At Tuesday night's celebration of the Washington Times' 20th anniversary, its founder, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, gripped a podium at the Washington Hilton and delivered an impassioned, hour-long evangelical sermon in Korean saying he established the newspaper "in response to heaven's direction."

During the sermon, he set the course for the Times' next 10 years: "The Washington Times is responsible to let the American people know about God." Later, he added: "The Washington Times will become the instrument in spreading the truth about God to the world."

By this point, several Times staffers had exited for the Hilton's bar, either because the party was alcohol-free or -- possibly -- because they needed a stiff drink.

Moon's sermon tossed gasoline on the long-smoldering embers that some Times staffers have spent two decades trying to extinguish: the accusation that their paper is a mouthpiece for Moon's religious movement, the Unification Church. Or, at best, a public relations outlet for conservative values and the Republican Party.

The charges were not helped by allegations of former reporters, who say stories were changed to favor conservatives; by editors who quit, claiming church tampering; or by obscurity surrounding the paper's finances. It has been years since many of those incidents, though, and five years since Moon's last mass wedding in Washington, which inevitably pulled the Times into scrutiny. For the past few years, the Times has enjoyed a relatively Moon-free zone.

Now, that has changed.

Yesterday, Times employees parsed Moon's words. According to one staffer, many were "embarrassed," some "humiliated." Others described the speech as "painful to watch." Though staffers trust their top editors to maintain editorial independence, they were worried that the paper's critics would use the religious leader's words as weapons. Moon's charge to the paper to spread his gospel did not appear in yesterday's Times account of the party.

Editor in Chief Wesley Pruden issued a statement yesterday afternoon, which read in part: "This morning, we printed the 7,305th edition of The Times, and no one can show me a single line, in any of those 7,305 editions of The Times, of promotion or propaganda for Rev. Moon and his church. If the proof is in the pudding, how much pudding do you need?"

Newspaper consultant John Morton said Moon's statements "go against everything that a newspaper tries to do."

But he added: "If [the Times] continues in the future as it has in the past, I suspect this won't have much of an impact. So far in my experience, [Moon] has not unduly influenced how the paper conducts its journalism."

First published on May 17, 1982, the Times was established by Moon to combat communism and be a conservative alternative to what he perceived as the liberal bias of The Washington Post.

Since then, the paper has fought to prove its editorial independence, trying to demonstrate that it is neither a "Moonie paper" nor a booster of the political right but rather a fair and balanced reporter of the news.

"A newspaper is a hell of a place to hide an agenda," Pruden said in an interview earlier this week. "We're conservative on the editorial page and in story selection, but we do not strive to write conservative stories."

The paper is something of a journalistic curiosity -- a money-losing, church-subsidized newspaper with an editorial policy of "puncturing politically correct pomposity," said Pruden. The Times eschews what Pruden calls "victim stories," which he defines as articles about "people who were mistreated or think they were mistreated." His advice to them: "Get a life," which could well be the paper's motto.

The Times has never climbed out of the red or earned substantial income from advertising; it is supported by a subsidy from its owner, News World Communications, a private company wholly owned by Moon's Unification Church.

The paper's finances, as well as those of Moon's worldwide businesses, have been difficult to pin down. Moon owns land in South America as well as several papers in Latin America. The businesses run the gamut from commercial fisheries to Atlantic Video -- a Massachusetts Avenue video post-production facility -- to a cable channel called the GoodLife TV Network, which airs family fare, such as "Highway to Heaven."

The office of News World President Douglas D.M. Joo did not return phone calls for this article. But interviews with several former and current Times staffers have helped to piece together a look at the paper's finances.

In its first year, the paper spent about $100 million to renovate the building that serves as its headquarters on New York Avenue, said James Whelan, the paper's founding editor, who quit after two years, saying the Unification Church wanted to take editorial control of the paper.

The paper's operating expenses for that year were about $40 million, with revenue of about $20 million from sales of the paper, advertising and commercial printing, he said. In 1983, expenses stayed at about $40 million, with revenue in the $25 million to $30 million range, Whelan said.

"Advertising then as now was a very, very small share of our income," said Whelan, 68. Whelan oversaw an editorial staff of about 300, which is now down to about 225. The Times once had eight staffed foreign bureaus; now it has none, relying on "super-stringers" to cover overseas news. The paper maintains three national bureaus.

By the mid-'80s -- as the paper was launching ambitious projects, such as its national weekly edition; its weekly newsmagazine, Insight; and its monthly scholarly journal, The World & I -- the Times' yearly subsidy had risen to about $50 million, said a former Times executive. Insight launched with a yearly subsidy of about $40 million, which has now shrunk to about $4 million, the former executive said. By the early '90s, the Times' subsidy was down to about $32 million.

As of this year, Moon and his businesses have plowed about $1.7 billion into subsidizing the Times, say current and former employees.

The Times will not disclose its current subsidy or the percentage of its revenue generated by advertising except to say that the subsidy has been decreasing over the past eight years, with a slight bump up last year, said Richard H. Amberg Jr., the paper's vice president and general manager.

Typically, newspapers fill about 60 percent of their pages with advertising. The Times averages between 30 percent and 40 percent, Amberg said. Further, because the Times' circulation is about one-eighth that of The Post's, its ads cost about one-eighth as much.

A 2001 survey conducted for The Post by Alexandria's QS&A Research and Strategy, polling government "decision-makers" such as congressional staffers and presidential appointees, found that 85 percent of those polled read The Post at least three out of every four days. Eighteen percent read the Times. Six years earlier the same survey had the Times' readership among decision-makers at 35 percent, with The Post's at 91 percent.

Despite what some might see as the Times' waning influence, Amberg said he has received three offers over the past three years from potential buyers. He would not identify them other than to say one was a newspaper chain, another a small paper chain and the third "a very wealthy individual."

Still, Amberg said, "we don't expect to achieve profitability in the next few years."

In its early years, the Times' circulation was as much of a mystery as its budget. During Whelan's two-year tenure, the paper claimed as many as 125,000 subscribers. But then Whelan found out his circulation department was boosting its numbers by throwing away "thousands and thousands" of papers each day at recycling drop-offs in Alexandria.

"At least they had a sense of civic conscience," he said, with a chuckle.

From 1989 to '92, the Times' circulation was not audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the independent agency that monitors newspaper circulation. The paper "voluntarily withdrew" from the bureau, Amberg said, because its numbers "were not in order."

As of March, the most recent report available, the Times' Monday-Friday daily circulation is 109,049. On Saturdays, that number is 86,950; on Sundays, it is 49,862. By comparison, The Post's daily circulation is 811,925 through the week, 735,329 on Saturdays and 1.1 million on Sundays.

According to September 2001 data, the Times sold 24,084 daily copies in the District, 39,882 in Maryland (concentrated in Montgomery and Prince George's counties) and 37,137 in Virginia, with 2,549 sold outside the region.

The Times is the 25th-fastest growing newspaper in the country, upping its circulation by 1.6 percent over last year, Amberg said, citing industry data.

Similar curiosity has swirled around the Times' news coverage. Because its editorial pages are conservative, its news columns are sometimes labeled as conservative as well.

Many former and current staffers report that their copy has not been changed to reflect a political bias. Major Garrett, a former CNN reporter, spent seven years on the Times' national desk as a reporter and editor. "I never found the editing ideologically or journalistically objectionable," he said.

But others have experienced such rewrites, often called "Prudenizing." They have occurred in ways both large and small.

In October 1991, Dawn Weyrich was covering the Clarence Thomas Senate confirmation hearings for the Times. Weyrich recalled that, of the many witnesses testifying one day, only one had made scathing remarks about Thomas's accuser, Anita Hill. Convinced this was of lesser news value, Weyrich wrote a story playing down that testimony and filed it for the paper's first edition.

The headline on her story read: "Thomas accuser lauded, assailed."

Weyrich stayed at the paper after the first edition and watched as Pruden rewrote the top of her story to include the anti-Hill testimony. A new headline was put on her story for the second edition: "Miss Hill painted as 'fantasizer' "

"I screamed bloody murder," recalled Weyrich, 38, who, as daughter of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, said she took pains to make sure her stories were politically balanced. She quit the following day. Worse, she said, staffers told her that Pruden said she had quit as a rebellion against her father. "He looked at me as if I were a child," she said. "Damn it, I had a good reputation."

Pruden said he "couldn't imagine" making such an assertion because Weyrich's departure was a personnel matter, which he did not discuss with staffers.

Yesterday, some Times staffers wondered if Moon's Tuesday night pronouncements would mark a turn for the paper either in mission or public perception. Others saw it as more of the same. At 82, Moon appears to be proselytizing vigorously, even though church membership has steadily declined from its high point in the early '70s. When he dies, his wife will take over the ministry and a son will head the church's media business, a former Times executive said.

"I don't get any body language at all that we're not going to be around in a year or five years," Amberg said. "But we want to reduce the subsidy and act like a paper that cares about profit. There's no endless spigot. We have finite resources."

The Rev. Sun Myung Moon joins a toast at the Washington Times' anniversary party. At left, the paper's debut edition. Washington Times Editor in Chief Wesley Pruden, left, talks to columnist Cal Thomas at Tuesday's celebration.