James R. Whelan, the founding editor and publisher of The Washington Times, the newspaper established in 1982 by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his South Korea-based Unification Church, died Saturday at his home in Miami. Whelan was ousted from the newspaper after just two years, saying it had become what its detractors had always said it was, “a Moonie newspaper.”
He was 79.
The cause was multiple organ failure, his nephew Bill Halldin said.
Whelan had had a long career as a newspaper correspondent and executive and was the vice president and editor of The Sacramento Union when he was recruited to run The Washington Times by Bo Hi Pak, the president of News World Communications, the media arm of the Unification Church.
The pursuit was dogged. Whelan turned the job down more than once, at least in part because he thought the church, with its cultish reputation, would insist on editorial control. But Pak said it would not.
About half the staff Whelan eventually put together in 1982 was composed of church members, but it also included many veteran journalists, a number of whom had worked for The Washington Star, which had ceased publication the previous year. From the outset, the idea for The Washington Times was to provide a conservative alternative to The Washington Post.
Over the next two years, Whelan helped build the paper’s circulation to nearly 100,000, and though that was a fraction of The Post’s, The Times commanded attention, not least because it was read daily by President Ronald Reagan, who often quoted it.
Then, in July 1984, Whelan was fired in what the newspaper said was a dispute over his salary but Whelan, in a news conference, loudly attributed to his distress over the paper’s loss of editorial independence. The Times replaced him with the executive editor, Smith Hempstone, who was not a church member. Hempstone said Whelan’s accusations were baseless, as did other high-ranking editors, infuriating Whelan further.
His former colleagues, he said in a letter to The Washington Post, had engaged “in the vilest form of character assassination, dredging up every resentment — every grievance, every grudge, real or imaginary — all for the sole and single purpose of disguising the fact that they had gone along with what they had said they would never go along with: direct Moonie control of The Washington Times.”
James Robert Whelan was born in Buffalo, N.Y., on July 27, 1933. He attended the University of Buffalo (now part of the State University of New York system) but left before graduating to work as a copy boy for The Buffalo Courier-Express.
He joined United Press as a local correspondent in 1952 and was sent to Buenos Aires in 1958. He also had stints in Caracas, Venezuela and San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Coincidentally, United Press International was bought by News World Communications in 2000.)
In the 1970s he worked as a Latin American correspondent for Scripps-Howard and as the assistant managing editor of The Miami News. He was subsequently the editor and publisher of English- and Spanish-language papers in Hialeah, and the editorial director of Panax, a newspaper group that operated in eight states.
Whelan, who finally earned his bachelor’s degree from Florida International University in Miami in 1975, was the author of several books, mostly about Latin America, including “Out of the Ashes: Life, Death and Transfiguration of Democracy in Chile, 1833-1988” and “Allende: Death of a Marxist Dream.”
He was married and divorced several times, his nephew said. He is survived by a son, Robert; a daughter, Heather; and nine brothers and sisters.
The Washington Times survived the fracas over Whelan’s departure; about three years later, the editorial page editor, William P. Cheshire, along with several editorial writers, resigned over what they said was church interference.
“That’s twaddle,” the editor of the paper at the time, Arnaud de Borchgrave, responded.