Styles of the Times: Solomon strips loaded language from Moonie paper. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

On Jan. 28, former AP and Washington Post reporter John Solomon took over as executive editor of the Washington Times. In his first weeks on the job, he hosted several coffees with staffers to hear their thoughts and communicate his vision for the paper.

Among the anecdotes he told his peers is this one: One day, a colleague approached him and asked, “Are you one of us?”

The question took Solomon by surprise. He spat out an answer that went something along the lines of: Well, I’m a journalist.

Had Solomon undergone his official Washington Times Ideological Litmus Test?

At least two of Solomon’s colleagues took away that message. Solomon won’t talk about private newsroom discussions, but says, “If anyone in the newsroom has any perception that there should be any litmus-testing to our news coverage or that any divisions in the newsroom are acceptable, I’ve worked hard to dispel that.”

Solomon notes that he has taken on the internal Times mantra that “news is war.”

“In a war you have to take a side,” he says. “And journalists have to cover both sides of a war.”

Speaking of war, Solomon has engaged in virtually none of the ideological sort since taking over perhaps the most conservative daily in America. No mass desertions of journalists who wanted to write slanted copy. No rearguard efforts to save the legacy of former Executive Editor Wesley Pruden. No campaign to name the newsroom after Reagan.

Says Solomon: “The only point I have made with the reporters and editors who write for the news pages is there must be a bright line between opinion and editorializing that rightfully belongs on the op-ed and commentary pages and the fair, balanced, accurate, and precise reporting that must appear in the news sections of the paper.”

In itself, that’s a big change. Under the previous regime, editors in both the news and editorial operations answered directly to Pruden. Even not-so-sophisticated readers could sniff out the resulting distortions in news coverage, especially in politics—backers of conservative causes generally got nice play, the Bush administration could always count on the Times as its official organ for positive Iraq news, and the Times’ crusade against civil liberty-impinging traffic cameras got barrels of ink.

Solomon will be lording over the news staff but not the opinion-makers, a point that pleases the paper’s reporters. “Change is good,” says Times columnist John McCaslin.

Building a firewall, of course, marks just one important measure in de-politicizing the Washington Times, which is owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. Solomon is taking several others, starting with a reticence about the old guard.

When asked for his take on the news coverage captained by Pruden and his deputy, Francis Coombs, Solomon replies, “I started on Jan. 28 and I only look forward….You can go through all news media and find stories that weren’t balanced,” he continues, offering up the recent pieces on presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain in the New York Times and the Washington Post. “Every day there are stories where we miss the mark.”

And if there’s one topic that Solomon is freakish about, it’s that his Washington Times not be perceived as politically motivated. When asked about a recent story that exposed inconsistencies in the campaign positions of Barack Obama, Solomon launches right in: “That was a fair, evenhanded story, and it highlighted issues that people hadn’t examined before.”

Tamping down bias in news coverage is a challenge that editors face in dailies across the country—from both ends of the political spectrum. It’ll require constant vigilance on the part of Solomon and his popular choice for managing editor, veteran Times editor David Jones.

On this front, Solomon caught a big break days before he started as executive editor. That’s when Robert Stacy McCain, a right-wing champ and former member of hate group/Southern heritage upholder League of the South, resigned from the Times to work on a book project. McCain was the longtime editor of the culture page, which features a series of clippings from other media outlets. Media outlets like the American Spectator, the American Conservative, the Weekly Standard, ConservativeVoice.com, et cetera.

The column had a certain missionary feel to it, communicating to Times readers just how honest a news broker they were getting. And if they needed further evidence that the paper had some bizarre agendas behind it, they needed only to check out McCain’s Internet rantings. His resignation letter included this bit:

“In 1997, my wife and I knelt together in our home in Georgia, and prayed that I would be hired by The Washington Times. Every time I’ve become dissatisfied with this job, my conscience has chastened me for my sinful ingratitude, knowing that I was complaining about an answered prayer.”

Another way for Solomon’s paper to bury its tendentious past is to simply toss out its stylebook. The Washington Times copy desk, after all, served for years as the wellspring of the Pruden era’s greatest conservative excesses. While other papers generally embraced plain English in fashioning their internal copy rules, the Times adopted another standard altogether.

Just take a look at the headlines and ledes from these December 2007 Times pieces:

Frederick seeks authority to deal with illegals; Maryland unlikely to heed county’s call for a constitutional convention measure.

By Tom LoBianco

Frederick County officials have taken an unusual step to draw attention to their efforts to deal with a growing problem with illegal aliens in their community: They have asked state lawmakers to pass a measure calling for a constitutional convention.

Gay ‘marriage’ legislation finds few ’07 victories; Supporters, opponents each dealt legal blows across U.S.

By Cheryl Wetzstein

The legal landscape for same-sex “marriage” changed very little in 2007, as both supporters and opponents were dealt setbacks.

The biggest loss for traditional-values supporters occurred in Massachusetts, the only state that legally allows same-sex couples to “marry.”….

For homosexual rights activists, a victory occurred in August when an Iowa court ruled there was a constitutional right to same-sex “marriage.” That case, brought by six homosexual couples, was appealed and is expected to go before the Iowa Supreme Court.

These copy-desk anomalies leap from the page. The Pruden Times customarily put quotes around gay marriage and refused to call gays gays; they had to be homosexuals. By the same logic, illegal immigrants couldn’t be called illegal immigrants; they had to be aliens. The odd placement of quotes and labels distinguished the Times as both conservative and creepy.

In April 2006, Pruden told the Washington City Paper why the Times did these things. On the gay “marriage” question, he said, “It’s not really marriage except in Massachusetts….It’s not recognized in 49 of the 50 states.” The point of the Times’ style sheet, said Pruden, was “all a matter of trying to be understood and trying to be as precise as possible.”

On Monday, the Solomon regime made clear its opinion on Pruden’s stylebook. A five-point Times memo stated that “gay” is “preferred over homosexual,” banned the gay-marriage quotes, and deported all references to “illegal aliens,” among other changes.

Reporters have been invited to offer their thoughts on official Times style, a significant break from the status quo before Solomon. “Even if you talk to Wes Pruden or Fran Coombs, in their opinion, what the Washington Times was under them was an editor’s paper and so the editor would decide in consultation with other editors [on style questions],” says longtime reporter Jerry Seper.

Prior to Solomon’s hiring, the Times commissioned extensive consulting reports that examined the paper’s branding and market position. One of the findings, according to a source who heard an abridgment of the reports, was a reader perception that the Times’ commentary bled into its news pages. Tom McDevitt, president of Washington Times LLC, says that the research showed the paper must provide “enterprise, investigative journalism of the highest quality, which means that it can’t be tilted.”

Solomon declines to comment on the reports’ specifics, but gushes over what they symbolize. “The consultants came in and did some hard thinking, some deep and rich thinking, and I get the benefit….I get to inherit all of this,” he says.