Issue 5: September/October

WASHINGTON 2002
The Other Paper

The Washington Times's role

The line between politics and just about anything else in Washington has always been thin. But even by D.C. standards, The Washington Times is a special case. Consider this sampling of recent front-page headlines:

Democrat’s former firm named in scheme to inflate stock prices

Economy’s woes tied to Clinton-era fiscal abuses

Fathers of faith give more time to their children

Tailhook scandal ‘injustice’ righted; retired officer to get promotion

Church, state ‘wall’ not idea of Jefferson; fear of Catholics by justice cited

Republicans push minority candidates

If you detect a tilt here, you aren’t alone. “The Times still provides the conservative political perspective from a nuts and bolts approach,” says the conservative author Kevin Phillips. “They have everything in the paper from the mainstream right to the far right to the flaky right.”

Conservative, yes, but not Republican, says the Times editor-in-chief, Wesley Pruden. “We are not a Republican paper. We are conservative, but conservative with a small c. We have a very eclectic curiosity and we sometimes have a front-page story that others wouldn’t.”

Born amid the Reagan revolution, the paper was launched twenty years ago by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, who wanted a paper that would fight communism and serve as a conservative counterweight to the liberal media biases — meaning The Washington Post — that he believed ruled D.C.

Since then, though, conservative media voices have erupted like cherry blossoms along the Potomac — from talk radio to The Weekly Standard to Fox News. But inside the Beltway, people still read the Times precisely for that other perspective that Moon intended. “A lot of lobbyists and people on the Hill get it,” says Charlie Cook, publisher of the Cook Political Report. “But you really have to read the whole thing with an eye toward ‘interesting, if true.’ ”

So the Times’s tilt, then, can be a strength, too. It forces stories into the mainstream that might not otherwise get there. democrats don’t plan to question rubin was the headline on a page-one story July 25 that revealed how, in their rush to grill Citigroup officials about their role in hiding Enron’s debt, Senate Democrats overlooked Robert Rubin, the former Clinton treasury secretary. The day after the Rubin story, Howard Kurtz, the Post’s media writer, wrote an article taking the press to task for not asking questions about Rubin’s role in Enron.

In addition to giving voice to stories that, as Pruden says, “others miss,” the Times plays an important role in Washington’s journalistic farm system. The paper has been a springboard for young reporters to jobs at The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, even the Post. Lorraine Woellert, who worked at the Times from 1992 to 1998, says her experience there allowed her to jump directly to her current job at Business Week. “I got a lot of opportunities very quickly. They appreciated and rewarded talent and, frankly, there was a lot of turnover.”

From the beginning, the Times’s affiliation with Moon saddled it with the perception, rightly or not, that it was a “Moonie” paper. Pruden and others at the paper strongly protest this label, but it has proved impossible to shake entirely. At the Times’s twentieth anniversary party in May, for example, Moon delivered an hour-long speech in Korean that featured lines like, “The Washington Times will become the instrument in spreading the truth about God to the world.”

Pruden says Moon hasn’t visited the Times in at least a year, and doesn’t pressure him editorially. Still, it is Moon’s largess that keeps the Times afloat. Exact numbers on the privately owned paper are hard to get, but published reports indicate Moon has sunk nearly $2 billion into the Times. Ads fill, on average, only about 35 percent of the Times’s pages, compared with the industry average of 50 to 60 percent. Circulation is up — 109,000 Monday through Friday — but is still only a fraction of the Post’s 810,000. Commercially, then, the Times is kind of a skinny-looking contender in the D.C. ring, held up by its trainer. Editorially, however, it still packs a wicked right hook.

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