Tension of the Times
By David Ignatius
Friday, June 18, 2004; Page A29
It's a sign of the times when even the people who bankroll Washington's leading conservative newspaper are said to be uneasy with Bush administration foreign policy. But in that heretical spirit, a revolt is reportedly brewing at the Unification Church, which owns the Washington Times and is pushing for changes at the paper.
Insiders say the church's new line is that with the end of the Cold War, it's important to support international organizations such as the United Nations and to campaign for world peace and interfaith understanding. That stance would be awkward for the Times's hard-line editor in chief, Wesley Pruden, and its stable of neoconservative columnists.
The only public sign of ferment was an announcement in April by News World Communications, a Unification Church subsidiary that owns the Times, that it would no longer print three related publications. A spokesman explained that News World was seeking to save money and "reposition" its assets by terminating the biweekly Insight magazine, the monthly World & I magazine and a Spanish-language newspaper in New York, Noticias del Mundo.
The real battles have been taking place out of public view, and rumors about a high-level power struggle have been swirling around the Times offices. Sources say that the dominant church official overseeing the publications is now the Rev. Chung Hwan Kwak, a close adviser to the church's founder, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
Kwak's most prominent public role has been as chairman of the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace, a Moon operation that seeks to promote interfaith dialogue. He said at a conference in 2002 that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks "showed the tensions that exist between much of the Islamic world and the United States. To understand the conflict in the world today, we must understand the role of religion." Many hawkish Times columnists would probably dissent.
Kwak became chairman of the Times parent company several months ago. He replaced Douglas D.M. Joo on the News World board and as head of two media subsidiaries, the magazine group and United Press International.
Joo remains president of the Times, according to Richard Amberg, the paper's vice president and general manager. He said Joo was in South Korea this week and is being considered for broader management responsibility with Korean companies owned by the church. Amberg said Joo believes that the Times must become more "reader-friendly" and that the paper is conducting an extensive reader survey that could lead to changes in coverage.
Pruden responded yesterday to the reports of friction between the paper and the church over foreign policy: "What you're saying confirms that we operate independently," he said. "They've never told me to put anything in the paper or keep anything out." He added: "I would resist any effort to change the fundamental vision under which the paper was founded."
Coverage of the Korean Peninsula has been an especially delicate issue. The paper's stance has been aggressively anti-Pyongyang. But the church has embraced a conciliatory line, including investment in North Korea. Moon has bankrolled Pyonghwa Motors, which plans to produce cars in the North, along with a hotel, a park and a church there. A senior church official, Ahn Ho Yeol, told a South Korean newspaper last year: "It is our principle to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula by promoting mutual prosperity." Again, that's a dovish sentiment you won't often read in the Times.
The Unification Church has bankrolled huge losses at the Times, which several sources estimated have totaled more than $1 billion over the past 22 years. The paper's losses are running about $20 million annually, one source said; another source offered a slightly higher estimate. Insiders said that Japanese backers of the church had been especially unhappy with the Times's huge losses and with its right-wing positions on global political issues.
Adding to tensions within the Moon publishing family was the Times's decision last fall not to run an investigative article by UPI on the U.S. military's poor medical treatment of troops returning from Iraq. That UPI coverage went on to win second place in this year's Raymond Clapper awards, along with other journalism prizes. Pruden said yesterday that he thought the story wasn't adequately sourced. He also complained that some UPI commentary articles had become "liberal to the point of leftist" and conflicted with Times editorial positions.
Pruden won't give up control of the Times without a fight. And he has powerful Republican friends on Capitol Hill and in the administration who would probably back a campaign to maintain the paper's editorial line and fend off meddling by its owners. What's clear from the Times-Moon dust-up is that the battle for the soul of conservatism has a new front.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company