Since their recent electoral drubbing, many Republicans are rethinking their party’s relationship (or lack of one) to blacks and Hispanics, and embracing what Rick Santorum calls “a broader, bolder and more inclusive vision of freedom and opportunity.” One sign of this is the sea change on immigration policy. Just days ago, four prominent Republican senators, including heavyweights John McCain and Marco Rubio, joined a bipartisan coalition to unfurl a broad roadmap for reform. One of the pillars was a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. This is a far cry from just a few months ago, when the GOP’s presidential nominee was peddling “self deportation” as the answer to our immigration quandary.
But while some conservative leaders are courting minority groups, one of the movement’s ideological lodestars is taking a hard turn in the other direction. Last month, The Washington Times tapped Wesley Pruden, its one-time editor in chief, who was pushed out amid allegations that he allowed racism to fester in the newsroom, to run its Commentary section. Pruden’s return—part of a wide-ranging shakeup following the death of the Times’s founder—is a troubling sign for the opinion pages, long a key pipeline for conservative ideas and a training ground for right-of-center pundits.
Under Pruden’s leadership, from 1992 to 2008, the Times became a forum for the racialist hard right, including white nationalists, neo-Confederates, and anti-immigrant scare mongers (all of which the Southern Poverty Law Center and The Nation magazine have documented at length). Pruden’s own column, Pruden on Politics, was occasionally tinged with racial animus, too. In 2005, for instance, he lambasted the Senate for succumbing to “manufactured remorse” and passing a resolution of apology for blocking anti-lynching laws during the Jim Crow era.
Many Times insiders fear his return will stain the paper’s image, especially in the current political climate. “Its a huge blow to the influence and credibility of the paper,” says a senior Times official who worked closely with Pruden during his earlier reign.
Pruden’s predecessor in the Commentary section, Brett Decker, came to the Times from The Wall Street Journal. Like William F. Buckley, who mentored him early in his career, Decker sought to kindle debate by bringing various factions of the conservative movement together on his pages. Decker also recruited writers and editors with deep political connections, and encouraged them to mine their rolodexes to track emerging issues and woo big-name conservatives to write for their pages. According to Jonathan Slevin, who was the Times president and publisher from 2009 to 2010, this approach “brought new life into the section.” So much life that Slevin agreed to add two people to Decker’s team even as he was slashing other departments to the bone. “The one place where I could keep the identity and the relevancy of the Times was the Commentary section,” Slevin said. “It was a really vibrant place, and the staff was very connected. Decker’s perspective was you go out and function as a reporter and really get yourself into the mix, so you’re not just writing from an ivory tower.” Readers seemed to like the approach, too. Commentary pieces often dominated the most-read list on the paper’s website.
But Decker butted heads with Slevin’s successor, Tom McDevitt. According to current and former Times officials, eight of whom were interviewed for this story, this is partly because McDevitt didn’t care for Decker’s editorial approach, and partly because the two didn’t see eye to eye on journalistic ethics. (McDevitt did not respond to emails seeking comment.)
One flashpoint was Arnaud de Borchgrave, a decorated former Newsweek correspondent who had served as the Times’s editor in chief from 1985 to 1991. (He remains an editor at large). In mid 2011, Decker’s staff discovered that the veteran journalist, who writes a weekly Times column, was lifting passages verbatim or almost verbatim from the work of other writers. Decker repeatedly alerted McDevitt and the rest of the executive team to the problem. In one particularly pointed email, he warned that de Borchgrave’s “outright plagiarism” and “lack of respect for the most basic journalistic ethics” was “putting the reputation of The Washington Times brand and the individual professional careers of TWT journalists at risk.” He added, “Action needs to be taken to protect this institution from further harm.” Still, de Borchgrave was kept on.