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Moonie journalism; at the Washington Times, it's better than you might think.

Moonie Journalism

Last November, an unusual thing happened to The Washington Times, no stranger to the unusual. In an exclusive interview, French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac told the Times's editor-in-chief, Arnaud de Borchgrave, that West German leaders believed a purported plot to blow up an Israeli airliner the previous April had been faked by Israel's secret service to implicate Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.

That The Washington Times broke a major story wasn't news. It had beaten the pack on stories such as Frank Carlucci's appointment to the National Security Council, James Watt's resignation, and Senator Paul Laxalt's secret mission to the Philippines in 1985. Nor was it unusual that the Times interview produced an international flap, causing an uproar in France where it became known as "l'affaire Chirac.' An exclusive interview with imprisoned South African black leader Nelson Mandela in August 1985 had received world-wide notice. What was unusual was the way it was covered by The New York Times. The newspaper of record published Chirac's charges, credited The Washington Times, and managed to avoid a single mention of the Rev. Sung Myung Moon or the Unification Church. For the The Washington Times, it was something of a breakthrough.

Since it was founded in 1982, the paper has spent nearly as much time explaining its ownership as it has chasing down stories. As Times officials are fond of saying, at least once every five minutes in the presence of any outside reporter, the paper is owned, not by the Unification Church itself but by News World Communications, a for-profit holding company owned by church officials. But in its efforts to bury the ownership controversy, scoop by journalistic scoop, the Times has found that the job might be done better with a 10-ton earth mover. Unlike most organizations associated with funding a major daily newspaper, the Unification Church has been accused of brainwashing its followers, aiding the Korean CIA, and trying to establish a worldwide theocracy. The Sulzbergers and Grahams may have skeletons in their closets, but you don't see them marrying off their progeny in Madison Square Garden.

Yet, the Chirac scoop and many others like it are helping to shift the public focus from the Times's ownership to its performance, and by that standard the Times is a pretty good paper. By being the conservative paper under a conservative administration, it has scored its share of exclusives. President Reagan calls it his favorite paper which should say something about both the paper's conservative tilt and its colorful easy-to-read format. And with thorough local coverage, this unabashedly conservative Korean-owned paper is stealing black readers from the more liberal Washington Post. All said, the Times is well worth the quarter.

The Moon and the Star

While many Unification Church papers, particularly The New York City Tribune, are dressed-up propaganda sheets produced almost exclusively by church followers, the Times's reporters are mostly professional journalists, though a few Moonie holdovers from the paper's earlier days remain in the newsroom.

Very early in the game, the Koreans got the word that the best way to influence public opinion was to have their paper resemble everyone else's. Neither the newspaper nor its headquarters look out of the ordinary. (Indeed, if you were to visit the Times's building and then USA Today's lobby, which is dominated by a huge bust of owner Allen Neuharth, you would have a tough time deciding which one was owned by a cult leader.) When The Washington Times was launched in May 1982 it could draw from a ready pool of reporters who had been laid off when The Washington Star folded the year before. "In the early days, we used to say that the Star was alive and living on New York Avenue,' recalls Wesley Pruden, now Times managing editor. Even today, there's more Star than Moon in The Washington Times. Not only are many of the Star alums conservative, like their bosses, but they also share an almost pathological hatred of the Post, the liberal nemesis that put them on the street and lacked the good sense to offer them jobs.

At first, the Times was a cranky underdog, scarcely running an issue without a dig at the Evil Empire on 15th Street. For instance, in 1984, when the Post prominently mentioned the Times in a series on the Unification Church, the Times quickly countered with its own "investigative' series, "Inside the Post.' The series was mostly cocktail party back-biting accompanied by a crude drawing of a feeding shark, by the daughter of Times Executive editor Smith Hempstone.

Such snarling has yet to hurt the Post, whose 796,000 circulation is roughly eight times that of the Times. On Sundays, the Post is read by an incredible 78 percent of the Washington area, the highest "penetration' in the country; the Times doesn't even publish on weekends. More importantly, the Post's lead in annual advertising revenue ($473 million to $4.2 million) makes it practically invincible.

Yet in recent years, particularly since the arrival of de Borchgrave, the Times has gone after the Post with dogged reporting. "The way to sting the Post,' says de Borchgrave, formerly of Newsweek, "is to get stories they want, and get them in the paper before they get them in theirs.' The paper's scoops are all the more remarkable since the Times's 230-member staff is less than half that of the Post.

It's no coincidence that the Times's strong suits include de Borchgrave's primary areas of interest--foreign policy and intelligence. The paper seems to have cultivated a number of spooks who leak to reporters they undoubtedly consider friendly. Several times it has paid off with a big story, notably the defection of KGB official Vitaly Dzurtchenko. Such chumminess with conservative sources has its drawbacks for the Times--not everyone leaks straight. Misled by intelligence sources, the Times reported that Muammar Quaddafi had fled to Yemen after the U.S. bombing raid when, it turns out, he was still in Libya.

Connections to the conservative establishment make the Times a ready forum for policy battles. One of the best ways conservatives have found to press their own agenda is to leak a story to the Times as a sort of pre-emptive strike. In September, for instance, hawks opposed to the nomination of Paul Nitze to head the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, leaked the story that he had been chosen over the even more hardline Army Lt. General Edward Rowny. While the Post carried no story on the fight to fill this slot, the Times ran it as their lead article. Brimming with quotes from unnamed conservatives in Congress and the administration, it read like a legal brief against Nitze's nomination.

Just as the Times has cultivated conservatives in Washington, it has managed to tap contacts in right-wing governments abroad. Its exclusive interview with Nelson Mandela, for example, would have been impossible without the cooperation of the South African government, which clearly had reason to believe that the Times would cast them in the best possible light. (Indeed, the Times made prominent note of Mandela's statement that, faced with the choice, he would prefer communism to apartheid.) And its coverage of the South African government from correspondent Peter Younghusband has been particularly good. While many papers cover the Botha government as a monolithic impediment to social change, Younghusband more accurately covers it as a squawking and fractionalized impediment to social change.

The federal bureaucracy, a beat often given short shrift at the Post, has been taken seriously by the Times. To lead the charge, the Times hired someone who really knew it, Mark Tapscott, assistant director of public affairs at the Office of Personnel Management under Reagan. Tapscott has broken several important stories on the machinations of NASA and Morton-Thiokol both before and after the space shuttle disaster.

Even when the Times is wrong, it can be an important player in Washington. That was certainly the case last July when the chairman of the Iran-contra committee, Senator Daniel Inouye, appeared on "Face the Nation.' Inouye said that the committee held possession of a memo suggesting that the president had been briefed on the diversion of Iranian arms sales profits for covert activities. Moderator Leslie Stahl followed up by asking whether the memo constituted a smoking gun. The Times, putting the two together in its own way, ran a headline the next day: "Committee Holds "a Smoking Gun,' Chairman Reveals.'

This overstatement might have been unimportant, if not for the fact that the president himself was seemingly misled by the Times's accounts. According to one administration official, quoted in The Washington Post, Reagan became disturbed when he read a headline in his favorite paper, the Times, saying that the joint committee held a "Smoking Gun.'

Black & white and read all over

While it may come as no surprise that the conservative Times is attracting conservative readers, the rest of its audience is less predictable--46 percent of its readership is black. In part, this stems from strong anti-Post sentiment. For years, many of the city's black leaders have charged the Post with unfair coverage and undue neglect. Last autumn, the complaints became more pointed when the debut issue of the newly revamped and much-ballyhooed Washington Post Magazine featured two articles that outraged many blacks. One was the cover story about a black rap singer accused of murder; the other, a piece by Post columnist Richard Cohen that seemed to side with local shopkeepers who refused to admit young, black males because they are statistically more likely to shoplift. Within a week of its debut, a coalition of black organizations staged what would be a three-month long protest against the Post, dumping copies of the magazine on the doorstep of the paper's office building every Sunday afternoon.

It was certainly not the first time that a "white' paper in a city with concentrations of minorities had come under fire. (The Miami Herald, for instance, has been excoriated by Miami Cuban-Americans.) But the charges were unusually fierce and the racism label was especially painful for the Post's editors, who had prided themselves as the city's liberal conscience. Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee and Publisher Donald Graham have since made several public displays of contrition. Editorially, their paper has run a spate of black "success' stories so light they nearly floated off the page, such as the magazine cover story, "A Joyful Noise,' about a black church choir.

Finally, the Times appeals to blacks by being a hard-nosed city paper. Their coverage of municipal corruption is typical. (Several of Mayor Marion Barry's top aides are in jail, and while Barry himself has not been formally charged with any crime, he has had to deny a host of accusations, including graft, drug abuse, and a relationship with a convicted drug dealer.) The Times not the Post has been the real muckracker. Five days passed before the Post got around to covering a Times story that the associate director of the D.C. Office of Human Rights had been fired after mental health officials dubbed him "dangerous' and "incapacitated.'

On the Barry scandal, the Times was first to report a rift between the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office in pursuing the case and possible racketeering charges against members of the Barry administration. Even on less subtantive, but juicier, sidelights to the Barry story, the kind of gossip that is the Post's trademark, the Times has fared better, for instance beating the Post by days on the mayor's strange visit to the apartment of a young part-time model, Grace Shell. This past summer, the Post unofficially recognized the the Times's clout when a Post night editor on the metro desk called over to ask that a copy of Times be delivered upon publication.

According to market research, uncluttered layout and color appeal to a wide range of readers, blacks among them. Also, the Times has revived a dying tradition in many American cities--hiring young hawkers to sell copies of the paper at the city's downtown subway stations. The fact that nearly every hawker is black may reinforce the perception that the Times is a "black' paper.

Editor de Borchgrave says one of his first mandates as editor was to find more stories about blacks, and he clearly isn't losing any sleep over the Post's well-publicized problems with the black community. "What is it that I kept reading in The Washington Post about the blacks is that they shoot their veins all the time,' says de Borchgrave.

But the Times's courtship of blacks does, occasionally, have a pandering tone, such as when it sent a reporter to Martha's Vineyard for a prominent feature on where the "black elite meet.' In its desire to expand circulation it occasionally put aside even strongly held beliefs. Last winter, the paper printed a special section honoring Martin Luther King's birthday, even though the paper's opinion pages were at best cool to the idea of a holiday for King. Meanwhile, blacks in the Reagan administration get big play. De Borchgrave said he has "called my friends in the administration and said as soon as a black gets promoted somewhere, gets an important job in the bureaucracy, I want to know about it.' That must keep his phone ringing off the hook.

"[The Times] is making a conscious offort to plug into the black community,' says Cathy Hughes, a black broadcaster who spearheaded the protest against the Post last fall. "Now whether or not they'll be successful I think is another thing. I think some of their columnists will have black readers running away quicker than they can recruit them.'

Take Lawrence Wade, a black columnist at the Times, and a sort of hyper-conservative balance to the Post's William Raspberry. On issues such as welfare, minority hiring, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s place in history, Wade's views are not very different from those shared by most white country club conservatives. But Wade gets to validate his remarks by writing, "and I'm black, too,' a phrase which he inserts into his copy with revealing regularity.

The Times isn't all conservatives and corruption. Its sports section, while usually not as wide-ranging as the Post's, is often more thorough. Its coverage of the Redskins is particularly strong, an important factor considering that the Redskins boast more public support than any political candidate in Washington. When the Post's sports section came out with a prominently played story this past summer saying that former quarterback Joe Theismann had a drinking problem, the Times didn't hop on the bandwagon, so to speak. The restraint paid off--the drinking story turned out to be largely the joint effort of a Post reporter a bit too eager to break a story and of Joe Theismann, a bit too eager to sell his recently published autobiography.

Because syndication companies favor the Post's big circulation and better name, the Times misses first-run conservative columnists such as William Buckley, and first-run comics such as Bloom County. The paper is forced to make due with Hazel, Heathcliff, and Ben Wattenberg. But the Times has tried hard to give its pages life. On Labor Day, the Metro and Business sections expanded, given their own front "faces' (previously, the sections had been buried inside the paper). The paper's "Weekend' section was moved to Thursday, beating the Post by a day, and an expanded TV section debuted in July. Marketing research by White House pollster Richard Wirthlin convinced the Times to spruce up its graphics and cut down on jumps (continued on . . .) for stories. In contrast to the great, grey Post, the Times makes liberal use of color, probably the only thing it does liberally.


The ongoing question at the Times, of course, is what about the Moonies. In 1984, editor Jim Whalen quit over what he called church influence. Last April editorial page editor William Cheshire and four colleagues resigned with similar complaints. Cheshire maintains that de Borchgrave, acting on behalf of the owners, pressured him to kill an editorial critical of the South Korean government. In what has become a familiar pattern, those still at the Times say it's a matter of a disgruntled employee crying "Moon'; those no longer at the Times say its a matter of disgruntled Moonies crying for tighter control of their paper.

While it is impossible to know precisely what control the Moonie owners have, it's clear that most of the editors don't need their arms twisted. They're conservatives, like de Borchgrave, whose best-selling novel The Spike was a good-natured look at the Soviet manipulation of the American media. His views are simpatico with those of Colonel Hi Bo Pak, the chiek executive officer of the Times's holding company, and a man who has loftier ambitions than conquering suburban markets. As he told Conservative Digest: Reverend Moon "would like to liberate Moscow by the year 2000.'

While acknowledging that their stories are right-leaning, Times editor insist that they are not unfair. "We don't "cook' stories here,' says managing editor Pruden. "But when there's an opportunity to present a conservative perspective on an issue that you won't see anywhere else, we'll do that.'

Pruden's protestations notwithstanding, its fair to say that the Times leans at least as sharply to the right as conservatives accuse the Post of leaning to the left. Take its Soviet coverage. The Times rarely passes up an opportunity to jam its editorial fingers into the eye sockets of the Evil Empire (the one headed by Mikhail Gorbachev, not Ben Bradlee). Soviet life is, of course, a rather juicy target, but the Times is not above taking a cheap shot. A recent editorial, headlined "Love Among the Tractors,' ridiculed what the Times said is an "abysmal ignorance' among the Soviets about sex. Of late, the most ridiculous Russian word for the Times is "glasnost.' When the term first surfaced in the national press, the Times went out of its way to pooh-pooh the notion that the Soviets are capable of change--glasnost was nothing but a smokescreen. As evidence mounted that Gorbachev's reforms were at least as substantive as any seen recently, the Times regrouped. By June 18, the Times had covered itself with a story which began: "A senior administration official reports mounting opposition to Mikhail Gorbachev's "glasnost' reform campaign and predicts that if the Soviet leader persists in his efforts, he will be out within two years.' The Times verdict: glasnost is a fake; even if it's not, it won't last. As if that hadn't covered all the bases, an item later in the month declared that a semantic engineer had determined that the correct translation for "glasnost' is not "openness' but instead "ballyhoo.'

And the Times's headlines seem calculated to make the right-wing salivate. Often, they're as biased as any from William Randolph Hearst's Journal American. When Robert McFarlane disputed key points of Oliver North's testimony, the Times instead focused on the protests of North's lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, a sideshow to the main event. The Times's headline--"North's lawyer slams Inouye's personal slurs'--not only missed the story but telegraphed its bias. Serious journalists at the Times, who have to suffer the Moonie stigma, could only roll their eyes.

The Times is at its crankiest in the Commentary section, not just an op-ed page but a full pull-out section each day. It's the section that is said to be read regularly by President Reagan, and most of it must comfort him. While the Times should get credit for devoting so much space to commentary, the chief weakness of the section continues to be its utter lack of dramatic tension. Times columnists never seem to have a problem reaching a consensus--everyone seems to agree with everyone else. Best among the section's regular heavyweights is Warren Brookes, a Detroit News economics columnist. His relentless coverage of House Speaker Jim Wright's support of overextended Texas savings and loans--dubbed "S&Leaze-gate'--was particularly strong.

However, a special commendation must go to Times staff columnist and resident bomb-thrower John Lofton, a frequent "Nightline' guest who has refined liberal-bashing into something resembling an art, for those who feel that pulling the wings off of flies resembles an art. A number of his victims not only get dismembered in his columns but receive personal letters, written in black magic marker in a strange calligraphic hand.

It's difficult to reflect on Lofton's prodigious thrice-weekly output and pull out a truly representative excerpt of Loftonia, but for my money his best sentence appeared in a column earlier this year about U.S. corporations trading with the Soviet Union: "So, while the Soviets push dope to destroy virtually every pillar of American society, these American businesses, and many others, are doing everything they can to strengthen the economy of the nation that is trying to murder us.' This sort of thinking saves a lot of worrying about treaty verification.

Fat wad

Where the Unification Church clearly reenters the story of The Washington Times is in talk of the future of the paper. Already the owners have spilled twice as much red ink as Time Inc. did in its unsuccessful effort to save the floundering Washington Star in its last days. The numbers are virtually without precedent in journalism, except perhaps for USA Today, which has recently crept into the black. Since launch, the Times has cost its parent company, News World Communications, between $200 and $250 million. And other publications within the company are vying for limited funds. In fiscal 1987-88, the company will blow $30 million on Insight, a national weekly newsmagazine. The World & I, a glossy journal of opinion which often runs an encyclopedic 700 pages will cost $15 million. All totaled, News World's Washington ventures will lose about $80 million next year alone.

The church's pockets are deep enough to absorb those losses, but no one knows how long it will want to keep reaching into them. Cutbacks have already taken a big bite out of the Times's foreign bureaus and have prevented it from hiring all of the reporters it would like for the expanded paper that debuted in September. For a paper that pays handsome salaries, the Times is curiously penny-conscious, recently offering all employees a small cash stipend for each new subscription they gather. Somehow, it's hard to imagine David Broder earning pin money by bringing in new subscriptions to the Post.

It's quite possible that the paper will never be self-supporting. Advertisers haven't exactly embraced the Times, a comparatively low-circulation paper with the added ownership problem. Local radio station WGMS AM-FM won't even talk to anyone employed by the Washington Times, ad reps or reporters. "Some of them have told us that if we had a different ownership we'd advertise in [the Times] tomorrow,' says de Borchgrave. "Obviously, that's been an impediment.'

Some believe the next two years could go a long way toward deciding the fate of the Times. Between now and then, the owners will discover whether its current marketing and circulation drive makes the paper worth keeping. More importantly, the occupant of the White House will change. It's been suggested that the Korean owners will pull out if the Democrats win, convinced that their paper will no longer grace the breakfast tables of power. De Borchgrave and others at the paper insist that a Democratic administration will only make the Times a stronger, more vigorous "paper in opposition.' Indeed, its coverage of the liberal Barry administration provides strong evidence that the Times can blanket "unfriendly' politicians as well as its pals.

Even if a Democratic president sends the Moonies packing, de Borchgrave insists the Times will survive. "[This] paper's not going to close down,' he says. "I know of three groups and one individual that want to buy, because they cannot conceive of Washington going back to a single voice.'

Of course, even de Borchgrave must realize that big-talking potential backers become considerably more elusive when it comes time to put the money on the table, particularly the fat wad it will take to keep the paper going for the next few years. But the inroads the Times has managed to make in five years, despite an ownership which at every turn diverts attention from the product, can't overlooked. To enjoy The Washington Times, it probably helps to be a conservative; to want the Times to stick around, one need only believe that two opinions are better than one.
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Copyright 1987, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:McNichol, Tom
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 1987
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