Complaint Adds To Tumult At 'Washington Times'

The Washington Times has long thought to be immune from the economic forces challenging the rest of newspaper industry because of the deep pockets of its founder and owner, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, head of the Unification Church. But the recession has taken a toll on the paper and now an apparent power struggle among Moon's sons is adding to the paper's challenges.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Tensions between the owners of newspapers and the journalists who run their newsrooms are nothing new.

At the Washington Times, though, tension has become tumult this month. Top executives have been fired, the executive editor resigned, and here's a twist: The Washington Times is owned by senior officials of the Unification Church, and a former editor is alleging that he was forced out because he mocked the church.

NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: There are a couple of things to know about the Washington Times. First, it was founded in 1982 as a distinctly conservative alternative to the Washington Post before Rush Limbaugh and before the Fox News Channel; and second, it was created by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, who accepted losses of tens of millions of dollars a year to influence political debate in the nation's capital. Jane Hall was a media reporter and critic for the Los Angeles Times and Fox News.

Professor JANE HALL (Media Scholar, American University): Everybody knows that Rupert Murdoch owns the New York Post. I don't think, ironically, that everybody knows that Reverend Moon has owned the Washington Times. It is considered somewhat of an oddity.

FOLKENFLIK: That is the same Reverend Moon who has proclaimed himself a messiah, called for a giant series of tunnels to connect the continents and who has officiated at mass marriages for decades, including at this event last winter.

(Soundbite of chanting and clapping)

FOLKENFLIK: On January 31st, Moon helped kick off a three-day festival in Midtown Manhattan. It was Moon's 90th birthday. It was captured on amateur tape. Moon pretended to fling icing from a towering cake and danced on stage with his wife.

Mr. RICHARD MINITER (Former Editorial Page Writer, Washington Times): I really didn't want to attend a religious service for a religion I wasn't participating in, and I wasn't covering it as a journalist.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Richard Miniter. An author and former editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal. He was brought in late last year as a consultant to the Times to help bring the paper into the journalistic mainstream, but Miniter says the paper's then-publisher Thomas McDevitt pressured him into attending the event at the New Yorker hotel, which is owned by the church.

Mr. MINITER: And in the rear of that hotel is a large, 1920-style theater. You can imagine it showing black-and-white greats like "King Kong," but instead of "King Kong," at the center of the stage is Reverend Moon in long, flowing robes and a crown that, I guess, they purchased at some antique shop.

FOLKENFLIK: Miniter says he was badgers by Times executives when he ducked out for longer than 10 minutes to get a cup of coffee.

Mr. MINITER: I mean, think about the situation you're in, right? You're at this point a consultant. You're up for a job that you want, a real chance in journalism to remake a section of a national newspaper, and you have someone who's a true believer next to you. He was clearly happy and delighted to be there. Exactly how, in that situation, do you go about pointing out to someone who's essentially the authority over you, like, by the way, isn't this a bit nuts?

FOLKENFLIK: Miniter soon after became editorial page editor and a corporate vice president but says in June, he made the mistake of joking about the Unification Church to a co-worker. He says he was investigated, forced to work from home and ultimately fired. This week, Miniter filed a religious discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, though he cites other grounds, as well.

Acting Washington Times publisher Jonathan Slevin and other Times officials did not return calls seeking comment. In a statement published in yesterday's paper, Slevin said the Times would be cleared of Miniter's charges. News executives have always said church officials do not interfere in coverage, and several journalists who have worked for the Times say that's true in their experience. They would not be named for this story, saying they feared for their jobs. Instead, they said articles in the Times were more often tilted to reflect Moon's conservative political beliefs and especially his stances against communism and homosexuality.

Jane Hall, now a media scholar at American University, says that was starting to change.

Prof. HALL: The editor who came in last year was saying, and did say, that his mandate was to play it straight down the middle.

FOLKENFLIK: She's referring to John Solomon who was hired from the Washington Post last winter to become executive editor and to make the Times a multimedia power and strip its coverage of bias, but he resigned this month, amidst the firings of former publisher McDevitt and other top business executives.

Acting publisher Slevin said the Washington Times has to become financially self-supporting, and he promised it will continue to deliver an alternative voice for the nation's capital.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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