Newsweek Honcho Thinks Gays Can Be 'Cured'? Behind New Owners' Strange Ties to Controversial Pastor
It was meant to herald the triumphant return to newsstands of a venerable 80-year-old American media institution with a proud journalistic record.
Newsweek’s 4,500-word relaunch cover story on Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto, a California engineer who, it claimed, was the creator of the cryptocurrency bitcoin, gripped readers from Silicon Valley to Manhattan and delivered a frenzy of follow-up coverage to rival some of the biggest scoops of the magazine’s heyday.
“Everyone is really excited to start this new chapter,” Johnathan Davis, Newsweek’s new co-owner, told the Guardian earlier this month, before it went to press. “It’s a great honour. Newsweek has a storied history of great storytelling and hard-hitting journalism both in the United States and around the world.”
Since then, however, the article has come under an onslaught of criticism, as Nakamoto “unconditionally” denied that he was "the face behind bitcoin," as Newsweek’s cover had proclaimed, and said that he had not even heard of the currency until he was contacted by a reporter.
Newsweek declared in a statement that it stood “strongly behind” the story, whose reporting, it said, “was conducted under the same high editorial and ethical standards that have guided Newsweek for more than 80 years.”
The relaunch has, however, focused new attention on the young and relatively inexperienced men now at the helm of the newsweekly: Davis, 31, and Etienne Uzac, his 30-year-old business partner, whose company IBT Media bought the magazine last August and detached it from the Daily Beast, with which it had merged three years earlier.
Davis, a Californian electrical engineering graduate, is IBT Media’s chief content officer. Uzac, a French-South African economist, is its chief executive. The smartly suited pair have a confident sales pitch for the firm and are pursuing an aggressive expansion plan. They say that their online media outlets already reach 40 million unique users a month.
But they come with a backstory that is unusual for the mainstream media. The pair started their company in 2006 reportedly after meeting via Christian fellowships, and have frequently been the subject of reports linking them to David Jang, a controversial Korean pastor who is also the founder of Olivet University, an evangelical school based in San Francisco, California.
Davis once taught journalism at Olivet, and his wife, Tracy, is the university’s president. Uzac sat on Olivet’s board of trustees until last year, and his wife, Marion, who has also worked at IBT Media, was previously the press secretary for the World Evangelical Alliance. Olivet is a member of the alliance and Jang sits on the alliance’s North American council. Olivet graduates have been hired to work in a number of roles at IBT Media. The Guardian has confirmed that as Olivet expands its operations around the U.S., IBT Media has given money to the college.
Davis said in an interview that their work and faith were separate, and that he wanted “the journalism to speak for itself” both at their new magazine and at the International Business Times, a news website that was IBT Media’s flagship title until it bought Newsweek.
Similarly, he dismissed the notion that readers should be troubled by the little-known fact that he has personally endorsed the view, espoused by the so-called “ex-gay” movement, that gay people may have developed their sexuality as a result of being sexually abused as children, and can be cured by therapy to make them heterosexual.
In a Facebook post in February 2013, Davis described as "shockingly accurate" an op-ed article written by Christopher Doyle, the director of the International Healing Foundation (IHF), which works to convert gay people. Davis said it “cuts like a hot knife through a buttery block of lies.”
Doyle, who once identified as gay but is now married to a woman, wrote that “same-sex attractions” are typically felt by people born with a “sensitive nature” and then subjected to “early sexual initiation and/or sexual abuse” or unusual attachment issues with their parents. He said last week that he was delighted by Davis’s praise. “Considering how much of the media is very gay-friendly, this is a breath of fresh air,” he said.
The American Psychological Association states that “ex-gay” therapies are “based on a view of homosexuality that has been rejected by all the major mental health professions.” A spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign said: “We would condemn any support for such activity.”
When asked if he believed that gay people could be cured, Davis said: “Whether I do or not, I’m not sure how that has any bearing on my capacity here as the founder of the company. I’m not sure how it’s relevant. People believe all sorts of weird things. But from a professional capacity, it’s unrelated.” The post was then removed from his Facebook page.
Davis’s endorsement of Doyle’s article did, however, offer a reminder of his link to Olivet and to Jang. Doyle’s article was published by the Christian Post, a popular evangelical news website, which itself has strong ties to Olivet. Olivet graduates were among its founders and the website was named as an “Olivet ministry affiliate” in a handbook for students at the university seeking work placement in 2008. William Wagner, a senior academic at Olivet and college president until 2012, was chairman of the Christian Post’s board of directors until last year. The International Business Times, Davis and Uzac’s news site, was also described in the handbook as an “Olivet ministry affiliate.”
A 2012 investigation into Jang’s activities by Christianity Today claimed that documentary evidence indicated he was once “involved in” the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon — whose followers became known as “Moonies” in the 1970s and ‘80s — and taught at one of its schools. Jang has denied this and Olivet denies any link with the Unification Church. Tracy Davis told the Guardian in an email: “Mr Jang is not part of Rev Moon's church.” Responding to a list of questions submitted for Jang, Jonathan Park, an Olivet teacher, said that Jang had never been a member of Moon’s church and had never taught in its schools.
Allies have also previously said that Jang was merely part of a political club with members of Moon’s church. They have also said, according to the New York Times, that Sun Hwa Theological Seminary was a methodist school when Jang taught there and that it was later bought by the Unification Church.
Christianity Today also reported on claims that before 2006, some of Jang’s senior followers hailed him as the “second coming Christ” and encouraged this belief among new members as well, prompting censure from a Hong Kong-based group of senior evangelical theologians. There is no evidence that Jang himself ever said this, and he explicitly denied doing so in a public statement in 2008. Tracy Davis directed the Guardian to a Christian Post report on Jang being cleared of improper teachings by the Christian Council of Korea, which is also a member of the World Evangelical Alliance.
When Olivet tried to buy a conference centre in New Mexico from a branch of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2012, the sellers pulled out of the deal after receiving the results of an inquiry into Olivet’s “theological compatibility” that it commissioned following reports of the college’s connection to Jang. Last year, the college spent $20m on the site of a disused psychiatric hospital in New York. It also offers some graduate classes from office space near the World Trade Center in Manhattan.
Asked whether IBT Media and other firms staffed by Olivet graduates gave money to the college that helped finance this expansion, Tracy Davis said in an email: “Yes, some of these donate to Olivet,” adding when pressed: “IBT has donated to Olivet.” Asked to confirm this, Johnathan Davis said in an email that IBT donated to several charitable groups and said: “We don't preclude giving to any of these organisations moving forward.”
Davis told the Guardian that IBT Media is not a commercial vehicle for Olivet. He says that he and Uzac co-own the company, and that they started the firm with loans and money from “friends and family” who were not affiliated with the church, and did not receive a stake. Asked to characterise the relationship between Olivet and the companies, Tracy Davis said: “Similar to the relationship between Stanford and Google, Olivet's alumni have been hired and are professionals at these companies.”
Corporation records in New York and California suggest that a web of media organisations connected to Davis have even more links to Olivet than previously thought. In 2007, Davis was the registered agent for IBTraders, a financial news and research firm based in an office five blocks from Olivet’s campus in San Francisco. The Gospel Post — a Christian publisher later renamed the Gospel Herald, another “Olivet ministry affiliate” — has operated from the same office.
IBTraders is now based in New York. A young Olivet graduate is its chief executive. It is registered to an office building on Whitehall Street, in lower Manhattan, that was shared for a while with 33 Universal, a publisher of a series of little-known news and consumer websites, which appeals for paying advertisers on its corporate website.
While running the International Business Times, Davis also led 33 Universal, according to a listing submitted by the firm to Gust, a website where start-ups court investors. The listing said that 33 Universal had annual revenues of $3m and that Davis was chairman of a five-man team including at least two other Olivet graduates and a former manager at Deographics, a web design firm that is another “Olivet ministry affiliate.” Davis and 33 Universal said that he was no longer involved. After he was approached by the Guardian, the company’s public listing on Gust was removed.
Also operating from the same building on Whitehall Street is Diakonos, a members-only club for Christian businessmen and women that says its primary mission is to collect financial donations to advance their religious cause. Diakonos (Greek for "one who serves") was described as "our own fellowship of business executives" by the World Olivet Assembly, a Manhattan-based society of evangelical groups founded by Olivet alumni. Jang is the assembly's president.
Christianity Today reported in 2012 that it had obtained an email showing that when invited to become the vice-president of a new organisation for “Jang-affiliated businesses” called Christians in Media in September 2010, Davis replied that he could not take part because “my commission is inherently covert.” Davis said in an email to the Guardian: “That's false” and added, of the Christianity Today story, “There are so many mistakes it's not worth responding to.”
He stressed that “readers can look at the content and they can tell” that the work of the media outlets he is involved with is separate from his religious affiliation. “I understand why people ask questions,” he said. “But I’d also like the journalism to speak for itself, and the aspirations we have for each brand. Whether my personal friend and family influence my company, all I can say is we are professional, we hire professionals.”
A former editor at the International Business Times said that Davis and Uzac never talked about their faith or their views on social issues such as gay rights. “They were right-wing, and they said so — ‘We are free market, we are very conservative,’ ” said the editor. “But as far as religion, they never discussed it.” Tracy Davis said that Olivet had no stance on the “ex-gay” movement and that it did not feature in any of the college’s teaching.
Journalists who worked at both the International Business Times and 33 Universal told the Guardian that at times they seemed to operate more as “content farms” — referring to the high volume of their output — than as outlets for the sort of quality journalism associated with a major title such as Newsweek.
“I think content farm is a charged word,” said Davis. “We were finding the culture for the type of business environment we found ourselves in … We have always strived to do journalism.”
A former editor at 33 Universal said “full-time freelance” writers who did much of the writing were paid $8 per article for pieces aiming to ride the crest of that day’s wave of popular news search terms. “You wrote at eight articles a day minimum, sometimes more,” said one former writer for 33 Universal websites. “In the beginning, it was a lot of pressure to produce big numbers,” said one former editor. “Even though it was still a lot of pressure, it was less as it went on.”
Several former International Business Times journalists said that in late 2011, Google moved the outlet’s articles down in search results in response to what it deemed excessive search engine optimisation (SEO) activity. Davis said: “I don’t recall specific letters but we are constantly working to meet and exceed the guidelines of business partners.” A Google spokesperson said "We don't comment on interactions with individual publishers.”
An internal email sent to reporters by the website’s copy chief around that time, seen by the Guardian, advised them on how to “re-work (or ‘re-jig’) a story you’ve already done and re-post it in the hopes that it will chart better via Google.” He told them: “Some people have been just re-posting the exact same story, with a new headline. We’re not doing that anymore.”
Two former International Business Times reporters told the Guardian that they were separately called to Davis's office in 2011 and told by him that they would lose their jobs unless traffic to their articles increased sharply. One said the demand was to "double" the number of views within a month. Both achieved higher numbers and kept their jobs. Davis did not respond to an email asking whether their accounts were accurate. Both IBT and 33 Universal have also been savaged in dozens of anonymous reviews purportedly written by former employees on Glassdoor, the careers website, which were impossible to verify.
In response to the claims in the negative Glassdoor reviews and more generally, Davis said: “We’ve always wanted a lot from our team,” but said: “We had some bonus structures in place also. It wasn’t only the whip without the carrot.” While stressing that in the early days “there was a necessity to figure out how we were going to keep the lights on," Davis said that IBT Media now makes $500,000 of profit on annual revenues of $20m.
Davis said that 30 full time employees currently work on the editorial and commercial staffs of Newsweek. A team of seven to 10 people is expected to be built in Europe, and then an Asian edition is planned. Davis is initially aiming to attract 100,000 print subscriptions in the U.S. and 100,000 elsewhere.
While stressing that the magazine would feature in-depth reporting like its relaunch story, Davis said that reporters would also be expected to turn around stories rapidly for the website. “We needed to basically build an organisation that was part of the ebb and flow of the internet,” he said. “I’m also proud to say that a lot of that culture has survived even to this day.”
The former IBT editor said that while “there was absolutely no socialisation between the big shots and the staff”, in 2011 a staff Christmas dinner was held at John’s, an Italian restaurant near its office in Manhattan. “Etienne and Johnathan said everything was wonderful, that it had been a good year,” said the former editor. “And then in 2012 they fired all these guys.”
“We laid off eight out of 15 people in a department in 2012 based on performance issues,” said Davis.