July 16, 2013
David Keene David Keene, right, then president of the National Rifle Association, at a January 2013 Capitol Hill appearance. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

David Keene, the former president of the National Rifle Association, has taken over as the opinion editor of the Washington Times. In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Keene said that his goal is to help turn the Times into the country’s “go-to conservative publication”; to “fly the flag for what trad conservatism means in terms of overall views”; and “reach out and attract new people” to the conservative movement.

Fine and good. But what’s Keene’s position on Ted Nugent? The Motor City rocker is an NRA board member who formerly wrote a bunch of much-trafficked opinion pieces for the Washington Times. His contributions, however, petered out at the end of 2012, around the time of a change of leadership in the paper’s editorial operation. Does Keene have a position on Nugent? “I really don’t have one, except that I wear earplugs when I go to his musical events,” says Keene. “I like him a lot and he’s a smart guy.”

He said he hasn’t yet made any calls on who’ll be making regular contributions and who’ll be making occasional ones; this is only his second day on the job.

This much is certain: Keene’s accession to the head of the Times opinion cluster sets up a smooth landing on the issue of guns. On April 18, for instance, the paper editorialized thusly after a key gun-rights development on Capitol Hill:

The president raged. The mayor of New York frothed. Joe Biden cried. But at the end of the day, common sense prevailed. The Senate killed the effort to unreasonably expand background checks for buyers of guns.

The measure is not quite graveyard dead; it can be brought up again, but prospects for that are remote. The vote was a bone-jarring setback for the gun-control lobby, and a decisive victory for the National Rifle Association (NRA), which led the fight to protect the rights of all. It was most of all a resounding victory for the plain and simple language of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Chris Cox, speaking plain and simple after the vote for the NRA, observed that the proposal “would have criminalized certain private transfers of firearms between honest citizens, requiring lifelong friends, neighbors and some family members to get federal government permission to exercise a fundamental right or face prosecution.”

President Obama seemed stunned at the result and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York City, who has spent millions of his own billions to impose his version of the Second Amendment on everyone, was fairly besotted with rage. The president pointed his finger at “the gun lobby” that “willfully lied” to the American people for the defeat of gun-control legislation that he regards as crucial to the legacy of his second term. “All in all this was a pretty shameful day for Washington.”

When it comes to opining on gun rights, Keene says he won’t hijack the topic at the Washington Times. “On something like there, where I have a strong personal feeling, I’d talk to a lot of people,” he says. On that front, he cites the resident expert on the topic — Emily Miller, senior editor of opinion at the paper and author of the upcoming book “Emily Gets Her Gun … But Obama Wants to Take Yours.” Also sticking around in Keene’s inner circle will be Wesley Pruden, the former top editor of the paper who emerged from retirement in January to manage the opinion operation.

In recent weeks, the NRA has run massive “cover wrap” advertisements in the Washington Times featuring splashy profiles of gun users. On July 9, for instance, the ad showcased Kyle Weaver, “avid hunter and shooter” as well as the director of the NRA’s general operations. “My job now is to make sure that gun owners know they have a place at the NRA,” says a quote attributed to Weaver.

Keene disavows any connection whatsoever between the NRA’s status as a major advertiser and his position at the Washington Times. “I didn’t have anything to do with that” ad campaign, says Keene, who notes that the office of NRA president is akin to overseeing the board of directors — not managing day-to-day operations, a job that belongs to NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. Furthermore, it’s not as if the Times hasn’t been running pro-Second Amendment material for ages; it has, and Miller’s dispatches alone have provided hospitable adjacencies for the NRA’s advertising pitches. And the Times may benefit even more from Keene’s past as chairman of the American Conservative Union, the organization that puts together the massive Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). As a press release noted, Keene “grew CPAC from four co-sponsors to hundreds and from 200 attendees to more than 11,000.” Not a bad set of credentials for an executive at a newspaper that has historically run on massive subsidies.

As Keene goes about putting his signature on the Washington Times’s opinions, he faces an unorthodox supervision scheme. He reports to John Solomon, who also runs the Washington Times news coverage as well as its business strategy. On top of both men is Larry Beasley, the paper’s president and CEO. Before the unified editorial-news management, says Keene, “Editorial and everything else was so separate that you didn’t even get coordination in terms of editorials and news stories. A good paper has that kind of coordination.” Okay, but will Solomon dictate editorials? “He hasn’t yesterday or today,” says Keene. Solomon didn’t respond to a request for interview.

Whatever Solomon’s role, Keene, 68, expresses enthusiasm about the Times’s focus on becoming a “multimedia way of reaching conservatives,” citing the company’s dedication to digital excellence as well as its new cable-TV alliance and efforts in radio. “I think it’s a very exciting kind of thing,” says Keene. Here’s what’s also exciting: When rung on his Washington Times extension, Keene picked up the phone and answered every question. That doesn’t happen too often at the Washington Times.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
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