in an office overlooking the newsroom, in which he was known for performing calisthenics in his underwear (he denied rumors of nude jumping-jacks), keeping a large collection of international military fatigues and spending most of the day chainsmoking and scribbling “Arnaudgrams”—notes to editors consisting primarily of “niggling corrections of a story, often illustrating his superior knowledge or social contacts” in the description of former Times gossip columnist Charlotte Hays—which he would intermittently send floating down into the trenches. The newsroom nicknamed it “yellow rain” after the mysterious sticky substance reported to fall from the sky in Hmong-controlled regions of Laos and Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.
Downstairs, on the receiving end of the yellow rain, a decidedly scrappier pedigree of journalist was on the rise. De Borchgrave’s deputy, Wes Pruden, was a genteel Little Rock-reared segregationist minister’s son and former foreign correspondent with a junior college degree; Fran Coombs was a fouler-mouthed Southerner who played a sort of id to Pruden’s ego and liked to motivate reporters by pumping his fist and reminding them, according to former reporter George Archibald, that “Journalism is war!” Jerry Seper and Paul Rodriguez were former undercover cops who hated liberals; Archibald was a former Capitol Hill staffer who belonged to the first generation of conservatives whose careers had been nurtured in the New Right college network Young Americans for Freedom. A few were actual Moonies.
This loose confederation of unabashedly biased reporters and editors began to establish the Times as the pioneer of right-wing muckraking. In June 1989, the paper bannered “Homosexual Prostitution Inquiry Ensnares VIPs of Bush, Reagan.” The Times billed it as a national security threat, writing of intelligence agencies’ supposed fear that “‘a nest of homosexuals’ at top levels of the Reagan administration may have been penetrated by Soviet-backed espionage agents posing as male prostitutes.” (The pun, presumably, was unintentional.) One client their research dredged up: Mark Tapscott, an assistant managing editor at the paper who quickly resigned. (He is now a contributor to the Washington Examiner.) Soon, a former member of the call-boy ring named Steve Gobie contacted Rodriguez and handed the Times its biggest scoop yet: Congressman Barney Frank. Gobie, it turned out, had serviced clients at the home of the Massachusetts Democrat, his ex-boyfriend. He’d also briefly been on Frank’s payroll. The relationship gave the Times’ lurid fishing expedition some badly-needed legitimacy via phrases like “ethics scandal” and “abuse of power. The paper ran more than three hundred stories about Frank and Gobie that year, with the liberal media following close behind.
It was a defining moment for both Frank and the Times, not least because a pimp told Rodriguez there was another Times editor among his regular clients, and Coombs and Pruden, convinced it was de Borchgrave, mobilized an informal investigation into the off-duty exploits of their boss. De Borchgrave reportedly laughed when he heard about the probe—the mystery client turned out to be a Times editorial board member, according to Archibald’s memoir, Journalism Is War—but he was not long for the paper’s penthouse office after that. As Archibald later recalled in his book, “Arnaud and Wes patched things up, but there was no real trust between them after this.” De Borchgrave began to sleep at home again, backing away from the day-to-day operations of the Times. By the summer of 1991, he was gone, having reluctantly ceded control to Wes Pruden.
With no more Cold War to win, both Moon and the newspaper into which he had, by then, already sunk about a billion dollars needed new missions. Moon pursued peace, embarking on a quixotic mission to repair ties with his native North Korea. But his Times needed war. After reinvigorating the paper with their muckraking in the trenches of the culture wars, Pruden and Coombs decided to try breathing new life into the U.S. Civil War, inaugurating a weekly page on the 1860s in September 1991. The feature helped the paper pick up loyal subscribers throughout many way-way-outside-the-Beltway corners of Virginia; it also won the Times a reputation among hate-speech watchdogs as a repository of writing by segregationist bigots.
But the real dividends of Pruden’s Southern strategy came in 1992, with the nomination of a fellow Arkansan as the Democrats’ presidential candidate. Bill Clinton came to dominate Pruden’s “Pruden on Politics” columns, and not long afterwards, the paper’s front page. The Times had found its great white whale.
“When Clinton came along, that was just like red meat for us,” recalls former national editor Ken Hanner of the era most longtime Times staffers I talked to remember as the glory years. The precise nature of their beef with the 41st president was not exactly clear: Only investigative reporter Bill Gertz, who regularly assailed Clinton for compromising national security, seemed to have an ideological axe to grind. Perhaps because they were jaded or because he seemed clearly to prefer women, Clinton’s sexual history energized the newsroom less than the other kinds of company he kept, in part because the formidable fundraising machine that had catapulted him so suddenly to the nomination seemed unusual for Arkansas.
The first rabid press probes into Whitewater ultimately degenerated into such a tiresome and embarrassing perma-inquisition that it is easy to forget how creepy it was when, precisely six months after the Clinton inauguration, deputy White House counsel Vince Foster committed suicide—and even creepier still when the world learned (via a Jerry Seper Times exclusive) that Hillary Clinton had ordered an aide to transfer all the files in Foster’s office to her residence (and out of subpoena jurisdiction) that same night. Most journalists trusted neither the Clintons nor the Arkansans the right dredged up to attest to their scandalous behavior, and there was little glory in parsing the he-said, she-said of it—unless you were the Times, which reveled in the first liberal presidency of its brief lifetime. Finally, they were getting to speak the proverbial truth to power. Some truths were still, of course, more equal than others: When Archibald wrote a piece on the third anniversary of Foster’s death concluding that he had, in fact, committed suicide, Pruden killed it “just hours before the first edition hit presses,” he claims in his book.
There’s a reason, though, that Times staffers look back so fondly on the Clinton years. The ’90s helped propel the paper, but they also planted the seeds that would eventually leave it where it is now merely a player—but not the player—in a right-wing media conspiracy that’s grown vaster than the worst nightmares Hillary Clinton could have had back then. The Whitewater investigations the Times and its feverish coverage helped bring about led to Monica Lewinsky, and semen-stained blue dresses, and Lucianne Goldberg. And Matt Drudge. Drudge’s lo-fi website drove the frenzy around Lewinsky, and from there, it was only a matter of time before the “right-geist” moved on from old-fashioned print newspapers—even the crazy Moonie-run ones—to blogs, and cable news channels, and whatever you want to call the weird empire now run by Andrew Breitbart (who got his 1990s start working for Drudge, not Moon). By the time George W. Bush arrived in the Oval Office, the Times had already started to slide into its current messy limbo.
If the Unification Church were launching The Washington Times today, the first thing media blogs would seize upon would be the Rev. Moon’s weird micromanagement of Moonie sex lives. Following their group weddings to random strangers, Moonieweds follow a three-day instruction manual to consummate their unions. It works something like a military operation. The manual dictates which sexual positions are used each day, the positioning of cushions and the obligatory photograph of the Rev. Moon during the various acts, the direction from which “holy salt” must be sprinkled in order to properly “sanctify” the room. There’s also an elaborate process by which the couple cleanses their sexual organs afterwards, using an official church-supplied “holy handkerchief” sprinkled with a mysterious fluid that is supposed to contain the “essence” of Moon himself. Moon preaches that sex that deviates from this rigorous regimen is sullied by a spiritual sort of venereal disease first passed to Adam by Eve after she cheated on him with the archangel Lucifer.
One of the benefits of starting up a newspaper in the days before Gawker, though, is that no one ever really connected the newspaper’s devoted monitoring of the minutiae of politician’ sex lives with its own theological monitoring of members’ sexual minutiae. But the rise of the Times is a story infested with unfortunate sexual subplots—so it was probably inevitable that the nadir of its decline came when the paper’s human resources manager was arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover cop posing as a 13-year-old girl on Sept. 26, 2006.
The arrest came a couple weeks after The Nation had published a devastating exposé of the Times newsroom culture supposedly fostered by Coombs, in which more than a dozen Times staffers and ex-staffers attributed a long list of racist remarks to their boss, and one recounted his alleged campaign to sabotage her career after she rejected his come-ons and reported him for “forcibly” kissing her at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City. (Her formal internal complaint was allegedly ignored by the aforementioned HR manager.)
No one was exactly sure what to make of The Nation‘s piece, because very few at the Times had encountered a Coombs that was anything like the insane bigot depicted in the story. The story also quoted at length George Archibald, who had gone somewhat publicly off the proverbial deep end since leaving the paper the year earlier, keeping a blog that alternated posts about his run-ins with the Middleburg, Va., police with attacks on the Times. But the Times newsroom had always been a strangely civil place, where editors and reporters were careful not to directly voice political views for fear of disturbing the precarious harmony that kept the paper coming out every day. As a former Times sports editor wrote in a blog comment cautiously defending Coombs, “I have my antennae up for that sort of thing all the time, and I find it difficult to believe Fran was [racist],” even though “it would not surprise me to learn that any Republican is racist.” It did not help his case that Coombs’ wife Marian is a self-proclaimed “white nationalist” who had contributed to white supremacist blogs, or that he had the year earlier come under ACLU scrutiny for leading a dubious newsroom campaign to promote the Minutemen Project, an anti-immigration vigilante justice group that was the subject of 55 Times stories in 2005.
What was clear was the Times was headed for a shakeout. Suddenly, the word “Moonie” was no longer the Times’ biggest obstacle to being taken seriously. Preston Moon, Moon’s Harvard MBA son, had been displeased with the Southern boys ever since Pruden had implied in a C-SPAN interview in early 2006 that Coombs’ anointment as his successor was a done deal. Here was an opportunity to sack both of them in the interest of brand management. Still, the two spent another year negotiating exit strategies as Moon deliberated over what to do next, hiring consultants to produce a prescription for profitability. “They went on and on about ‘best practices’ and ‘low-hanging fruit’ and all that MBA-speak,” recalls a former editor who was underwhelmed by their efforts. “They ran some numbers and told us ‘if you double the web traffic, you’ll be profitable.’ But that’s just a fantasy. Even in the best of times, it’s been fairly impossible for any newspaper to support itself through Internet advertising.”
Moon finally fixed on John Solomon, then a Washington Post reporter, to succeed Pruden. While many in the newsroom were relieved to be free of Coombs’ “redneck” sensibilities, the honeymoon was short-lived, this time for run-of-the-mill industry reasons. Wooed for what was believed to be a much cushier-than-usual compensation package—the editorial page editor under Solomon made $225,000 a year, plus a $5,000 signing bonus, according to a wrongful termination lawsuit he would later file—Solomon’s first two orders of business involved axing 30 reporters and ordering those who remained to double Internet traffic. The larger change was one of worldview: where Pruden and Coombs had always counseled the staff to see the Times as an “alternative voice” to the Post, as opposed to a direct competitor, Solomon said he saw the Times as the “Wall Street Journal of politics”—which reporters say meant in practice that he wanted the conservative ideology reserved for the editorial pages, while the reporting staff was instructed to emulate Politico.
“There were multiple days where it would be 6 in the morning or 10 at night and Solomon would send a Politico story to a reporter and instruct him or her to ‘match’ it,” says one reporter. As much as the newsroom might have felt liberated from Coombs’ style rules (in which illegal immigrants were “aliens” and “marriage” was in scare quotes whenever it was prefaced by “gay”), they did not feel particularly liberated in other respects. Expensive redesigns of both the Times website and the print edition that left neither looking much better—or different—took a toll on morale as well.
Still, no one was prepared for the dramatic chain of events that began to unfold over the fall of 2009, when Solomon mysteriously stopped coming into the office, a cadre of extra security guards showing up in his place. After a few top executives resigned suddenly in November, it gradually emerged that the Moonies had cut off the Times, and Preston Moon was exacting his revenge. Exactly what sort of exit package Solomon, who had only fulfilled half of his three-year contract, had arranged for himself was unclear, but it seemed evident that silence was one of its conditions. “People felt really betrayed by John Solomon,” says a former reporter.
By the end of the year they had bigger problems; nearly three quarters of the 350-strong newsroom staff was out of a job. Jonathan Slevin, a veteran Moonie who had allied himself with Preston, oversaw the “market-based restructuring” and brought in Dealey to serve as Solomon’s presumptive heir. But within a few months Slevin, too, was gone; in an irate farewell memo to the skeleton Times staff, he blamed Dealey for betraying him.
And so Sam Dealey came to sit atop the masthead of “America’s Newspaper.” He had little experience at a daily newsroom before coming to the Times—the running joke in the office, reportedly initiated with a comment from Dealey’s father, is that this is his “first real job”—but that is probably just as well. By all accounts, he is a nice and humble guy who figured out how to placate Preston and keep reporters relatively optimistic about their chances of making it through the famine.
Now, of course, there are new masters to placate, and new questions to reassure reporters about. Before the sale went through, Dealey’s dreams about how to turn the paper around were reasonably small-scale; step one would be to move out of the space on New York Avenue, which he called a “too-big suit,” and find new digs closer to Capitol Hill, in time to greet all the new conservatives in Congress and become more visible as an institution, as opposed to just being that oddball website Drudge likes to link to. “I don’t think the right realizes how important we are to them,” he says.
Before he can do anything about that, of course, Dealey must convince Joo and Co. he is important to the Times, or at least important enough to keep him on as editor. The odds aren’t exactly in his favor, since his brief tenure has been undistinguished by definition, but the staffers I talked to Tuesday were unanimously rooting for him, in the automatic way you root for the woman who reads every night to the reckless driver who almost killed her until he wakes up from his coma. (If this happens, other than in Sandra Bullock movies.) There’s nothing particularly rational about that sort of commitment, either, but you have to hand it to the Moonies and the Times and the vast right-wing conspiracy from whence they all came: They don’t let up easy.