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.
After trying to manage the situation by having staffers scour de Borchgrave’s work for suspect verbiage, Decker unilaterally suspended de Borchgrave’s column in early 2012. But it later resurfaced in the paper’s news pages. Meanwhile, according to internal Times emails, McDevitt and the Times’s then-board chairman met with Decker and warned him that his job was in danger. While recounting the incident in a March 23 report to the paper’s human resources department, Decker noted, “I believe I could be fired in retaliation for blowing the whistle on plagiarism by TWT Editor-at-Large Arnaud de Borchgrave, who is known to be a close advisor to the president of the company and is seen as having connections to potential investors.”
In fact, Decker was not immediately let go. But it was clear that changes were afoot. In early June, McDevitt announced that he had enlisted a group of consultants to pursue unspecified business goals for the paper. Among them was a former State Department flack, David Jackson, and a longtime McDevitt ally, John Solomon, who had served as Times executive editor from 2008 to 2009. During his tenure, Solomon ushered in sweeping changes and launched a raft of bold revenue-generating schemes, most of which either lost money or never got off the ground.
Shortly after his return, Times officials say, Solomon began picking up his old management duties, which stirred fear that another wave of major shifts was coming. Solomon also ran a competing news site called The Washington Guardian, which some viewed as a conflict of interest. (Solomon did not return emails seeking comment.)
This was the state of play in early September when news broke that the paper’s 92-year-old founder, Rev. Moon—the self-proclaimed Messiah turned business tycoon—had succumbed to pneumonia. His death was a major blow. While the Times maintains that Moon didn’t meddle in daily coverage, its editorial stance on issues ranging from communism to gay marriage was rooted in, or at least compatible with, his teachings. The paper is also reliant on subsidies from Moon-founded enterprises—many of which are now in the hands of his son, Justin Moon, who doesn’t share his father’s passion for conservative politics. According to two Times officials, he has clamped down on funds and threatened to cut them off altogether. What’s more, insiders say the elder Moon’s death has created an accountability vacuum, and that some executives appear to be angling for position. “The ultimate problem, the ultimate cancer is that the owners don’t care about the paper,” says a senior Times official. “There’s nobody watching the ship. Some people are taking advantage of this situation.” All of which may help explain the chain of events that followed.
The month after Moon’s death, McDevitt was promoted to chairman of the board, after which there was a shakeup at the top of the masthead and Executive Editor Ed Kelley, who was at loggerheads with Solomon, stepped down. David Jackson was later tapped to replace him, despite scant newspaper experience and a spotty recent journalistic track record. Jackson’s most recent journalism job was as director of Voice of America, from 2002 to 2006, where he earned a reputation for ruthless cost cutting and pushing journalists to twist facts to fit the government line. During the bloody crescendo of the Iraq war, he reportedly went as far as barring the news department from reporting on the car bombings and terrorist attacks.