New Washington Times Editor Unaware of Paper's Past Lies; Vows Improvement

Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

The incoming editor of The Washington Times tells Media Matters he was not familiar with the paper's history of inaccuracies and distortions -- including many linked to its fierce opposition of gay rights.

But Ed Kelley, who comes to the Times from The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, vowed to make sure editorials and news stories were accurate and welcomed critics to contact the paper with concerns about such problems.

"Certainly on a case by case basis, if I come in and there is an individual or a group that complains that this editorial says something out of context, that it is just a flat-out error, or to use your term ... a distortion, you know we're going to take a look at it," said Kelley, who takes over the Times on July 1. "We want the editorials to be strong, to be persuasive, but to do so they both have to be grounded in accuracy. So, if these things are brought forth, I want people to contact me. Whether it's you or whether it's the public or any other organization if there are examples of these things occurring. I'm not there yet, won't be there for another 10 or 11 days. But certainly if this is an issue, I'm going to tackle it."

Kelley said he was unaware of the paper's history of inaccuracies and factual errors, saying only he was "familiar with its voice."

"I didn't have a print subscription, necessarily living here in Oklahoma City, certainly followed it on the web site and familiar with its voice - both in news and opinion," he said, adding that his son, Mike, had worked in the Times' sales department. "Of course having a blood relative, in this case, my youngest son working there, I knew a lot about the personalities and what they were trying to do and, again, saw how he was treated by the people several layers above him in the food chain and was impressed by that."

Media Matters has documented numerous cases of misleading and inaccurate news articles in the Times. Among them:

A May 20, 2010 article that falsely claimed that reportedly hacked emails from the University of East Anglia "seemed to suggest scientists manipulated data" and that they called "into question" "the science underpinning claims of global warming." In fact, official inquiries into the scientists' conduct found that they did not manipulate data, and despite months of false accusations from right-wing media, the content of the emails did not undermine global warming science.

A May 29, 2010 article about then-Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's judicial temperament reported criticisms of her -- including that "[l]awyers who have argued cases before [her] call her 'nasty,' 'angry' and a 'terror on the bench' " -- but none of those criticisms came from on-the-record sources who knew Sotomayor. Indeed, the article identified the source of the "terror on the bench" quote that appeared in the headline and lead paragraph as the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, which, as the article reported, is based on "interview[s] [with] at least eight lawyers who practice regularly before the judges and" to whom the AFJ "granted ... anonymity so that they could provide candid assessments."

The headline of a Dec. 10, 2008 article about the implications of the charges against then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) baselessly asserted: "Scandal casts cloud over Obama presidency." In fact, the article itself noted that "[a]uthorities stressed that Mr. Obama was not involved in the far-flung corruption probe" and that U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald "told reporters, '[t]he complaint makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever.' "

A May 7, 2008 article stated that Barack Obama "continues to have trouble with voters' preconceived notions about him, including one man eating breakfast at an Indiana restaurant who waved him away when the candidate approached him." It uncritically quoted the man stating, "I can't stand him. ... He's a Muslim. He's not even pro-American as far as I'm concerned." The Times did not correct the false claim about Obama.

Kelley promised to make sure reports and editorials would be accurate in the future.

"I come from an organization that also has a conservative editorial page. I think it's incumbent to make your point of view with as much accuracy as possible," he said. "Editorials, though, that don't have a point of view, I'm not sure why anyone would bother in publishing them because editorials are supposed to be persuasive tools. If there are inaccuracies as you say there are, certainly I'll take a very close look at that. Going forward, credibility is the coin of the realm of any news organization, certainly on the editorial pages."

As with his predecessor, Sam Dealey, Kelley will oversee both news and opinion pages. He said he had the same dual control at The Oklahoman.

Kelley, 58, also was unfamiliar with the paper's stance against gay rights, which Media Matters has long documented as often being supported by distortions and lies.

"The only thing I know about any kind of a controversy there was I guess a change in whether or not the term either civil unions or gay marriage or something, whether or not there were going to be quotes used around the term or not. That's really the only thing I know."

Kelley was referring to the 2008 change by former Times Editor John Solomon to stop placing scare quotes around gay marriage, which was seen as a negative connotation for same-sex unions. That move was reversed, at least temporarily, in 2009.

Times Managing Editor Chris Dolan, who will remain in his post under Kelley, told Media Matters that quotation marks are not currently used in that way.

"As far as going out of its way [to] alienate a certain group of Americans, you know, again, I just need to get there to take a look at the history, at sort of the stance on this particular issue and all social issues to see if that's what it needs. If it needs to remain that way going forward or if there needs to be a change," Kelley said. "Again, I want to get there before I make any pronouncements about 'we're going to do this,' or 'we're going to do that' or 'we're going to keep it the way it is.'"

Media Matters provided Kelley with a list of numerous examples of anti-gay editorials and reports in the Times, including many with distortions and falsehoods. Among them:

  • A June 17, 2008, column, in which Wes Pruden asserted of the AIDS virus: "We were all supposed to be dead now, done in by AIDS, the gift of the gays," and subsequently downplayed the number of deaths attributable to AIDS. In his Times columns stretching back at least to 1989, Pruden has repeatedly downplayed the impact of HIV/AIDS. For instance, he asserted in a 2005 column that "after all these years AIDS remains a disease almost altogether of homosexuals and drug addicts and the unfortunate women who hang out with them." Contrary to his suggestion, AIDS has in fact killed millions. [The Washington Times, 2/22/05, from Nexis]
  • An April 26, 2010 editorial about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) which would prohibit discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, in which the Times argued that "discrimination is necessary" and that "subjecting kids to weirdos undermines standards of decency" (the latter appears as the editorial's subheadline in the Nexis database but is not present on its online version).
  • A Times anti-gay war against then-Department of Education official Kevin Jennings, which included numerous editorials specifically aimed at smearing him. These editorials have used anti-gay rhetoric, falsehoods, and distortions to attack Jennings, including accusations of "promoting homosexuality in schools" and falsely suggesting he "encouraged" the "statutory rape" of a "15-year-old high school sophomore." The Times' editorial board has referred to "dangerous radical" Jennings as "Obama's buggery czar." The Times has also attacked Jennings' "bizarre sexual agenda" as "indoctrination" and written that Jennings "has made extremely radical statements promoting homosexuality in schools."

In response to the list, Kelley wrote in an e-mail:

I'm not going to comment on what the paper has done in the past. As you note, some of these passages from editorials date back 10 to 20 years. I'm not in D.C. yet, much less on the payroll. Once I get there I'll receive a thorough briefing from the editorial/opinion staff on TWT's positions on key issues, particularly the ones of recent weeks/months.

Kelley, a father of three, has worked at the Oklahoman since 1975, which included a four-year stint in Washington as the paper's D.C. correspondent.

He comes to the Times following one of its most volatile periods, having undergone two ownership changes since 2009. Kelley becomes the paper's fourth editor in three years.

"Certainly, it's had its ups and downs and its ups and downs are probably more so than most news organizations," he said. "But I feel confident that the organization is on solid footing with a combination of new and old management."

He said he was asked to apply for the job by Times President Thomas McDevitt, whom he met years ago in Washington. He said McDevitt called him several months ago to ask that he apply.

"I've been hired and have been told that they want to keep the conservative voice but that there is, and this is their term, 'a bright line between the newsroom and the editorial page.' I'll be the only person who has a foot in both operations."

Discussing his directives from the ownership, he stated:

"There was never discussion on any particular single issue, it was just simply a distinctive view of columns, to try to get as many exclusive pieces as we could, to focus in on five or six real key areas. Obviously politics being a key one, international affairs, national security, culture and sports.

"Those are sort of the key buckets, if you will, on the news side. And then as far as on the opinion side, there was never a discussion about well, 'here's what we feel on X, X, X, and X.' It's just, just to keep a conservative world view as it's had since its founding on Day One and I think they like the fact that I came from a place that had a world view that's probably pretty similar in most respects to what the Times has or the Times has had."

Asked what it would take for him to oppose the ownership or other editors on a controversial topic or editorial if he felt it was unfair or inaccurate, Kelley said:

"I don't have any specifics because I haven't sat down with [Editorial Page Editor] Brett [Decker] and the editorial page staff other than at the meet-and-greet ... and it was just simply 30 minutes. So we went around the room and everybody introduced themselves we talked a little about what they were covering, we talked a little about the presidential race as it shapes up. And that's really the only discussion we've had."

He later added, "Everybody knows that the editor has the final say. If there is something that the editor, if the editor doesn't feel comfortable with it, he's either going to spike it or we're going to change it. And I think Brett and I will have that kind of relationship."

Kelley also said his son's time at the newspaper was another factor in his decision to join the Times. He said that his son was treated well by management.

"I saw how the folks at the Times treated my son. I said that was really important to me."

Kelley said he had signed a contract with the Times, but would not disclose its terms, length or salary.

He later added about the Times: "I do feel confident that, not just with the print product in Washington, but its possibilities in the digital realm, as well as some relationships that it hopes to have on the broadcast side going forward. All that is very positive. I think the Times has a good future, not just in the Washington area, but particularly outside of Washington, D.C."

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.