As the first reporter hired by The Washington Times outside the founding group, on the newspaper's national desk for 21 years, I'm saddened by recent attacks by managing editor Francis B. Coombs Jr. against foreign desk editor David Jones and veteran foreign reporter Tom Carter.
Something has gone badly awry at The Washington Times since editor-in-chief Wesley Pruden Jr. announced his retirement and went on C-SPAN to announce managing editor Fran Coombs as his successor.
Coombs has gone power-crazy.
Last week. I received first-hand reports that during the newspaper's morning news meeting on Thursday, February 22, Coombs threatened foreign editor Jones with physical assault because Coombs wanted a particular story angle attacking the United Nations' investigation of Iran's nuclear weapons program, but Jones corrected Coombs on certain factual errors.
Coombs told Jones and other editors in the meeting that he wanted a very anti-UN and anti-Iran story, but Jones questioned many of Coombs' suppositions with factual corrections.
Then, I'm told by people present, Coombs went ballistic, slammed his hands on the table and shouted at Jones to do the story the way Coombs demanded, "before I jump up on this table and smack you down." Coombs angrily erupted against Jones in front of national, business, metro, photo, graphics, and library editors or their representatives.
Then, five days later, on Tuesday, February 27, according to many witnesses in The Washington Times newsroom, Coombs walked over to the cubicle of veteran foreign desk reporter Tom Carter and attacked him with a barrage of epithets and threats in front of all newsroom employees present.
The day before, there was a brief discussion on the foreign desk about a pending series by religion writer Julia Duin on the abortion of girls in India. The Times had expended a lot of money for Julia Duin and photographer Mary Calvert to travel to India to produce this series.
In the discussion with colleagues on The Washington Times foreign desk, editor Jones said: "The reason we are running this story is that Coombs thinks all the aborted girls means that Indian men will be immigrating to the United States to marry our girls." That is an exact quote, what Jones told his colleagues on the foreign desk.
Coombs has told me and others repeatedly that he favors abortion because he sees it as a way to eliminate black and other minority babies.
As part of the editing process for Duin's series, Jones telephoned Ben Barber, former Washington Times foreign desk reporter who now works for the U.S. Agency for International Development, to check out some aspects of Julia Duin's reporting from their viewpoint. Barber is a secular leftist, but Jones' call to him was totally appropriate in trying to get a complete story and views from all parties.
Jones was asked by Barber whether Duin had interviewed any women who actually had an abortion because they were carrying a girl. As the discussion unfolded on the foreign desk, reporter Tom Carter said, "That is the difference between reporting and a polemic."
I'm told by newsroom witnesses that Coombs was told of reporter Carter's comment by national editor Kenneth Hanner, who sits nearby, and Coombs then stormed out of his office around 10:30 a.m., Tuesday, February 27, "red-faced and agitated," and confronted Tom Carter at his cubicle on the foreign desk in front of everyone there.
Witnesses gave me this exchange between managing editor Coombs and foreign desk reporter Carter, saying Coombs was right in Carter's face, "bug-eyed, sneering, shouting, waving his fist, spittle flecks flying."
Coombs: "I heard you were pissing on Julia Duin's series and bad-mouthing the Washington Times, like you always do."
Carter: "Who told you that? I wasn't and I didn't."
Coombs: "I heard you were, like you always do, and if I catch you, your ass will be grass."
Carter: "Are you going to punch me?"
Coombs: "No, You'd like that wouldn't you. But that
is not going to happen. I'll fucking fire your ass. I'm going to fucking take your ass out."
Carter "I didn't bad mouth Julia's series."
Coombs: "You always bad mouth the Washington Times. Stop pissing on this paper."
Then, according to witnesses, Coombs stormed away from Tom Carter's cubicle and returned to his nearby office off the newsroom floor.
This is the managing editor of a pacesetting American newspaper. Has the man become unhinged and lost his marbles? Will he have to be carried out in a straight-jacket?
Two attacks in front of lots of the newspaper's editors and reporters against the respected longtime foreign editor of the newspaper and one of its veteran foreign reporters, following years of similar abuse in Coombs' office, and on the telephone, leading to the resignation of the paper's chief White House and Pentagon reporters to go to the competing Washington Examiner because of Fran Coombs' controlling, micro-managing, very angry, constantly disrespectful behavior towards reporters, editors, photographers, graphics people, librarians, you name it.
The man is a maniac.
He did a lot of good work for the newspaper in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but lately something in his personality has gone badly awry, maybe needing psychiatric help.
Coombs is a graduate of Norfolk Academy in Norfolk, Virginia, and William and Mary College in Williamsburg, who came to The Times in 1988 after working for The Winchester [Virginia] Star and the Roanoke [Virginia] World-News, and States News Service in Washington, D.C.
Fran was the son of an Army officer, dragged all over the world as a child, an aggressive libertarian conservative who quickly moved up the ladder as a national desk editor and was editor on our pivotal U.S. congressional scandal stories of 1989-1993 and afterwards broken by me and reporters Paul Rodriguez, Paul Bedard, Jerry Seper and others. We were a good team, and Fran Coombs was a good editor.
We all knew he had a bad temper, drank a lot, smoked a lot of pot, but he supported his team of great reporters and we loved his feistiness and enthusiasm.
But something went awry after Washington Times editor-in-chief Wesley Pruden Jr. announced his impending retirement and announced in a CSPAN interview last year, without approval of the owners of The Washington Times, that Fran Coombs was his chosen successor as editor-in-chief.
All hell broke loose in the upper echelons of The Washington Times Corporation and its parent company, News World Communications, now headed by the son of the founder, Preston Moon, a masters in business administration graduate of Harvard University.
I sent Coombs the guts of this report and requested his comment, but he did not respond. I also asked the human resources director of The Washington Times, Jim Borer, whether his office was investigating Coombs' angry attacks against newsroom editors and reporters. Also no response.
A new president of The Washington Times Corporation, Tom McDevitt, a good man, is taking office next week. He'll have a full plate in getting rid of bad managers and bringing in new young talent that is aplenty across the country, to keep growing this newspaper and its associated media properties.