When an outfit calling itself the Central Asia Newswire announced it had set up shop in Astana, Kazakhstan last summer, it appeared that somebody, happily, might have figured out a successful business model for reporting on the undercovered oil-, gas-, and despot-rich region between Russia and Afghanistan.
Ah, if only. The outfit was actually the spawn of a nation-branding company employed by the Kazakhstan government and The Washington Times. CAN, as the newswire is called, listed its stateside operations in a K-Street suite offering administrative services and hourly conference room rentals to a host of clients. The company’s Astana operations were equally dubious.
When The Washington Times news editors balked at the copy coming over the wire, some saying that it was written in close coordination with the Foreign Ministry, a Delaware-listed company called Global Media LLC was created to take over the newswire, and East West Communications—the nation-branding company—sued the newspaper for breaching its contract.
How did The Washington Times, which was started by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon in the early 1980s to take a more aggressive reporting stance against the Communist scare, find itself party to a half-million dollar contract with a company representing a post-Soviet country? And why did it apparently agree to lend an air of authenticity to a subscription newswire whose only paying client, it turned out, seems to have been the Kazakhstan government itself?
Print’s decline has not spared The Washington Times, even if the newspaper is bailed out from time to time by its parents at the Unification Church. Daily circulation fell from 87,000 in 2008 to about 40,000 in September 2010, according to Ian Shapira’s reporting in The Washington Post. Preston Moon, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s oldest surviving son, assumed control of the paper in 2006. In what editorial staff described as growing bitterness between different factions of the family, the younger Moon eventually fired the publisher and president, Thomas McDevitt, and several other senior executives in late 2009. The executives, together with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, would buy the indebted paper back a year later.
In 2008 and 2009, the Moon family rift led to the closing of the financial tap that kept the paper going, said several reporters and editors at the paper. A plan to expand coverage into Central Asia at the height of this financial difficulty was brought to John Solomon, the executive editor at the time, in the fall of 2009, according to the paper’s head of business operations, Thomas Culligan. The paper would be allowed to keep any subscription profits from the newswire. Several news editors said that they had not heard of the project before it was launched, indicating that it was something the business staff had hatched.
“The idea originated from a business partner that we had, a company called East West Communications,” Culligan said. “That’s a ‘small p’ on ‘partner’.”
East West Communications, which advises nations on their branding strategies, is headed by Thomas Cromwell, who has long been close to the Moons’ News World Communications, Inc., acting as editor and publisher of the company’s Cairo-based Middle East Times in the 1990s. (Cromwell would not comment for this article). Kazakhstan and other countries have employed East West Communications to place advertorials in The Washington Times for years. In 2010, the country hired East West Communications for more elaborate branding purposes.
The country had both a golden opportunity and a real need for high-impact public relations when it assumed the annually rotating leadership of OSCE, a regional security organization that offers a forum for political negotiations around conflict prevention, human rights, and democraticization. Through a sister organization, the group’s charges include monitoring elections in the former Soviet states. Many observers found it surprising that Kazakhstan, where Nursultan Nazarbayev has been president since the break up of the Soviet Union and there is essentially zero political opposition, could take a leadership role in an organization promoting democracy.