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June 5, 2005
Wesley Pruden
Washington Times, Editor in Chief
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Info: He discusses his column "Pruden on Politics" written twice a week and his career in journalism.


Uncorrected transcript provided by Morningside Partners.
C-SPAN uses its best efforts to provide accurate transcripts of its programs, but it can not be held liable for mistakes such as omitted words, punctuation, spelling, mistakes that change meaning, etc.
C-SPAN Q&A Host: Brian Lamb Interview with Wesley Pruden, “Washington Times” Editor in Chief

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Wes Pruden, editor in chief of the “Washington Times,” when did you first think you wanted to be a writer?

WESLEY PRUDEN, EDITOR IN CHIEF, “WASHINGTON TIMES”: I suppose I was very young. I had a newspaper that my cousin and I put out primarily for our family members when I was probably no more than eight or nine years old. And I had an alternative newspaper in junior high school, which I put out on something called a hectograph, which is a seat of gelatin. You make – type it out with – and put it down – laid it down on the gelatin and pull it off, and then you could put about – you could get about eight or nine pages before it got so damp you couldn’t read it. I was the bane of the principle at Pulaski Heights Junior High School in Little Rock.

Then I worked on the school paper in high school. And I started to work at the paper downtown, the “Arkansas Gazette,” when I was still in the eleventh grade, I think. So, all my life I’ve been interested in words.

LAMB: Where’d it come from?

PRUDEN: Well, my father was a Baptist pastor, a very eloquent man. I grew up on the King James Version of the bible. He was very fond of poetry. He was always quoting Shakespeare to me, Longfellow. In other words, language was very important in my house. He taught me – I remembered to use the dictionary when I was no more than seven or eight years old. And I’ve always – words have always banged around in my head like musical notes. And I started reading good writing.

When I was quite young my father said, “I will buy you a book. You read that book. And as soon as you complete it and tell me what’s in it I’ll buy you another book.” And I had quite a little library by the time I was 12, 13 years old. Often they were in the beginning religious books. He wanted me to be exposed to that. So, I read a lot of religious text. Preaching – great preaching was encouraged in our churches in a way then that it’s not now so much. So, I got the – very early on I got the power of language and the power of words.

LAMB: You gave a speech on the twentieth anniversary of the “Washington Times” in August of 2002 at the Heritage Foundation. And you talked about religion. And I wanted to ask you this because of your dad. By the way, what year did your dad die?

PRUDEN: Nineteen – Christmas Eve 1979.

LAMB: And how many years of his life was he a Baptist preacher?

PRUDEN: He was 70 when he died and he started out in the ministry when he was 19 years old, so 51 years, I guess.

LAMB: Was he a – how was he from the pulpit?

PRUDEN: Very eloquent, not fire and brimstone but he was evangelistic and he was very much into the word, as preachers were in those early days. And he was magnificent.

There are three preachers in my life that I really rank as the greatest I’ve ever heard – my father, Billy Graham and Robert Norris, who’s a pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church here in Washington.

LAMB: Still now?

PRUDEN: Yes, he’s a young man. And Fourth Presbyterian is actually in Bethesda. And I get there as often as I can.

LAMB: Well, you said this in 2002. You said – you’re talking about journalists. And I don’t believe you’re talking about the “Washington Times.” You’re talking about the relationship between the owner of the paper, the Unification Church and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon and yourself. But you say, “Most of us are only vaguely religious, if religious at all, and we were religious” – “and if we were religious we held a faith very different from that of our founder.” Were you talking about yourself?

PRUDEN: I was talking about myself and other people. Our newsroom is like most newsrooms. It’s very secular. It’s – you can hear all the profanity you want to hear, although we probably have a somewhat higher percentage of people that actually go to church in, say, the newsroom as opposed to the “New York Times.” I’ve never conducted a survey, but just from my observations.

But we’re not – certainly not religious. A lot of people thought in the beginning when the “Washington Times” came along – it was founded by Reverend Moon – that it would reflect the Unification Church, and it does not. They’re only – out of the 235, 240 people in my newsroom only a handful, maybe eight or 10, are members of his church.

And those of us who go to church – and this is only by casual observation because we certainly never take a survey or anything – most of them are Baptist, Presbyterians, Jewish, Episcopalian, whatever. There just has never been an issue at the “Washington Times.” I don’t think Reverend Moon would expect it to be. Nobody’s ever said anything like that to me.

LAMB: Well, in this speech you said there was first a cultural divide to overcome, not only between the East and West but between a founder and his colleagues, all devout, religious men, and on our side an eccentric collection of rogues, scamps and vagabonds, all devoutly rowdy and some of us barely respectable enough for polite parlors skeptical of nearly everything as good newspapermen and women must be living by the famous newsroom maxim, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

PRUDEN: That’s right. That’s what a newspaper’s got to be, a good newspaper. And we’re that. I think that in the beginning some of our owners, Koreans – that’s what I was talking a bit about the cultural divide between East and West – I think that they were a little surprised at what a newsroom was like because none of them had any experience with newspapers. The man who organized the paper, Colonel Bo Hi Pak, said he had never been in a newsroom and he didn’t know what one looked like and had to imagine what it looked like.

Therefore, we have this really grand newsroom out on New York Avenue. One whole wall three stories high is glass. It looks out on the National Arboretum. It’s a glorious newsroom, but it certainly doesn’t look like any newsroom I’ve ever been in. So, we lucked out by Dr. Pak having never been in a newsroom.

LAMB: How many years have you lived in Washington?

PRUDEN: I came here in 1963.

LAMB: To do what?

PRUDEN: To work for the “National Observer,” which was a weekly newspaper owned by Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal. It lasted until 1976. It was a grand, glorious experiment in journalism that did not survive, but while it lasted it was pretty great. And a lot of our people have gone on to many good things.

LAMB: What did you do between ’76 and ’82 when the “Times” started?

PRUDEN: I wrote “The Great American Novel,” a great novel. And it’s on my closet shelf.

LAMB: Never published.

PRUDEN: Never published. It’s knocked around New York for a while and I got some nibbles, but it was satire. And, as they say on Broadway, satire is what closed Saturday night. It was – it set out to be a comic satire about the Vietnam War, where I had spent five years off and on in Vietnam. It turned out to be more a novel on the egocentrics and the – all about the Washington media more than anything else. I take it down sometimes and look at it. And it’s – there have been bits and pieces of it in my columns over the years.

LAMB: Why did you take the job in ’82? I guess you started about four months into the “Times” starting.

PRUDEN: That’s right. The “Times” started on May 17th. We observed their twenty-third anniversary only last week. And I went there in August.

Well, I was broke. I had used up my savings while expecting to hit it big with this novel and had envisioned Sharon Stone being – doing the movie and all of that. So, I went – I applied for two places. I applied at the “Washington Times” and I applied at “USA Today,” which was getting organized. It was not yet publishing. And I finally took a job at “USA Today.” And when I got home my – literally when I got home – I worked in my apartment – my telephone was ringing and it was Smith Henstone (ph), who was then the editor of the “Washington Times.” And I said, “Smith (ph)” – an old friend. I said, “I’d like to work for you, but you didn’t answer my letter and I’ve taken another job.” And he said, “Well, your letter got lost. I just found it on the bottom pile at my desk. Let’s have lunch.” And I said, “I’ll have lunch with you, but I’m not going to come to work with you because I’ve already taken a job.”

Well, I did after thinking about it. I just liked the audacity of a newspaper owned by the Moonies with a bunch of castoffs from the “Star” and a lot of other papers, having the nerve to take on the “Washington Post,” the richest newspaper in the world, I guess. It just appealed to me and I’ve never looked back.

LAMB: Explain that to somebody in the journalism business that says that – and you’ve gotten a lot of criticism in a town like this. What is it about wanting to take on a newspaper like that and even working for an outfit like the Moonies. What were your thought processes?

PRUDEN: Well, it was just the audacity of it more than anything else. I got in the newspaper business a long time ago. It was very different than it is now. First of all, most cities had more than one paper. I think at that time Washington had four newspapers. Little Rock had two. Memphis had two. That was our nearest city with any competition.

We were – we reveled in the fact that we were rogues and vagabonds. I worked with people who had worked on 25 or 30 newspapers. One of the men who was my mentor sort of on the “Arkansas Gazette” went out for supper one night and didn’t come back. And the managing editor said, “We’ll hear from him. Don’t worry about it.” And three or four days later he got a phone call. He had gone to work on the “Fort Worth Star Telegram.” That’s just the way newspapers were in those days.

I’m not saying that that’s the way it should be. And we’re a better educated lot now, but a lot of the competitive fire has gone out. Newspapers are now monopolies in most cities. They don’t have any competition. We came in and wanted to give the “Post” competition, which we did. And I knew that it was going to be very rugged. I knew that we were going to be criticized. We were not only because of our ownership, which they were going to try to make a big deal of – foreign, religious, and a strange religion to most people at that – and we were going to be unabashedly conservative on our editorial page in a town that is probably one of the most liberal or was then one of the most liberal towns in America. It was just something that why would you want to do this.

And we came in and we took on the “Post.” We used to say every morning when we get up, “OK, how can we slap the 800 pound gorilla today and then run like hell?” because we knew that it was going to be – is going to very tough. And we have succeeded to the extent that we have succeeded made it all worthwhile to me.

LAMB: What do you call success at tweaking the “Post?” When do you do that?

PRUDEN: When we beat them on stories. When we out-report them. We have a staff, as I said, of about 235, 240, depending. They have about 700, 800. It’s just – it really is like a good college team taking on a good NFL team. But we have done it. We built a very fine staff now.

In the beginning we had – it was really ragamuffin. We used to say that we staffed the newsroom by going out and stopping traffic on New York Avenue and saying, “Hey, how would you like to be the national editor of a daily newspaper?” It wasn’t quite like that, but it was almost like that. At one time we had – as we used to say, we had six Pulitzer Prize winners on our staff, and on any good day we might find four or five of them sober. We had a reporter who literally lived in a hearse on our parking lot until the police came up and made him move. He was trying to make a point with an ex-wife, I think. It was all kinds of strange, weird people like.

Slowly, over a period of time, we built the staff that we have now. And it’s taken us a long time to do it. We have a very strong, aggressive managing editor in Fran Coombs. We have a very fine White House staff, Bill Sammon, Joe Curl. Steve Dinan, Charlie Hurt on the Hill are excellent reporters. Bill Gertz, who has broken more National Security stories than anybody in town, Rowan Scarborough, who covers the Defense Department, I think, better than anybody else. And we’ve done it by going after stories that are often not paid much attention to by other media.

People say, “Well, what does a” – “How do you” – “What is the difference between a conservative and a liberal newspaper? How do you cover the news?” Well, I would say that we express our conservatism in two ways, number one on our editorial page. We’re unabashedly conservative. And number two, the only way it expresses itself in the news coverage is that we go after stories that other newspapers, other media outlets probably are not much interested in covering, for instance, women in combat, which is going to be a more and more of an issue. There’s hearings today in the House Armed Services Committee on legislation. That’s largely come about because of our reporting on it. Other – the other medias, they’re just not much interested in it.

We’ve had some very good exclusives over the years. We now get interviews with the president, Condi Rice, the Secretary of State, came out to the “Washington Times” in her first newspaper interview after she was named secretary of state. We meet regularly with Don Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. And these – we also had good access to the Clinton White House, even though we were not, I’m sure, his favorite newspaper. Washington – official Washington sees in the “Times” that we’re going to be aggressive in covering the news and we are going to give the people we cover – we’re going to let them say what they want to say as unfiltered as is possible to make it.

LAMB: The “Washington Post” circulation over – around 800,000.

PRUDEN: Less than that, but between 700,000 and 800,000.

LAMB: The “Washington Times?”

PRUDEN: A hundred and three. We’re up 3,000 over last year. We’re one of the few newspapers in the major cities that actually gained circulation over the last year.

LAMB: How much of the advertising in your paper now pays for the operating expenses?

PRUDEN: We’re still operating at a deficit, but the deficit is smaller than it used to be. I really don’t – I never comment on the business side of the newspaper because that’s not my bailiwick. Richard Amberg, the general manager, is – would be the source of information on that, but I do know that we’re making progress.

LAMB: I’ve read – and you don’t have to comment on it, but I’ve read that you spend as much as $40 million a year to put the newspaper out. Is it anywhere in that ballpark?

PRUDEN: That’s about right.

LAMB: Also I’ve read three figures, that Reverend Moon has spent $1 billion, $1.7 billion and $2 billion. Can you give us any idea of how much he’s spent in the last 23 years?

PRUDEN: I can only tell you what I have seen him quoted and have heard him say. Several years ago he came to the paper – by the way, he does not visit very frequently. He was here recently. It was the first time that he’d been there in six years. And he’s always welcome. The owners of the paper promised us editorial independence, and they have never ever wavered even an inch from that. And I – if all the press lords were as good and faithful to what they should be faithful, as he is, American newspaper editors would have – would not have nearly as many ulcers as they do.

To answer your question, he has – I heard him say several years ago that it was $1 billion. I’ve seen those other published figures. I don’t know what they are. I wouldn’t – I expect that’s about right.

LAMB: Why do you think he wants to do this?

PRUDEN: I think he wants – he wanted – he said in the beginning that they wanted to have an alternative to the “Washington Post” in the nation’s capitol. As Koreans, as many people across the world are, they have to pay a lot of attention to what goes on here in Washington because it affects them. At the time the “Times” was founded in 1982 we were at the bottom of the Cold War. The Koreans were particularly sensitive to that because they lived only a few miles from North Korea, in Seoul. Seoul is about 35 miles from the parallel.

And they were concerned that there were no conservative or alternative voices heard in Washington, and that was true. And if you go back – if anyone were to go back and look at the “Washington Post” at that time there were no conservative voices on their op-ed pages. The news was covered from a very liberal perspective. They were not as – they didn’t want to stand up to the communist threat the way they do now. Ronald Reagan had just been elected president. And I think the owners thought that Reagan needed some newspaper support here, and that’s why they did it.

Now, he has other interests. We make no bones about supporting faith – as we say, faith, family and freedom. We’re very strong on the traditional moral values. And this is expressed in our editorial page and in giving voice to conservative moral voices. And I don’t think you would see that if it were not for us.

Now, the “Washington Post” has become much friendlier to dissenting – voices dissenting from their views than they were 23 years ago. And I have no doubt that if we disappeared overnight that it wouldn’t be long before they’d be just the way they were.

LAMB: You’ve been editor for 13 years. How much longer are you going to do this?

PRUDEN: Well, several years ago one of my editors at one of our meetings asked me if I had any plans to retire. And my answer was, “Not in your lifetime.” That was a very flippant answer and I wouldn’t give that today. I would guess another couple of years and I’ll probably want to look for some other things to do.

LAMB: Is there a succession planned both for you and for the Reverend Moon, who’s – what? – 85 years almost.

PRUDEN: He’s 86, I believe.

LAMB: Eighty-six.

PRUDEN: In fairly good health, but he is 86. I’m sure there is. I’m not at all privy to that. I have no insight into the workings of the Unification Church or our owner’s business – other business interests. I’ve deliberately kept away from that. And they’ve wanted me to. And they’ve kept away from meddling in the newsroom.

I have been asked to look to seeing about a successor, keeping my eventual retirement in mind. If I had to recommend a successor today I would recommend my Managing Editor, Fran Coombs, without any reservation at all, who’s very much a real spark plug in the newsroom.

LAMB: You write a column how many days a week in your own paper?

PRUDEN: Two days.

LAMB: And it’s prominently placed on page four.

PRUDEN: Right.

LAMB: How many words do you usually write?

PRUDEN: It’s about 750.

LAMB: I pulled out a bunch of your columns. We’ve used it often on the morning show. I’m just going to pull out paragraphs and get you to – just to demonstrate the way you write. By the way, what time of day do you write?

PRUDEN: Between 5:30 – between 5:00 and 6:30.

LAMB: At night?

PRUDEN: Right.

LAMB: And …

PRUDEN: Right on the deadline.

LAMB: And is that for a reason?

PRUDEN: The reason – there are two reasons. Number one, it keeps it a little fresher, but the real reason is that’s the only time that I have time to do it.

LAMB: How long does it take you to write that column?

PRUDEN: Anywhere – I’ve written columns in 20 minutes and sometimes two-and-a-half hours, something like that, depending on the subject matter. I can only – as an old time newspaperman I can only write on deadline. If I’ve got two days to do a column it will take me two days. If I’ve got 20 minutes I can knock it out in 20 minutes. It won’t be as good as it should be at 20 minutes. But, like most old time newspaper guys, unless somebody – unless the clock is looking down on me, I can’t do it.

LAMB: Here’s a column from April. You’re talking about Tom DeLay in this column. “The hyenas are baying at John Bolton in the Senate, and the jackals are circling Tom DeLay in the House, united by the prospect of sucking on Republican roadkill.”

PRUDEN: Well, that’s – that was the way I saw it at the time. I am given to colorful metaphors, I suppose. It’s just the way I learned to write. And that’s how I did do it.

LAMB: Later in the column you say, “We can all wish that our politicians were recruited from a better class of people. When an early visitor to America remarked that all Texas needed was a little more water and a better class of settler, an Arkansas man,” where you’re from, “observed that, ‘Yes, and that’s all hell needs too,’ and Texans must make the best of what they have.”

PRUDEN: Well, I grew up in Arkansas and Texas was right next door. We learned at a very early age to be skeptical of Texans. If you grew up next to a giant you learn to have certain – you learn to appreciate needing them from time to time.

LAMB: This is a column in April also by Howard Dean. “But he’s also the governor who’s trying to sound like a tent revival Democrat, boasted that his favorite New Testament book was the Book of Job, which would have amused Job himself, being a nice Jewish boy, whose manifold afflictions were set out in the Old Testament. Little Howard was not the attentive Sunday school boy he should have been.”

PRUDEN: Well, I think that’s probably right. One thing I did kind of resent about Howard Dean and do as much or more than his politics is this notion that he’s suddenly a devotee of Billy Graham or something. I appeared with Howard Dean many times on a TV program in Canada, a PBS program. I sat across the table as much as I’m sitting across the room from you. And he and I sparred from time to time. Howard Dean is very personable – fairly personable in person, and certainly not anything personal, although you can certainly find many examples in my columns of a personal invective. I enjoy the give and take of this.

Look, people have written many harsh things about the “Washington Times” and about me and I’ve never complained.

LAMB: Here’s a column from April early. You’re talking about Mike Allen and the “Washington Post,” who – a Capitol Hill reporter, who “aspires to be the chief flea in Republican skivvies,” reported that, “Republican leaders in the Senate had distributed a talking points memo to help them make the argument that Mrs. Schiavo shouldn’t be starved to death.” Do you like jabbing the “Post” like that?

PRUDEN: Yes, sure. Why not? They jab us. That’s what it’s all about. I don’t think that linebackers and running backs in the NFL should complain very much about when they get hit real hard, and they don’t. And I don’t think that newspaper reporters, newspaper columnists should complain when they get needled because we all do it.

LAMB: Here’s another column. “Over in the Senate Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, who bubble and squeak as only Washington has-beens and wannabes can, are recycling discredited objections in pursuit of John Bolton, the president’s choice for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.” Washington has-beens and wannabes?

PRUDEN: Well, I think they’re certainly not as powerful as they were when they were the majority. And I think they would certainly like to be that again. And I think that some of the things that the Democrats have said about John Bolton need to be returned.

LAMB: Later on in that column you say, “It’s true that some of us expected better things when the Republicans took over the House in 1994, but the Democrats are not angry because they expect Mr. DeLay and his Republicans to pay better than Democrats.” Go back to that first part of this. What did you expect from Republicans when they took over in ’94 that you haven’t seen happen?

PRUDEN: Well, I think that the longer any party remains in power the more arrogant they get. I think we’re seeing some of the same things that – in the Republicans that the Republicans criticized the Democrats for. It’s – power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Atkins said. I sometimes think that Republicans should be – should remember who brung them to the dance, and I think they often forget that.

LAMB: What would you tell the Republican leadership if were sitting down in a room and you wanted to tell them what’s disappointed you about them? And what would you tell them to change?

PRUDEN: I think the Republicans are too cozy with lobbyists, with the moneybags, no more than the Democrats are, but as time goes on probably less than the Democrats. I’d like to see them change that. I was against the – this campaign – a lot of this campaign finance legislation that John McCain pushed because I believe in the First Amendment. I devoutly believe in the First Amendment. But I do think that they’re a little too cozy with big money. I think that – I think a lot of the problems that the president is getting into over the immigration issue is driven by the fact that corporate interests are getting too much out of cheap labor coming in from Latin America. And that’s the reason they don’t want to enforce the borders as they should.

LAMB: What kind of marks would you give George Bush as president?

PRUDEN: I’d give him good marks. I’m never going to be satisfied with a president. It’s not my job to be satisfied with a president no matter who he is. I support him. I think that I would give him a B probably. He’s disappointed me on some things, but he has done certainly – he stood up to the terrorists, and I think that’s important.

I am a little disappointed in how we’re losing a little – we’re losing some of our freedoms – and freedom of movement. I think that there is no question that terrorism – this threat of terrorism is real. I think we have overreacted to some of it. I think the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, for instance, is a scandal and a disgrace to a free country like ours. It should never have happened. And you remember that they closed it and agreed to keep it closed before September 11th.

The first thing that the Secret Service does with any president is to scare the daylights out of him. I can’t imagine Harry Truman, for instance, would have agreed to keep Pennsylvania Avenue closed. I think that some of the other security arrangements have been a little bit too oppressive.

LAMB: The column you wrote in May about the Cessna flying over the city of Washington seemed to have some pithy language in it. And your second sentence was, “Who needs an Islamist air ace in a hijacked Boeing to scare the pants off Washington politicians when a student piloting a little Cessna can do it without meaning to?”

PRUDEN: Well, I thought that the reaction that we had the other day both in the White House and in the Congress was a little bit overwrought. Of course people should have been alarmed, but the sight of everybody knocking each other out of the way to get out of the Capitol reminded me of the great anthrax scare here several years ago. We had a page one picture of the leadership of a Congress racing down the stairs – racing down the steps of the Capitol like a bunch of schoolgirls. They were racing to Union Station, the airport, any way to get out of town. And I think that you really – if you’re a leader you ought not to show panic. You ought not to show fear. And I think they came very close to showing fear.

LAMB: By the way, your columns in the newspaper can be read on the Web site?

PRUDEN: Yes. We have – they’re up on the Web, as most of the content of the newspaper is.

LAMB: Do you have all your columns on your op-ed page and all that available?

PRUDEN: Yes. We don’t have all of the syndicated columns up, but we have all of our own columnists up. All of our op-ed contributions are up. It’s www.washingtontimes.com.

LAMB: How does the Web site do in traffic?

PRUDEN: Very well. We’re one of the top newspapers in the country in Web traffic.

LAMB: How many people are devoted to that task over there at the “Times?”

PRUDEN: Only a handful. We’re trying to get – we’re trying to build that up. The new budget that we’re working on now I hope to get to add some people because I think it’s very important. The Web is – newspapers are afraid of it and yet we’re afraid – we don’t want to give everything away, and yet we’re afraid not to give everything away because the advertising revenue is up dramatically over year to year. And I think that’s true pretty much throughout the industry. It goes against the old maxim that you don’t give away what you can sell because why should you. On the other hand, the Web has become very much a part of every newspaper’s reach and projection. Some of the smallest papers in the country have Web sites. It’s remarkable what you can get on the Web.

LAMB: What’s the “Washington Times” relationship with United Press International, UPI?

PRUDEN: Same ownership. We don’t have any relationship in the way of exchanging reporting or exchanging news. We run occasionally UPI pieces. The UPI has gone more to commentary now than actual news gathering. I don’t think they’re in the news gathering business the way they once were.

LAMB: Where are they located physically?

PRUDEN: They’re located downtown on H Street.

LAMB: So they’re not anywhere near you?

PRUDEN: No. No.

LAMB: How big an operation is that?

PRUDEN: I don’t really know how big their operation is. We don’t have any – we are very separate, very independent of each other. Arnaud de Borchgrave, who was my predecessor as editor in chief, was then editor in chief of UPI. And he’s now editor at large of both UPI and the “Washington Times.” We carry his column occasionally. He doesn’t have anything to do with the management of the “Times,” however.

LAMB: What happened to “Insight Magazine?”

PRUDEN: It folded. The owners decided that it was not going to be a part of what they wanted to do. So, they suspended publication about five, six months ago.

LAMB: What happened to the magazine “World & I?”

PRUDEN: Same thing. They decided that it was something they were not interested in doing anymore.

LAMB: In your column when you were writing about the Cessna flying over Washington, you finished it with this paragraph. “Osama bin Laden spent another day with the scorpions, bugs and worms in his cave somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, studying his tattered Victoria's Secret catalog and dreaming of the blue-eyed virgins waiting for him in paradise. But if he and his accomplices in evil were monitoring Fox News or CNN, he could have allowed himself a chuckle at the sight of the panic in the streets in Washington. Alas, we can't.” Now, is that a classic …

PRUDEN: Well …

LAMB: … Wes Pruden paragraph?

PRUDEN: I suppose that my readers would – might say so. I’m sure there are readers who’d be a little offended by it. I’m sure there are others – I know there are others who are not. Look, that’s just the way I express myself. Not everything in my column is meant to be taken absolutely literally. I don’t really have any knowledge that Osama bin Laden has a Victoria’s Secret catalogue in his cave, but he could have. And it was just a way of needling about their prudery while they are – the prudery about women, while they will kill women and children.

LAMB: March column – and you’re talking about Paul Wolfowitz and the bank – the World Bank and his taking over in Europe and their attitude about him. “Neither George W. Bush nor any other American president could ever say it, but we have to regard Europe now as a nursing home for exhausted nations.”

PRUDEN: Well, look at Europe. And it’s – Europe is probably under – not probably. Europe is under greater immediate threat from the Middle East terrorists than we are, and yet all they can do Germany, France and now Spain – all they can do is complaining about what we’re doing. They ought to be doing it themselves.

It has become, I think, which is very obvious that many of the Europeans are exhausted. They don’t want to do it. They don’t want to put up the money. They don’t want to exert the energy. And they know that Uncle Sam will do it and it’s more fun to sit around and complain about how Uncle Sam does it than to do it themselves. And that’s what I’m talking about.

LAMB: What do you think of all these stories that have come out over the last few years about Jayson Blair at the “New York Times,” Jack Kelley at “USA Today,” the situation with Dan Rather at CBS, and there are others? Have you had any of those?

PRUDEN: No, we haven’t. We have been fortunate. We would crack down very hard on anything like that that we found, but I am not at all going to take any pleasure in any problems at the “New York Times” or the “Washington Post” or CBS or “Newsweek” has. You’re dealing with humans, with the frailty of humans. You’re dealing with very harsh competitive instincts. No editor can know exactly what all of his people are doing. You’ve got to trust people. And you can occasionally get people who are not trustworthy.

And so, I take no pleasure or whatever in – I never gloated about these things that have befallen others. The newspaper is criticized. I’ve criticized publications for bias that they could do something about and don’t, but as far as someone like Jayson Blair or some of the other things that have happened in the media I find it very sad. First of all, it hurts all of us. A lot of people – the casual readers of newspapers or the casual viewers of television they tend to lump us all together. So, when the “New York Times” or the “Washington Post” has a disaster like that it hurts us too.

LAMB: Why did you in the middle of May apologize to Pakistan?

PRUDEN: I didn’t apologize. I’d like to – I expressed regrets. I did not apologize because I didn’t think that we had anything to apologize for. It was unfortunate that if it were to do over again I would ask Bill Garner to go back to his drawing board and rework his cartoon. Bill was innocent in this in that he was not – did not understand how the Paks regard and many people in the Middle East regard dogs.

LAMB: Let me just explain to the audience. This is a Bill Garner cartoon. And the soldier – American soldier says, “Good boy. Now let’s go find bin Laden.” Here is a dog with “Pakistan” written on the side and then you have the fellow that – I’ll drop it in just a second, get the guy’s name – Abu Faraj Al Libbi, who was picked up over there in Pakistan.

PRUDEN: Right. Bill is a good old boy from East Texas, who has hunted all his life. Some of the great loves of Bill Garner’s lives have no doubt been his hunting dogs. And like all hunters, particularly in that part of the country, hunting dogs are almost like members of the family. They’re not regarded that way in Pakistan. Doesn’t – the aversion to dogs, by the way, as I understand it, is not a religious aversion. It has nothing to do with Islam. It’s cultural rather than religious. And when the Paks became exercised over this, they took this as an insult.

The number two man in the Pakistani embassy came to call on me. We had a very cordial conversation. And he made the point – he said, “You know, if the dog had been labeled Musharraf there would have been no controversy, even in Pakistan,” but it was it was labeled Pakistan it was regarded as an insult to the Pakistani nation rather than any individual. So – and he asked me if I would write a letter. He said, “We’re not asking for an apology, but if you would write a letter explaining that no insult was intended.” And I said, “I’ll be happy to do that because we certainly intended no insult of Pakistan, nor did Bill Garner intend to insult.”

And I wrote a letter to him – rather to the ambassador, expressing regrets for the unfortunate construction that had been put on the cartoon, but I did not apologize. I draw a distinction between an apology and expressing regrets.

LAMB: Do you think America demands a retraction or a regret or anything from other newspapers and things they say about, for instance, this president overseas?

PRUDEN: It would never occur to me to think that. I think some of the newspapers have been very vicious about criticism of George Bush, but it would never occur to me to think that we should ask a newspaper to apologize. And the point I made to the Pakistani diplomats was you should have seen some of the cartoons that Bill Garner did about Bill Clinton and other politicians, have been far more disrespectful, if you like, than this one was.

And part of – as we said in an editorial about the incident, they don’t – in other countries there’s often not a great understanding of how newspapers in this country and particularly how cartoonists work because, as we said in our editorial, most cartoonists – most politicians come to just regard it as part of the burdens of their office. And, interestingly enough, some of the most vicious cartoons – the politicians who are the subjects of those cartoons often call and say, “Can I get the original? I want to have it framed for my office.” And if you go into any senator’s office in town you’ll find cartoons on the wall from their hometown newspaper. And they nearly always are making fun of the senator, not in any way praising him.

LAMB: You’re from Little Rock and you write a lot about that and you write a lot about Arkansas. You can get on the Web – or Google “Washington Times” and find a lot of criticism about – well, I’ll pick one – Southern Poverty Law Center seems to have a time – taking on the “Washington Times.” And they wrote, “The ‘Washington Times’ has a long record of hyped stories, shoddy reporting and failure to correct errors.” And then under the headline, “Defending Dixie,” they talk about the story that was in there. It doesn’t matter. But do you defend the South?

PRUDEN: Of course I defend the South when it needs defending. What the Southern Poverty Law Center – the Southern Poverty Law Center, for the viewers who may not know it, is an organization that specializes in finding offenses that they can raise money around. They have been the subject of exposιs and publications as ranging from their own “Montgomery Advertiser,” which did a five-part series on the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Harper’s” Magazine, which is hardly a redoubt of conservatism, has done a very scathing exposι of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Morris Dees, who is the owner of it, if you’d like, I think, is nothing more than a scam artist. The criticism they made of me defending Dixie is – goes back to a speech I made at the Manassas battlefield for the Daughters of the Confederacy, which is a group of women who revere their grandfathers and they decorate graves of the Confederate soldiers – fallen Confederate soldiers. And at the very conclusion of that speech I said, “God bless the memory of the confederacy and God bless America.”

My great grandfather was a Confederate soldier. He never owned a slave. He no doubt would have hated slavery, not for moral reasons necessarily but for economic reasons because he had to compete with slave owners. It is – one of the things that I do write about occasionally is I find it just outrageous that we are trying to rewrite history and that the people who revere their Confederate forbearers (ph) are regarded as defending slavery. And nothing could be farther from the truth. We have a history in this country of slavery. There’s no question about it. George Washington owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. You cannot – in my view, you cannot judge the past by the standards of the present. God knows what our great grandchildren are going to think of us for some of the things that we do.

The reverence that most southern whites hold for their Confederate forbearers (ph) or for the confederacy is these were people who were defending their homes from invaders. This is the way they looked at it. I don’t – one of the great tragedies is that – in my view, is that there was a Confederate general from Arkansas, Patrick Cleburne, who came up with a – he tried to get Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress to agree late in the war to grant freedom to slaves who would join the Confederate Army.

I’ve often thought if that had gone through how different history might have been. We might have had two countries for a while. I don’t think we would have ever had two countries for very long. But the notion that revering confederacy and revering our great grandfathers for the courageous fight that they put up, long headed though it may have been, to equate that with slavery I find – it enrages me. And that’s what I write about from time to time.

LAMB: Well, one of the things they bring up in that piece is that you devote – those of us who read the stories every Saturday – a full page – I’ll hold it up here – to the Civil War.

PRUDEN: You bet.

LAMB: It’s the only newspaper in the country that does it.

PRUDEN: It’s one of our most popular features.

LAMB: And here’s a feature here. This is back in Saturday, May 21st, “Heroic Rebel Steps Up to the Gallows,” and then down here, “Veterans Still at Lincoln Retreat.” Why do you do this?

PRUDEN: We do it because it is popular with our readers. There are more books published on the Civil War than on any other American topic. There is an adage in the book publishing industry that if you really have to show a profit for the year get a Civil War book. And it really – our page – the Civil War page has just as many stories about glorifying the Union as it does the Confederacy. We get approximately equal mail from southerners and from northerners saying, “You’re showing favoritism to the South,” or, “You’re showing favoritism to the North.” You check with the Virginia Tourist Bureau and I bet they would tell you that the Virginia battlefields are one of the top tourist attractions in the state of Virginia. The National Park Service spends millions of dollars a year on maintaining battlefields. We’re only doing what our readers are interested in.

That’s – probably that’s our single most popular feature in the “Washington Times,” is that Civil War page. If we would drop it the screams would be loud and long.

LAMB: Go back to that speech you gave in 2002 to the Heritage Foundation on your twentieth anniversary. I wanted to read some of the stuff that you said in there. “This dumbing down of the media ironically is a result of the takeover of the media, not by soulless corporate collosi (ph), though that too, but by over-educated elites. When I started by career as a copy boy in my hometown newspaper nobody ever called us anything as grand as journalists or the media. We were newspapermen.” Who are the elites? A lot of Conservatives talk about the elites.

PRUDEN: I would say the elites are the Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth trained people who go into – who now go into journalism. In the old days, I guess, they went to Wall Street and clipped coupons, and now they go to newspapers.

I think newspapers have – we miss a lot by – we do have over-educated people in our newsrooms. First of all, let me say I guess you can’t really be too over-educated. Education is great, no question. But we sometimes get so interested in the things that the elites are interested in we forget the legendary “Kansas City Milkman” that newspapers used to say they wrote for.

When I got in the business a long time ago the newsroom really reflected the readership. We were sons of the working class – sons and daughters of the working class. I think a lot of the elite newspapers – the “Washington Post,” the “New York Times” – no longer reflect the diversity of the country. I suppose the – you could argue that the “New York Times” reflects the Upper East Side, the wealthy readers. The “Washington Post,” no doubt, reflects the interest of a lot of people here in Washington. But in the old days you would never – not even at the “Washington Post” circa 1945 would you have ever had anybody at the “Post” write that religious people were under-educated and easy to command, that famous line that they apologize for. You would never have anybody think to write that, and you certainly in the old days would never have gotten that past an editor.

But I don’t think – and I made this point at the time when the – some of the religious people got so upset about that famous description of evangelical Christians, that it was not done out of malice. And I don’t to this day believe it was done out of malice at the “Post.” I think it was done out of ignorance. I think that that’s really the way they look at religious people, that they are kind of dumb and stupid and easy to push around and they take their instructions their preachers who tell them how to vote. And it’s just not true. And if you didn’t – if you had a newsroom that reflected a greater diversity of the population you would never have had that problem.

LAMB: Not much time. Are you married?

PRUDEN: Not now. I was married many years ago. My wife is dead.

LAMB: What year did she die?

PRUDEN: Nineteen – we were divorced, but she died in – she died on September 11, 1991, exactly 10 years before.

LAMB: Did you have children?

PRUDEN: No. I have an adopted son and I have grandchildren.

LAMB: How many?

PRUDEN: Two.

LAMB: If you had to rate the most powerful media outlet in the country today besides the “Washington Times” – just take that off the table.

PRUDEN: Well, we’re not. We pack a punch. We punch much greater than our weight, but I wouldn’t say that we’re as influential as, say, the “New York Times” or even the “Washington Post.”

LAMB: What’s first? Any way of choosing that?

PRUDEN: I would guess the “New York Times.”

LAMB: And why?

PRUDEN: Because they cover the world in a way that nobody else does. They have the resources and they devote the resources and they are looked to by other media. The TV networks read the “New York Times.” The “New York Times” is their agenda for the day largely. The “Post” is influential, but not, I don’t think, in a class with the “New York Times.” It should be. It should be greater because they make more money than the “New York Times,” but the “Times,” I think – the “New York Times” is probably the most influential.

LAMB: Where else is the power and the media world, not just the newspapers?

PRUDEN: Well, television of course.

LAMB: Who does the most important job there?

PRUDEN: Well, I suppose C-SPAN. No, your niche is very important. I suppose that the NBC, CBS, ABC. The cable channels are important, but – and the Internet is coming on. The problem with the Internet is there is so much in it that you don’t – the average person doesn’t know what’s reliable and what’s not. The notion that bloggers are going to replace the news is absurd, I think, because they’re not reporting the news. They’re only commenting on the news. Things are shaking out. Who knows? Ten years down the road it may be very different than it is now.

LAMB: How would your life had been different had you stayed at “USA Today” versus going to the “Washington Times?”

PRUDEN: I went to work for thinking I would just pay off some debts and maybe go back to writing books after six months or a year. And maybe if I had gone to “USA Today” I would have done that. I don’t know. I don’t know that I would be the editor in chief of “USA Today.” Maybe I would, but I think that I made the right decision to go to the “Washington Times.” I’ve never looked back.

LAMB: Are we ever going to see that novel?

PRUDEN: You might. I might even self-publish it. You can publish a book now with this new technology. They print them as you sell them. I might do that sometime, if for no other reason just so my two grandchildren can read it.

LAMB: And what would the title be?

PRUDEN: It had a couple of working titles. One was “Texarkana Baby” because it’s about a president from Texarkana who became actually the president on the eve of a new war in Vietnam and what he did.

LAMB: Ross Perot.

PRUDEN: Well, he’s very different from Ross Perot. He’s a Texarkana undertaker, but who knows. I’ve got a couple of other books I want to write. I want to write a memoir. I grandly call it a memoir. It’s just kind of a story of some of the things that I’ve seen and also that would largely include the “Washington Times” and how we – the story of the “Washington Times.” And then I might want to write an anecdotal history of Arkansas.

LAMB: Thank you, Wes Pruden.

PRUDEN: Enjoyed it very much, Brian. Thank you for having me.

END




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