The Washington Times Pushes Extremist, Neo-Confederate Ideas
By Heidi Beirich and Bob Moser
Defending Dixie: A Family Affair
Pruden was elevated from managing editor to top dog of the Times in 1992. It was pivotal time for the paper. With the Cold War won and conservative politics in the ascendant, the paper needed a fresh sense of mission. When he sat down for a long interview with Southern Partisan not long after his promotion, Pruden left little doubt about where he would lead the paper.
After singling out the Southern culture warrior, Sen. Jesse Helms, as a political hero, Pruden bragged about his great-grandmother shooting a Union cavalryman and boasted that the Times was the most "in-your-face" conservative newspaper in America. When Robert E. Lee's birthday rolls around every year, he said, "I make sure we have a story" — especially because the occasion "falls around Martin Luther King's birthday."
Pruden started with the Times shortly after its founding. He was originally hired on a probationary basis, founding editor and publisher James Whelan told the Washington Business Journal, because Pruden had run into ethical problems as a reporter.
According to Whelan, Pruden was fired in 1978 by the now-defunct National Observer, where he had worked for 14 years, under suspicion that he had "manufactured" quotes in his stories. (Pruden refused to comment on the reasons for his ouster, except to say it involved "a couple of stories I'd done.")
Born and raised in Arkansas, Pruden has a deep-rooted affection for Dixie. His father, the Rev. Wesley Pruden Sr., was a leading spokesperson for Little Rock's racist Capital Citizens Council, which fought bitterly against school desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s. During the landmark confrontations at Little Rock High School in 1957, when President Dwight Eisenhower sent National Guard troops to protect nine black teenagers as they entered the white school, Pruden Sr. reportedly told the assembled mob: "That's what we've got to fight! Niggers, Communists, and cops!"
The Rev. Pruden's son has avoided commenting on his father's politics. But in 1995, the Times ran two long op-ed pieces by the senior Pruden's old Citizens Council cohort, "Justice Jim" Johnson.
According to an investigation by Salon.com, Johnson's Washington Times stories were part of the anti-Clinton Arkansas Project, which mounted a well-financed campaign to discredit Henry Woods, the federal judge originally appointed to preside over criminal proceedings in the Whitewater case. The doubts about Judge Woods raised in Johnson's op-ed pieces percolated through the media for months, and Woods was eventually replaced by a judge more friendly to Whitewater investigators.
Pruden's contribution to the anti-Clinton efforts didn't stop there. Even as he oversaw his paper's wall-to-wall coverage of Whitewater and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the editor was creating a stir with his own op-ed columns about Clinton — including one that broke the "news" about Bill, Monica and the cigar. Pruden is also legendary, as an editor, for manipulating headlines and stories to ratchet up their political slant — so much so that Washington Times staffers coined a verb, "Prudenizing," to describe the tampering that has led some of them to resign in protest.
In 1998, Pruden, whose newspaper is the only major daily in America that runs a weekly page about a war that ended 138 years ago, spoke to the United Daughters of the Confederacy at the Manassas Battlefield Park. He began by making the kind of promise most editors avoid at any cost: "I will never fail to respond to you when you call on me for help, because I believe in what you are doing to cherish and protect and preserve the heritage of our great Southern people."
Concluding with a flourish, Pruden said "Southerners ... hold loyalty to two countries in our hearts." The second country is one "baptized 137 years ago on this very field in the blood of First Manassas, a country no longer at the mercy of the vicissitudes in the tangled affairs of men, a country that lives within us, a country that will endure for as long as men and women know love. ... God bless America, God bless the Confederate States of America, and God bless you all."
Extremism Gets a Voice
Though he declined to talk with the Intelligence Report for this story, Pruden has denied that his personal beliefs color The Washington Times. "We are editorial page conservative," Pruden told Southern Partisan. "But we like to think that on news we just lay it down the middle and let people make up their own minds."
In 1995, Pruden appeared to strike a blow for "down the middle" fairness by firing The Times' other voice of the extreme right, syndicated columnist Samuel Francis. A new book by neoconservative stalwart Dinesh D'Souza had quoted Francis' speech at a 1994 conference on "Race and American Culture" sponsored by American Renaissance, a white supremacist journal that promotes eugenics and believes, among other things, that whites are inherently smarter and less violent than blacks. After D'Souza portrayed Francis as a purveyor of the "new spirit of white bigotry," Pruden told him the Times would no longer run his column.
The firing was something of a mystery, since Francis had often expressed views on race that appeared quite compatible with Pruden's. (Ironically, Francis now edits the Citizens Informer, a newsletter published by the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, successor to the Citizens Council that Wesley Pruden Sr. belonged to.)
In 1994, Francis had been demoted to a half-time staff position after he wrote a column lambasting the Southern Baptist Convention for officially "repenting" for its support for Southern slavery — even though Pruden had expressed a similar view in a column of his own, published in Southern Partisan.
Still, if the reasons for Francis' dismissal were murky, the public symbolism was clear enough: Even on its unabashedly conservative editorial page, the Times did have its limits.
But only two years later, the Times reversed course dramatically, hiring a writer whose views on race and Southern heritage are arguably more extreme than either Francis' or Pruden's. And this time, those views would be expressed not in op-ed columns but on the Times' news pages.
With the arrival of Assistant National Editor Robert Stacy McCain in 1997, the Times' disassociation from the racism of American Renaissance became a distant memory. McCain, who wrote the story about Democrats and Dixie, has covered the group's biannual conferences in 1998, 2000 and 2002, making the Times the only major American newspaper to devote news stories to American Renaissance. Since 1999, the Times has also reprinted at least six excerpts from American Renaissance in its page-2 culture section, never acknowledging the highly controversial nature of the source.
"Activist warns of border war," blared the headline for McCain's latest American Renaissance story on Feb. 25, 2002. McCain was covering an American Renaissance conference on immigration, and his opening paragraph was almost as sensational as the headline: "A border war between the United States and Mexico 'could happen any day,' a California activist warned at a weekend conference in Virginia."
All 572 words of the story either paraphrased or quoted this same "activist," Glenn Spencer, who runs the anti-immigration group, Voice of Citizens Together, which the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League officials have described as a hate group. Without questioning their factuality, McCain's story reported Spencer's assertions that Mexican leaders were conducting an "invasion" of the United States and that "I love Osama bin Laden" T-shirts were all the rage south of the border after 9/11. No opposing viewpoint was offered or even referenced.
"Sending a reporter to this conference was like sending a reporter to a Ku Klux Klan rally," a flabbergasted reader wrote to the Times. Though the paper printed his letter, the reader's objections appear unlikely to be heeded. McCain has made no bones about being a fan of American Renaissance, writing a letter of "warm congratulations" to the magazine in 1997. It is extremely rare — in fact, it is typically expressly forbidden — for a journalist to publicly express admiration (or disdain) for a group he writes about.