You'd think that somebody with a direct line to the Almighty, and tapped by Jesus to save mankind on Earth, would be able to come up with a better business plan for running a daily newspaper. But, alas, after nearly three decades of unrelenting financial losses, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a federal tax cheat, accused cult leader, and founder of the Unification Church, has decided to pull out. Actually, according to news reports, it's more like Moon's U.S. college-educated sons, as part of an internal family power struggle, have decided to finally cut off the endless stream of Asian church cash that's kept The Washington Times afloat.
With the announcement that 40 percent of the Times' staff is getting pink-slipped, and that the daily's no longer even going to bother with traditional who/what/where/when/why reporting, instead publishing an opinion-heavy publication that will be free of charge at a diminished number of local outlets, Times owners look like they're angling to be a Weekly Standard wannabe, churning out lots of predictable GOP Noise Machine opinion prattle. (Paging Andrew Breitbart!) What is clear is that the daily's days as a functioning newspaper are now over.
R.I.P. The Washington Times.
At this time of reflection, it's worth pondering two rather astonishing facets about the Times and its bizarre life and looming death. The first is the deep irony of how the Times, a clarion voice of partisan right-wing values, was run as a charity for nearly three decades and whose business model made a mockery of the free-marketplace system supposedly cherished by conservatives. The second is the even deeper irony of how the Times was owned by a delusional prophet whose apocalyptic visions made an even bigger mockery of the Christian values supposedly cherished by conservative activists.
Indeed, the woeful Times has for decades stood at the center of a Beltway marriage-of-convenience for the ages, as conservatives nearly developed cataracts turning a collective blind eye to the glaringly obvious contradictions that Moon's worldview created with conservatives. (FYI, Moon proclaims to be more powerful than God, that Jesus was a failure, and that dictatorial rule is best. Hmm.....)
The failed Times venture was nonetheless a shining example of how conservative ideologues view journalism. To them, it's not a craft to be used for public good (or even to make money, as it turns out), but a tool to be used for mainly propaganda purposes. And specifically, in Moon's case, it was used to impress his friends back in Seoul, South Korea, and to inflate the influence of his Unification Church.
The messianic Moon, who has referred to himself as "humanity's Savior," never cared about journalism in the traditional, American, free-marketplace sense of the word. Yes, he launched a product that looked like a newspaper, but its central goal was never really to inform its readers. Its goal seemed more often to misinform and to enhance Moon's reputation outside the United States. Moon and Unification Church leaders used the newspaper as a symbol, most often in Asia, to suggest that Moon moved freely among world leaders. That the newspaper in 2009 had a modest circulation roughly matching that of the Chattanooga Times Free Press was irrelevant to the paper's publishers, although the newspaper's evaporating readership probably was not lost on the Times' shrinking band of local advertisers.
Now, I'm not a press hater. And unlike conservative media critics, I don't take pleasure in watching news orgs struggle financially. I don't relish a world with fewer hard-working journalists. (I think democracies are best served with more journalists.) But I am hard-pressed to think of one thing that will be missed about the Times.
Indeed, the problem most recently wasn't that the Times was a Moonie newspaper, per se; it was that the Times became a chronically dishonest, and often proudly hateful, one. Indeed, the Moonie connection over time became largely irrelevant, in part because the Unification Church today barely even exists as a religious entity in America. (Experts suggest the movement boasts less than 5,000 members nationwide.)
The real problem, and the real damage the daily was doing to public discourse, was that the Times, like the rest of the right-wing movement post-Obama Inauguration Day, ran off the rails in 2009. And much like Fox News, it cut whatever ceremonial newsroom ties it still had with actual journalism.
I'm tempted to call the Times a failed news experiment. But it seems obvious that Moon knew it was going to fail financially, so it wasn't really an experiment. In other words, Moon may be the only big-city publisher in American history who set out to launch a money-losing newspaper; the only big-city American publisher who honestly did not care, nor did he ever expect, his newspaper to turn a profit -- or even come close.
Moon and the Times' parent company never open their books, but it's been estimated the self-proclaimed messiah has spent nearly $3 billion propping up the right-wing daily since its inception in 1982. As the paper now implodes, Moon is certainly the proud owner of the most expensive failed newspaper in the world, and it's possible that the Times stands as the most expensive failed American news property. Ever.
The irony, of course, is that the American conservative movement proudly -- and loudly -- worships at the altar of the marketplace. (No handouts!) And specifically when it comes to the media marketplace, the movement insists newspapers can no longer sustain themselves, in part, because they're so liberal that they've lost touch with news consumers, and that's why subscribers are abandoning the dailies. And that's why the dailies deserve to fail.
But oops, The Washington Times (not to mention the right-wing New York Post) has been losing subscribers by the tens-of-thousands in recent years, and if ever left strictly to the beloved marketplace, the Times would have been shuttered years ago for the simple reason that (surprise!) there is no mass market demand for the often shoddy right-wing product.
As a for-profit business, The Washington Times could never sustain itself. Period. So instead, its right-wing ideologue owner supported the daily as a form of conservative welfare -- as a charity. The Times was run for decades as sort of right-wing workfare project as Moon created hundreds of unneeded newsroom jobs, paid for in the name of giving its owner a (money-losing) media platform.
Of course the other glaring disconnect (or blatant hypocrisy, if you prefer) was the way the strongly Evangelical-flavored conservative movement embraced a free-spending media baron who, thanks to his own fantastic claims of divinity and looming world domination, made a mockery out of Christian traditions.
I am God's ambassador, sent to earth with his full authority. I am sent to accomplish his command to save the world's six billion people, restoring them to heaven with the original goodness in which they were created. The five great saints and many other leaders in the spirit world, including even Communist leaders such as Marx and Lenin, who committed all manner of barbarity and murders on earth, and dictators such as Hitler and Stalin, have found strength in my teachings, mended their ways, and been reborn as new persons.
For those who might not know, the Korean-born Moon claims that at the age of 16, Jesus appeared to him in the mountains, on an Easter Sunday, and told him he'd been selected by God to accomplish the mission Jesus himself was unable to complete before he was crucified. Moon's task as God's new Messiah was to create "an "automatic theocracy to rule the world." (aka the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.)
And as former Unification Church official Michael Warder once told The New Republic, "Within the Moon movement, there is no foundation for the ideas of freedom, the rule of law and the dignity of the individual as they are understood in the West."
Recall that a 1978 congressional investigation reported "reliable information" tying Moon's church to the Korean Central Intelligence Agency.
And don't forget that Moon was convicted of falsifying records in order to avoid paying income taxes.
And this: Moon claims to have communicated with God, Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed. Moon also claims to have freed Adolf Hitler from hell, and that 36 former U.S. presidents have all endorsed him from beyond the grave.
What that kind of brazen nuttiness ever had to do with conservative values remains a mystery. But the Moonie checks were cashed all over town as Beltway conservative activists embraced Moon and his largesse, which for decades poured into right-wing think tanks. It paid for elaborate anti-communism conferences; it lined the pockets of high-profile guest speakers; and of course sustained a newspaper that could not otherwise sustain itself.
It kept alive a newspaper that utterly failed in the marketplace.
And no, I can't say I'm going to miss The Washington Times.