In early January, a U.S. edition of The Epoch Times published a list of what its editors considered the Top 10 news stories of 2006. Not surprisingly, the war in Iraq was first.
The second story, however, was less predictable: "China's Human Rights Movement Grows."
That subject may not have made other news organizations' Top 10 lists, but The Epoch Times is not a typical media outlet. It was launched in 2000 by Falun Gong members, and has since rapidly expanded its Web and print presence.
As it has grown, The Epoch Times has tried to carve a place for itself in the mainstream media while distinguishing itself from Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned in China and sometimes branded as a cult.
"It's not a Falun Gong newspaper," said Stephen Gregory, chairman of the board for English-language editions. "Falun Gong is a question of an individual's belief. The paper's not owned by Falun Gong, it doesn't speak for Falun Gong, it doesn't represent Falun Gong. It does cover the persecution of Falun Gong in China."
Observers, critical and academic, aren't convinced. They say The Epoch Times appears to be a major element of a global public relations campaign by Falun Gong to gain sympathy and new followers.
The Epoch Times has perhaps the greatest recognition and reach among other news organizations with Falun Gong ties. It has offices in 30 countries, publishes in 17 languages on the Web and 10 languages in print, and boasts total weekly circulation of 1.4 million.
"This is a strategy for the Falun Gong to expand its outreach to the non-followers and non-believers of Falun Gong," said Ming Xia, a political science professor at the College of Staten Island. "To some degree, Epoch Times indicates a part of the Falun Gong strategy to embed itself into the large civil society for influence and legitimacy."
Falun Gong is a broad, loosely based movement that combines parts of Buddhism, Taoism and the ideas of its founder, Li Hongzhi, with meditation and simple exercises. It lacks a central hierarchy, so to say it "owns" something can be technically inaccurate. It is true, however, that many staffers, including Gregory, are part of the movement.
The Epoch Times began as a Web site based in an Atlanta suburb after its founders grew alarmed about what was happening to fellow Falun Gong members in China, Gregory said.
It has since blossomed into a large operation, with a weekly circulation of 1.1 million for Chinese editions. English editions in New York are weeklies, and at the top, they promise "A fresh look at our changing world." The word "epoch" means a distinctive period of time.
The end product includes a great deal of mainstream news. A recent English edition in New York had front-page stories about the warm weather and the papers of Martin Luther King Jr. The news organization's coverage of China, however, is strident and critical. Reports have included stories about China allegedly harvesting the organs of Falun Gong members.
The Epoch Times uses staffers, freelancers, wire services and other means to report the news.
Gregory said Epoch Times correspondents in China have been harassed, imprisoned and tortured, and that even those who work outside China face pressure. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented some of the instances. Though not allowed to distribute in China, the paper reaches the Chinese through travelers and people savvy enough to circumvent Internet censors.
Gregory does not apologize for The Epoch Times' China coverage. Part of the paper's mission is covering news through a human rights focus, he says. The paper provides much-needed coverage that is lacking from Western media outlets, not to mention state-run news outlets in China, he said.
"It's correct that our paper is a general interest newspaper," he said. "It's also the case that our paper began with this moral impulse -- that we saw something terrible happen in the world, and we wanted to respond to it."
It is unclear exactly who owns the paper and how it receives much of its funding. An Associated Press reporter was allowed a brief visit to The Epoch Times headquarters in Midtown Manhattan, but wasn't allowed to interview anyone beyond Gregory.
"If we were to discuss who the ownership is, I believe that would put them in a situation in which they would be under a great deal of pressure," Gregory said. "When it comes to the Chinese regime, they'll do almost anything."
In 2004, the paper published a series called "The Nine Commentaries" which blasted the Chinese Communist Party. It claims that more than 18 million Chinese have renounced the party due to the editorials.
Many Chinese business and community leaders are wary of The Epoch Times because they worry its Falun Gong connections could endanger their relations with Chinese authorities. Gregory said those who advertise in the paper often get calls from the Chinese consulate telling them not to.
A dustup in 2006 involving an Epoch Times reporter who shouted down Chinese President Hu Jintao during a White House ceremony didn't help. Soon afterward, The Epoch Times and the reporter, who had been deeply involved in the organ-harvesting stories, agreed she should leave the staff, Gregory said.
Several messages seeking comment from Chinese embassy officials in Washington were not returned. In the past, officials have called The Epoch Times as "a propoganda tool."
Academics say the paper hasn't had tremendous influence on the Chinese Communist Party, though Gregory disagrees. But they also point out the main target isn't necessarily the Chinese government.
"The Chinese regime does care about foreign perceptions and mass media depictions of China," said Jacques deLisle, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has researched Falun Gong. "To the extent that stories in The Epoch Times get picked up by the mainsteam media or lead more mainstream media to look into the events that The Epoch Times reports upon, that's something that is an effect."