Saturday, November 21, 2009

The real (?) story behind the recent
turmoil at The Washington Times

Because I worked for 10 years at The Washington Times, several people have asked me what I know about recent reports of chaos and catastrophe at the newspaper. As I've explained here from time to time, my decision to leave the Times in January 2008 was the result of various personal and professional considerations, including the desire to be able to do more of the kind of on-the-scene reporting that I did in the 2008 presidential campaign and the NY23 special election.

When "insider" tales about the operations of The Washington Times come out in the media, there's always an element of bias, as the news organizations publishing the reports are, at the very least, business competitors of the newspaper, if not indeed political adversaries. And because I was often mendaciously backstabbed by gossipy anonymous "inside sources," I know better than to accept at face value the stuff that gets leaked out of the Times newsroom.

However, a friendly fellow journalist recently asked me what I knew about the latest brouhaha at the newspaper, and I felt obliged to share what little I knew. Perhaps some good might be done by sharing with blog readers what I wrote to that friend:
Nearly all I know -- or think I know -- about the recent upheaval at The Washington Times is what has been reported in the media, and you know how badly misinformed such reports can be. I have talked to various sources, but they have conflicting tales, so there is not much in the way of "special insight" I can share with you. Keep those caveats in mind, then, as you read my summary of the situation as I understand it.
During Wes Pruden's long tenure as editor in chief, his most important role -- little understood by his detractors -- was to serve as a "firewall" between the newsroom and the Unification Church. It seems to me obvious that the Rev. Moon came to trust Mr. Pruden's judgment as a professional newsman, so that when the newspaper came under attack from various enemies (including certain disgruntled, disloyal and dishonest employees), it was Mr. Pruden's authority that preserved the independence of the news operation.
Over the past decade, as the Rev. Moon grew older, he gradually delegated responsibilities that he once undertook personally. As a result, it seems the internecine squabbles within the Unification Church became more troublesome than ever to the operations of the Times. After 2004, when it began to be rumored that Mr. Pruden would retire as editor in chief of the paper, there commenced a lot of jockeying for position and backstabbing within the newsroom, especially by Mr. Pruden's internal critics, who sought above all else to deny the editorship to Pruden's second-in-command, Francis Coombs.
The Rev. Moon has reportedly chosen his son, Preston, to succeed him as supervisory proprietor of the newspaper. I've never had any direct dealing with Preston Moon and have no cause to dislike him or to judge his abilities, although he has a Harvard MBA and is therefore to be presumed a shrewd businessman. However, it appears that Preston Moon allowed himself to be swayed by Mr. Pruden's critics, so that Coombs was passed over, given a generous severance deal, and John Solomon was hired from the Washington Post.
This past week, some have told me that, contrary to what has been widely reported, the real story behind the recent ouster of Solomon (and three executives at The Washington Times) was financial. Preston Moon had become concerned that Solomon was spending far too much on an ambitious "re-branding" of the Times. Preston was also reportedly concerned that, under Solomon, the paper was losing its once-formidable market position as the nation's premier conservative news-gathering organization.
Of course, my sources for that version of the story are second-hand at best, and I share this with you only by way of suggesting that the real story about this recent turmoil may be either more complex or more simple than most people suspect. And I trust you won't mind if share this message (without identifying its recipient) with my blog readers.
Jonathan Slevin, recently named acting president and publisher of the Times, has published a note addressing some of the recent media reports. As to what happens next, I haven't the slightest clue, and would hesitate to offer any suggestions.

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