Sun Myung Moon's Death Leaves Conservative Newspaper at a Crossroads

As the dust begins to settle after the death of Unification Church founder and South Korean cult figure Sun Myung Moon, questions about the future of the conservative newspaper he founded in Washington still linger.

The Washington Times, a daily newspaper Moon launched in 1982, is credited as one of the first of America's powerful 21st century conservative news outlets, a group that now includes Fox News, The Drudge Report and The National Review. Madeline Albright and Ronald Reagan both boasted of reading the Times.

It was the Fox News "before there was Fox News," says one longtime Moon watcher, who did not want to be named for fear for repercussion from Moon's church. "They were the primary conservative force."

Until 2010, The Washington Times was also owned by Moon's New World Communications, an international media conglomerate similar to Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which owns Fox News. The conglomerate was directly affiliated with Moon's Unification Church.

A request for comment from the Unification Church, widely known for conducting controversial mass weddings, was not immediately returned.

But Steve Hassan, a former "Moonie," or follower of the church who now counsels people who want to exit cults, says politics was deeply entwined with the church and the paper from the start. He recalls being asked in the 1970s to fast for three days on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building for Richard Nixon's election, "because God wanted Nixon to be president," according to the church.

"Really, it was that Moon wanted to influence the establishments and he wanted to be accepted by the power brokers," says Hassan. The Washington Times, says Hassan, was a perfect way for Moon to wield that influence.

Hassan's beliefs are echoed by Larry Zilliox, a private investigator who specializes in destructive cults and extremist groups, who has been tracking Moon for 27 years.

"Moon's entire organization operated to support itself," says Zilliox. "The Times would play the role of printing a newspaper. Whenever Moon brought in ministers or government people from Korea or Japan, that trip would be arranged by [the group's] travel agencies, they would be taken by bus by their bus companies, stay in their own hotels... And they were always, always brought to The Washington Times," says Zilliox. "The Times was their centerpiece."

Those who work inside the Times' newsroom today say it is no longer used as a political tool, and that Moon never exerted influence on day-to-day operations.

But the paper was never very separated from the Unification Church. The Washington Times' current president, Tom McDevitt, is a member of the church. He was also a pastor of the church in the 1980s, and has delivered speeches to the Universal Peace Federation, another Unification Church-affiliated group. "Interfaith" events have at times co-sponsored by the Washington Times Foundation and even held in the Washington Times building.

A request for comment from McDevitt was not immediately returned.

Moon controlled much more than The Times. One attempted list of Moon-affiliated entities runs more than 60 pages. His group's known business holdings range from sushi restaurants (the church owns more in the United States than any other group), to huge land expanses in South America, as well as the Tongil Group, one of South Korea's largest business groups. The church also owns United Press International, once one of the world's most influential international news agencies.

The Washington Times, however, has always been the group's most valuable asset, according to observers.

The Washington Times did not respond to request for comment, and the paper's executives have stayed mostly mum about the future of the paper—even in a six-page obituary of their founder. But Moon is survived by 10 children, many of whom had already taken over many of their father's business and religious entities before his death.

"I think that those who are currently in positions of power, not only the children but the longtime supporters, understand the value and benefit of owning the Times, and the value and prestige it gets them," says Zilliox. "And I think they will be able to subsidize it for a number of years if they choose to."

A person who is advising The Washington Times told Whispers that the family had been planning for Moon's death and its impact on the paper. "Ownership is committed to The Washington Times for the long haul," the adviser says.

In particular, the Times wants to transform itself into a "nationally-oriented" paper, the adviser says. "It really is a national newspaper."