By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
The front-page story seemed a throwback to the era when the Washington Times delighted in bashing the Clintons day after day: "Hillary still in bed with '96 scandal."
The revelation wasn't earth-shattering: Forty-nine of Hillary Clinton's top fundraisers had spent the night in the Lincoln Bedroom during her husband's reelection effort, a fact that said little about the donors and much about Bill Clinton's use of the mansion for political purposes.
John Solomon, the paper's new executive editor, was proud of the Feb. 8 story, but made clear to colleagues that he was mighty displeased on one point. "The headline was too tart, and sexist in some respects," Solomon says.
In the four months since the ruddy, garrulous Solomon left a one-year stint at The Washington Post to take over the capital's other daily, he has made sweeping changes. Some are literally cosmetic: The paper unveiled a new design yesterday. More significant, though, Solomon has brought a sense of political balance to what his predecessors candidly called a conservative newspaper.
"When John Solomon calls, you know it isn't good, but you look forward to calling him back because he's such an honest broker," says Clinton spokesman Phil Singer. "I've always found him to be aboveboard."
Officials in Barack Obama's campaign say a number of Times stories have been unfair to their candidate. But other observers have been struck recently by the paper's more straightforward approach to politics.
In an interview at the paper's Northeast Washington headquarters, Solomon, 41, conveys a mixture of energy and impatience, spewing out ideas faster than they can be scribbled on a pad.
"If I made one fundamental change," he says, "it's to make sure opinion and commentary didn't bleed onto the news pages." Toward that end, he issued a memo banning what he says were "archaic" terms used by the paper, such as "homosexual" and "illegal aliens."
Veteran Times reporter Ralph Hallow says he believes the right-leaning Times balances the left-leaning Post. Solomon's aim, he says, is to satisfy a conservative audience "without making the newspaper a shill for any of the causes of the right, for the Bible-thumpers -- something that is sensitive to them but doesn't pander to them."
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, says he hasn't noticed any change: "The strength of the Times on the news side has always been not any bias, but that it covers different things than The Post does. They cover more things of interest to conservatives."
Solomon's first accomplishment was to transform the paper's Web site, nearly doubling the number of unique visitors to 2.5 million a month. The site is now frequently updated, uses more video, has added an online radio show and launched Facebook-style communities built around such topics as home schooling, the Redskins and motherhood.
The greatest challenge remains the newspaper, launched in 1982 by officials of the Unification Church and bleeding red ink ever since. Daily circulation is 94,000, compared with 673,000 for The Post. Solomon recently laid off nearly 30 of his 200 staffers, though he plans to hire about 20 Web specialists. While the privately held company doesn't disclose its finances, Solomon says the streamlined budget "moves us significantly closer to profitability."
The redesigned version of the paper debuted yesterday. National, local and business news, plus the conservative opinion pages, are all wrapped into the A section, allowing for a new "Plugged In" section with a rotating focus (economics on Monday, politics on Tuesday, "living" on Wednesday and so on). The Sunday edition -- which sells an average of just 38,000 copies -- will be encased in a 32-page tabloid-size magazine. The Saturday print edition is being dropped.
Solomon, an investigative reporter who spent nearly two decades with the Associated Press, has long disputed accusations by liberal bloggers that he was tougher on the Democrats. Despite his lofty title, he still works the phones.
"He has a lot of sources within the campaigns," says Christina Bellantoni, the paper's lead reporter on the Democrats, whose work is praised by both the Clinton and Obama teams. "My former editors weren't very plugged into the Democratic campaigns." Sometimes Solomon prods campaign aides to return his staff's calls.
In the past, the Times frequently appeared openly partisan. In the early 1990s, when Wesley Pruden was editor, two reporters quit, saying their bosses had distorted their stories.
During the 1992 campaign, front-page headlines about the first President Bush were overwhelmingly positive: "Confident Bush bares his knuckles"; "Bush pounds Clinton on flip-flops"; "Bush hits Clinton's 'deception pattern' ." The front-page headlines about Bill Clinton were overwhelmingly negative: "Clinton dodges doubts on tour"; "Clinton hurdle: Honesty"; "Clinton toured Moscow at war's peak."
In recent weeks, by contrast, the Times has run such Page 1 headlines about Hillary Clinton as "Clinton sheds tough image" and "Clinton's faith underestimated." (Positive front-page headlines about Obama have been less frequent.)
At the same time, the paper reported last month about Clinton that "federal prosecutors quietly assembled hundreds of pages of evidence suggesting she concealed information and misled a federal grand jury about her work for a failing Arkansas savings and loan at the heart of the Whitewater probe." The story was based on papers donated to the Library of Congress by the late Sam Dash, an adviser to independent counsel Ken Starr. Clinton spokesman Jay Carson was quoted as saying the story involved "a baseless accusation which was looked into over a decade ago."
The Times scored an exclusive in March when it reported that the State Department had fired two contractors for snooping into Obama's passport file. Sometimes, though, the paper sees greater value in news that other outlets treat as minor items. After Obama apologized last month for calling a Detroit television reporter "sweetie," the paper ran a front-page piece headlined "Sweetie leaves bad taste for Obama critics."
No story infuriated the Obama camp more than one that was published three days after Solomon took the helm. The piece said that Obama had changed his position on a number of issues since his 2004 Senate campaign, based on videotapes that the Times posted online. A leading example was Obama saying at a debate four years ago that he wanted to decriminalize marijuana but did not believe in legalization. The Obama camp says what the senator meant four years ago was that society should improve methods of dealing with first-time drug offenders; Solomon says an aide offered conflicting statements on the issue and that he published both, including a spokesman's assurance that the Illinois senator does not support removing criminal penalties for pot possession.
Solomon says he started working on the story while he was still at The Post, which declined to publish it amid questions about sourcing.
Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie says he never made a final decision but has qualms about running negative information against a candidate "dredged up in opposition research. . . . It was important to me -- this was one campaign attacking another, and the reader needed to know that."
After Times reporters helped corroborate the story and obtain more videos, the paper noted that it had obtained the tapes from a variety of sources, including "political operatives opposed to Mr. Obama's presidential campaign."
Asked if the paper had served as a conduit for a rival operative whose identity he is shielding, Solomon says: "How are we protecting anyone? It was a videotape of a public debate. I don't think getting a tip from one campaign or operative negates the fact that it's newsworthy."
The McCain campaign has also taken its knocks from the Times. In April, the paper reported that two of the Republican's top advisers, Charlie Black and Tom Loeffler, had been paid more than $15 million to lobby for foreign governments since 2005. Last week, the paper's lead story said McCain was using a loophole in the campaign-finance law he championed to allow donors to funnel as much as $70,000 each to his campaign -- a practice his spokesman described as routine.
As he tries to change the paper's mission, Solomon sees its modest size as an advantage. "Good ideas can be executed without 900 committee meetings," he says.
On one point, there is no debate: Solomon has boosted morale in the newsroom. "He's got a lot of people here very excited and enthused," says political writer Don Lambro.