Earlier this month, the staff at Newsweek magazine descended into chaos.
Two of the magazine’s top editors — editor in chief Bob Roe and executive editor Kenneth Li — were abruptly dismissed, along with reporter Celeste Katz. Multiple reporters resigned in protest. The trio was fired as they were in the midst of pursuing an investigative story into the financial ties of Newsweek’s parent company, the Newsweek Media Group.
Despite the firings, a group of staff journalists continued reporting on the company’s finances. Late Tuesday night, their exposé was published, revealing a deep financial relationship between the parent company and a small Christian school, Olivet University.
The investigation’s findings were damning, but it was the colossal editor’s note at the top of the story that was the most stunning.
“As we were reporting this story, Newsweek Media Group fired Newsweek Editor Bob Roe, Executive Editor Ken Li and Senior Politics Reporter Celeste Katz for doing their jobs,” the note read. “Reporters Josh Keefe and Josh Saul were targeted for firing before an editor persuaded the company to reverse its decision.”
Newsweek Media Group could not be immediately reached for comment. It previously declined to discuss personnel matters with The Washington Post.
The team reporting on the story was forced to undergo a review process which “involved egregious breaches of confidentiality and journalism ethics,” according to the editor’s note. Company representatives showed sections of the story to its subjects and asked editors to unveil confidential sources. According to CNN and the Daily Beast, Newsweek Media Group’s co-founder told editors in a meeting that the reporting into the parent company had damaged business.
“We resisted their efforts to influence the story and, after learning of the review’s ethical failings, the reporters and editors involved in this story felt they would be forced to resign,” the editor’s note stated.
According to CNN and the Daily Beast, company executives attempted to stall and even block the story from publication. Several reporters and editors threatened to quit if the piece wasn’t published. A “bloody battle” ensued between the journalists and executives, until ultimately the company’s CEO, Dev Pragad, allowed the team to publish their story without interference Tuesday night, CNN reported.
“At that point, a senior Newsweek Media Group executive said the company’s owners would ensure independent review and newsroom autonomy going forward,” read the editor’s note, a paragraph more than 200 words long. Most editor’s notes only consist of a sentence or two.
Questions over the company’s finances emerged last month after Manhattan district attorney investigators raided Newsweek’s New York City offices, removing 18 computer servers. The raid stemmed from a months-long investigation into loans the parent company had taken out to purchase the equipment, Newsweek reported at the time.
The district attorney is also pursuing a fraud probe into the media group’s questionable financial relationship with Olivet University, Newsweek reported Tuesday. After the raid, Olivet distanced itself from Newsweek Media Group.
The magazine’s reporters uncovered a 2016 deal in which Olivet, seeking tax breaks and permits to build its new campus in Upstate New York, offered county officials free advertising in Newsweek. For three months in 2017, Newsweek ran 10 full-page ads — a value of about $149,000 — promoting Hudson Valley Regional Airport and Dutchess County tourism, all free of charge.
This was all taking place while the magazine’s parent company was in financial turmoil.
“At the same time as Newsweek Media Group was giving away $150k in free advertising as part of negotiations to secure property for Olivet University, I watched reporters in tears as they laid off 2/3 of the people in the newsroom,” Newsweek associate politics editor Jason Le Miere tweeted Tuesday night.
Newsweek Media Group has in recent years paid Olivet millions of dollars for licensing and research and development agreements, Newsweek reported, citing tax records.
In an interview with Newsweek, Johnathan Davis, the co-founder of the magazine’s parent company, admitted the media group’s deep ties with Olivet, where his wife, Tracy, is president, and where he once served as an academic adviser. He described the ad deal as a “public good” and called the university “our friends.”
“Helping each other,” he said, “is not a crime.”
For years, reports have been circulating about connections between the media company and university, a small Christian college founded in 2004 by Korean pastor David Jang. The college is reportedly part of a Christian group referred to as “the Community.”
In 2014, Mother Jones reported that International Business Times Media, which had recently purchased Newsweek, had a number of ties with Jang’s church. (The parent company later changed its name to Newsweek Media Group.) In the early days of the media company, it hired international Olivet students in the United States to write articles for minimal pay, in violation of their visa terms, Mother Jones reported. The company denied the allegations.
“Jang sees Community-affiliated media organizations, including IBT, as an essential part of his mission to build the kingdom of God on Earth,” Mother Jones wrote in its investigation. “He has said that media companies affiliated with the Community are part of a new Noah’s ark designed to save the world from a biblical flood of information.”
Following Newsweek’s bombshell report Tuesday, several current and former journalists from the magazine and beyond reacted to the piece on Twitter:
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