James Whelan, who has died aged 79, was appointed founding editor of the Washington Times, launched in 1982 by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, but was ousted two years later, ostensibly following a row over editorial independence.
As the self-proclaimed conservative alternative to the (liberal) Washington Post, the Washington Times had an uphill battle to convince people that it was not simply a mouthpiece for the Rev Moon and his wacky variant on Christianity. For two years no one was a more vigorous exponent of the claim than Whelan. His aim, he explained, was to "establish the Washington Times as a major, highly respected member of the journalistic community" and to some extent he succeeded.
Under Whelan's leadership, circulation reached nearly 100,000 and was read by White House staff and by President Reagan, who often quoted it in his speeches. It was also read out of necessity by liberals and monitored by other news operations because Administration sources leaked exclusive stories to it. During the Reagan years it secured several scoops, including a story on the President's decision to seek re-election.
But in July 1984 Whelan was relieved of his duties and subsequently claimed he had been sacked because of his opposition to the takeover of editorial control by the Unification Church. Matters had come to a head, he said, when a group of the paper's senior executives were invited to a get-to-know-you dinner with Colonel Bo Hi Pak, president of the newspaper's parent company News World Communications and a close associate of the Rev Moon.
"All of a sudden... he gets up and delivered himself what amounted to a 55-minute harangue, invoking the image of Rev Moon," Whelan recalled. "He was saying things like: 'You know, we're all here in this great newspaper thanks to the great vision of the Rev Moon... and all of you who have contributed have gladdened so greatly the heart of the Rev Moon.'
"I'm looking around the table and, Jesus Christ, the guys are tense in their chairs. What he was clearly implying is that he was taking over."
The Washington Times, he claimed, had become what detractors had always asserted, "a Moonie newspaper" with the aim of establishing "a worldwide theocracy headed by Moon".
But few of Whelan's former colleagues rallied to his cause and Times news executives, none of whom were members of the Unification Church, vehemently denied Whelan's charges. Instead they released copies of correspondence between Whelan and the newspaper which revealed that he demanded a salary increase from $90,000 a year to $185,000 by 1989; replacement of his company-provided Cadillac every 40,000 miles, paid membership of five private clubs, new financial arrangements for his company-owned residence and guaranteed severance pay of $950,000. Whelan was depicted as a difficult man who was frequently absent from the paper and abusive to his senior staff: "He treated me like a copy boy - and I don't take well to that kind of crap," said Smith Hempstone, Whelan's replacement in the editor's chair.
In fact, politics - anti-communist politics - rather than religion seems a more probable explanation for the Rev Moon's interest in the Washington Times, which has never been caught proselytising, directly or indirectly, for the Unification Church. And while Moon's writings and speeches made it clear that he regarded himself as a Messiah, Hempstone observed drily: "I've worked for a lot of publishers who thought they were God."
James Robert Whelan was born in Buffalo, New York State, on July 27 1933 and dropped out of the University of Buffalo to work as a copy boy at the Buffalo Courier-Express. During the 1960s and 1970s he worked as a foreign correspondent for UPI and later for Scripps-Howard. In the late 1970s he was appointed vice-president and editor of the conservative The Sacramento Union.
Whelan was the author of several books about Latin America and was married and divorced several times.
He is survived by a son and daughter.