The Washington Times is a natural partner for the National Rifle Association. Its editorials run strongly in favor of gun rights, a tradition currently overseen by Opinion Editor David A. Keene, a former president of the NRA.
The Times’s news coverage also pleases the mighty gun lobby, if a special pullout section dated Aug. 27 is any authority on the matter. The cover page of the section (pictured at right) announces that it’s sponsored by the NRA, and a tagline on each page notes that it’s “A Special Report Prepared by The Washington Times Advertising Department.” Yet there’s more than just ads in the section: Page 4 includes a story by Kelly Riddell, who covers national security for the Times; Page 8 has a story by David Sherfinski, who covers politics; and on Page 10 is a story by Jessica Chasmar, a continuous news reporter.
Does news stories in a special advertising section cross some sacred journalistic trench? Not in a million years, says John Solomon, the paper’s top editor. The pullout, he says, was a concept borne of discussions among “our own internal team.” “When we come up with our own internal idea, we will pick articles we’ve written, put it together as a special section and ask advertisers” to come on board, says Solomon.
Date stamps testify to Solomon’s description. One article by Sherfinski in the issue — about how gunmaker Beretta is moving its U.S. presence from Maryland to Tennessee following the tightening of the former’s gun laws — is dated July 22. Another piece by Sherfinski on a Virginia “guntry club” hit the paper’s Web site on July 6. All of the stories in the special edition, says Solomon, “had already been written.”
Read through those stories, and you’ll see why the NRA couldn’t possibly have an objection to the adjacencies. Take the piece by Riddell, titled “Chicago crime rate drops as concealed carry applications surge.” It features this plug for gun ownership:
Since Illinois started granting concealed carry permits this year, the number of robberies that have led to arrests in Chicago has declined 20 percent from last year, according to police department statistics. Reports of burglary and motor vehicle theft are down 20 percent and 26 percent, respectively. In the first quarter, the city’s homicide rate was at a 56-year low.
To shore up the point, the Washington Times turns to a helpful source:
“It isn’t any coincidence crime rates started to go down when concealed carry was permitted. Just the idea that the criminals don’t know who’s armed and who isn’t has a deterrence effect,” said Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association. “The police department hasn’t changed a single tactic — they haven’t announced a shift in policy or of course — and yet you have these incredible numbers.”
Such is the flavor of the piece, which offers a blowout victory for pro-gun sources and barely a smidgen of space for gun-control advocates. Here’s how the gun-control side of the equation is treated: “Instead of creating more crimes, which many gun control advocates warn, increased concealed carry rates have coincided with lower rates of crime.” See this Washington Post fact-check, which rounds up the murky evidence toward any particular conclusions on this issue.
Though Solomon says the stories piled up in the Washington Times archive in the course of normal journalistic business, isn’t there a risk here? Once reporters see how the paper monetizes their work via pro-gun advertisers, won’t they be inclined to tilt their stories in that direction? No again, says Solomon: “Writers never know, and it’s no different than tomorrow waking up and seeing a Boeing ad in The Washington Post and having a defense story in the newspaper.”
Newspapers have a history of deploying special issues and gimmicks to lure advertisers. Whether the subject area is fashion, home decoration, food or whatever, the idea is to assemble a lineup of “soft” content with the hope that big companies will want to see their ads placed alongside of it. Sometimes internal tensions arise: As the Erik Wemple Blog reported last year, The Washington Post Magazine received objections from the business side of the newspaper to articles slated for a special issue on education, an advertiser-heavy topical category in the Washington region.
The Washington Times in July announced a partnership with the Washington area’s professional football team, under which the paper will run special advertising sections featuring content from the team. Solomon pledged at the time that the collaboration wouldn’t impact news coverage of the team.