As it turns out, the turmoil in Commentary presaged a larger shakeup. On Jan. 4, the paper reportedly handed pink slips to roughly 20 of its 90 newsroom employees. Among the casualties was Robert Morton, a respected Times veteran who ran the National Weekly Edition—the paper’s lone profitable arm, according to insiders. Morton had also pressed executives to rein in Solomon’s growing clout. Three days later, Solomon was named chief digital officer. By this time, the paper was regularly running stories from the Solomon-run Washington Guardian, which stoked fears that more jobs would be cut and replaced with outsourced content. It was also at this point that Pruden—whose column is syndicated by a related Solomon-run company—was brought on to oversee the restructuring of the editorial pages.
Wesley Pruden hails from Arkansas, where his father, a Baptist minister, led the charge against the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School, a key battle in the often-violent struggle over desegregation. While Pruden is less strident, he has made no secret of his affection for the Confederacy or his disdain for the Civil Rights movement. He once called Jesse Helms his political hero. Pruden’s closest advisor, Francis B. Coombs, who was national editor until being tapped as Pruden’s deputy in 2002, held even more extreme racial views. According to an internal Times investigation—which was conducted by the law firm Nixon Peabody and quoted in the book, Journalism is War, by the paper’s longtime investigative reporter, George Archibald—Coombs told subordinates that blacks were born with IQs 15 to 20 points lower than whites. The probe also found that Coombs was a vocal supporter of abortion because “it disproportionately impacts blacks and minorities” and “helps to keep the black and minority population down.” (In an interview with CJR, Coombs, who is now the managing editor of Rasmussen Reports , dismissed these allegations as “absurd.”)
These biases seeped into the paper’s news pages. Between 1998 and 2004, the Times covered each of the biennial American Renaissance conferences, hosted by the white supremacist New Century Foundation. What’s more, the paper’s coverage of these events—which are hotbeds for holocaust deniers, neo-Nazis, and eugenicists—was stunningly one sided. One 1998 story, called “Whites Ponder Future of Their Race,” was patched together largely from presentations by firebrand researchers who defended discredited theories on the genetic gap between races and argued that human beings are genetically programmed to prefer their own ethnicity. There was also a quote from a woman named Susan Huck, who was cast as an ordinary conference goer, though she worked as an editor of a white supremacist paramilitary newsletter that was read by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. After claiming she was “not really that much into race,” Huck noted that she feared for her nieces and nephews growing up in the “hell” of multi-racial America. “They can’t even hold their heads up in their own civilization,” she complained. Other than mentioning that KKK leader David Duke was in attendance, the story didn’t offer the faintest hint that these ideas might be controversial.
Four years later, the Times ran a piece based solely on an American Renaissance speech by Glenn Spencer, who founded the anti-immigrant hate group, American Border Patrol, and has called immigrants a “cultural cancer.” It warned that the Latino migrants flooding into California were part of a secret plot to re-conquer the American southwest and turn it into “an independent Hispanic territory.”
Similarly, under Pruden, the paper’s Culture Briefs section regularly printed excerpts from racist hard-right publications, such as VDARE and American Renaissance magazine, along with rants from Bill White, the infamous neo-Nazi. One typical Culture Briefs snippet from 2006 argued that “genetic diversity” cause by the mixing of races was “a threat to civilization.” During the Pruden era, an entire page in each week’s Saturday edition was also reserved for the Civil War, with many articles devoted to glorifying the Confederacy.
According to Mark Potok of The Southern Poverty Law Center, this kind of coverage helped push fringe ideas into the mainstream. As Potok puts it, “The Washington Times helped to legitimize a white nationalist narrative that has spread through much of the political discourse in this country.” The Times’s nativist leanings also sowed anguish in the newsroom, as did Pruden’s brash editing. Among other things, Pruden was infamous for rewriting stories to fit his ideological bent—a practice known as “Prudenizing.” (Pruden declined to be interviewed for this story.)