For almost 30 years, The Washington Times has devoted itself, so far as anyone inside or outside the paper could tell, to two main purposes: Carrying the banner of free-market conservative Republicans, preferably in outlandish and over-the-top style; and losing money, preferably in the same way.
Which is why the fashion in which the Times emerged from the wrenching purgatory of the past year on Tuesday was perhaps inevitable. As polls opened across the country, the Times staff found itself summoned to its much-depopulated headquarters at 3600 New York Avenue NE for a rare morning meeting, on the rare day they had all planned on showing up anyway, and the first time in more than two years that the gathering didn’t involve another round of beloved veterans getting purged. The Times was finally being saved, and by the same man who created the newspaper, the Rev. Sung Myung Moon, the Korean-born self-proclaimed Messiah who purports to be carrying out the mission Jesus botched by failing to conceive an heir.
“Why are you all gathered here today? Is there a vote going on here?,” Douglas Joo, a longtime loyal disciple of the Unification Church, joked to the staff assembled in a neglected small ballroom in the office building. But by this time everyone knew the good news: Moon had finally committed to reopening his deep pockets to the Times, meaning a restoration of the Moonie cash the newspaper had depended on before the Dark Age that began a year ago.
The Times only ever existed in the first place because of the near-bottomless benevolence of Moon, a convicted tax cheat whose church controls a vast global empire of profitable operations. And as angry conservatives marched to the polls around the country, restoring GOP rule on Capitol Hill, the Unification Church marched back into the newspaper’s offices, restoring Moon’s hardline disciples to rule on New York Avenue NE. Tuesday’s “sale” (to borrow the scare quotes that the paper used to use to refer to gay “marriage”), from Preston Moon, Moon’s Harvard MBA-educated eldest son, to a Delaware-based limited liability corporation led by Joo, who ran the paper back in the early 1990s and is known as “Mr. Joo” in the newsroom, will keep the paper in business.
Preston Moon had started taking control four years ago, with vague dreams of turning the Times into a more mainstream media enterprise that better suited his business education. But somewhere along the way he’d displeased another faction of the Unification Church; his rivals maneuvered to cut off the newspaper’s access to the $40 million or so in annual subsidies it needed, and it wasn’t long before Preston realized they weren’t coming back, and he was stuck paying salaries and expenses out of his own pocket. So a year ago, he fired all but a skeleton staff, axing three quarters of the newsroom just as Bob McDonnell won the governor’s race in Virginia, heralding the official beginning of the Republican comeback that reached an apogee Tuesday. Circulation was temporarily curtailed outside the immediate Capitol Hill area and for the time being, sports and photo, arguably the two most vital components of any profit-seeking newspaper’s Web traffic generation structure, were eliminated entirely. (The sports section closed days before Dan Snyder, the power-mad mogul behind another local institution, hired Mike Shanahan as the head coach of the Washington Redskins, a beat that had previously given the Times a hook with local readers who didn’t really care what the Communists were up to overseas or what nefarious deeds the Democrats were doing in the Capitol.)
For the last year, the staff had toiled in a seemingly interminable limbo. Employees still showed up for work—somewhere other than the dreary newsroom, if they could help it—but they no longer feared the thousandth cut nor pondered the existential torment of a few strategy shifts ago. There was no “strategy” to speak of, or to shift, anymore. It seemed like the paper would just slide slowly into its eventual demise.
Meanwhile, the conservatives the Times had always championed were surging back toward power. “It’s been a bit of a missed opportunity, hasn’t it?” remarks Times editor in chief Sam Dealey very, very wryly. A former Time and U.S. News & World Report writer and fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution who got his start in political journalism as a research assistant to the late Robert Novak, Dealey took the job at the beginning of the year, “optimistic” the Moons and their lawyers would soon agree on how to re-open the cash spigot.
The Unification Church has a rich and well-recorded history of bailing out right-wing opinion leaders and their causes, from Jerry Falwell to Oliver North to direct-mail legend Richard Viguerie, in times of fiscal crisis. Why should it refuse a life preserver to its own vanity project? The church had never belonged to anything like the S&P 500; angry stockholders have never forced management to divest its money-hemorrhaging media asset or coaxed a Wall Street analyst or business reporter to ponder its baffling business model. If it had, the paper would never have survived long enough to become the subject of so many stories about its decline.