Who's Behind Newsweek?
Why are the new owners so anxious to hide their ties to an enigmatic religious figure?
—By Ben Dooley | May/June 2014 Issue
Two days after Barack Obama won reelection, I met a young Chinese woman, whom I will call Anne, in the basement café at the San Francisco Public Library. Anne worked part time and gave a large portion of her earnings to a group she called "the Community," a Christian sect led by a charismatic Korean pastor named David Jang. After joining the group in her late teens, Anne had spent more than seven years working in its ministries—organizations and businesses run by Jang's disciples. With short hair and large glasses, Anne was now in her late 20s but looked younger. She said she rarely had enough money for small luxuries like coffee. We chatted with a mutual friend while we waited for her husband, Caleb, who also worked for a ministry: the International Business Times, the flagship publication of an eponymous online news company that would, nine months later, become the new owner of Newsweek magazine.
Caleb was running late because he was translating Obama's victory speech into Chinese for IBT, which publishes 11 editions in seven languages. When he arrived, he shook my hand and, without meeting my eyes, sat beside his wife. "Tell him," she said, pushing her husband's elbow and raising her chin in my direction. They argued under their breath in a few clipped, Chinese sentences, and then he turned to me and said, "We're working here illegally."
For the last year and a half, Caleb said, he and Anne had worked at Community ministries while living in San Francisco on visas they received for Caleb to attend Olivet University, a small Bible college Jang founded in 2004. Caleb was enrolled at Olivet, but he rarely had time to study. Instead, he told me, he translated articles from English into Chinese for 10 to 12 hours each weekday, and commonly worked weekends.
"The pay isn't bad," Caleb said, as though daring himself to be wrong.
I asked him how much he was making. He told me between $500—their part of the rent for the group home they shared with 8 to 10 other Community members—and $1,000, depending on the month. I did a quick calculation of what he'd earn working full time at California's minimum wage. I wrote the sum, $1,280, on a napkin and slid it across the table. His hand trembled as he picked it up. He and Anne looked at each other. "That doesn't include overtime," I said.
People like Caleb and Anne helped IBT, founded in 2006, become one of the world's largest online news sources, a network of websites whose media kit claims 40 million unique visitors each month. In August 2013, IBT bought Newsweek from Barry Diller at the low point of the once-venerable title's long decline. Departing editor Tina Brown's controversial covers and attempts at synergy with the Daily Beast had failed to shore up the 80-year-old magazine's finances; it published what was supposed to be its final print issue at the end of 2012.
But within months of the IBT deal, Newsweek's new editor in chief, Jim Impoco (formerly of the New York Times, Portfolio, and Reuters), said it would be back on newsstands in the first quarter of 2014. Under IBT's ownership, Impoco has attracted an experienced and well-respected crew of journalists, and on March 4, IBT also announced that Peter Goodman, an award-winning former New York Times economics correspondent and business editor at the Huffington Post, would take over as IBT's editor in chief. Two days later, Newsweek returned to print with a splash, alleging—to much acclaim and debate—that it had identified the mysterious creator of the electronic currency bitcoin.
At the time of Newsweek's sale, Christianity Today and BuzzFeed published reports claiming that IBT had ties to Jang and the Community. Etienne Uzac and Johnathan Davis—IBT's CEO and chief content officer, respectively—told BuzzFeed's Peter Lauria that IBT has an ongoing relationship with Olivet, but claimed that it was akin to the connection between Silicon Valley and Stanford. "That's as far as it goes," Davis told Lauria. On March 2, in a New York Times article about Newsweek's return to print, Davis and Uzac again denied IBT had formal ties to Jang. They dismissed similar questions from the Guardian (which reported that Davis, in a Facebook post, had endorsed the view that gay people can be "cured") last week.
But the connections between IBT and Jang's Community, a Mother Jones investigation has found, go much further than Davis and Uzac have acknowledged. Thousands of pages of public records and internal documents—ranging from emails to budgets and strategic plans—and interviews with more than a dozen former IBT employees and members of Jang's inner circle make clear that:
- Olivet and IBT are linked to a web of dozens of churches, nonprofits, and corporations around the world that Jang has founded, influenced, or controlled, with money from Community members and profitable ministries helping to cover the costs of money-losing ministries and Jang's expenses. Money from other Community-affiliated organizations also helped fund IBT's early growth.
- Olivet students in the United States on international student visas say they worked for IBT and other Community media entities, sometimes for as little as $125 a week. Both Olivet and IBT described these positions as internships, and said no-one was allowed to work illegally. Several students I spoke with say they were not told they were interns, and documents from Olivet and the businesses list students as reporters, editors, and salespeople.
- According to the Times, Uzac and Davis "said Jang had no financial stake in IBT or influence on the business." But the pair acknowledged to Mother Jones that Jang has provided "advice" to IBT. And while there's no evidence Jang controlled editorial matters, internal documents show him routinely weighing in on a wide range of business decisions, from personnel and business strategy to typography.
- Jang sees Community-affiliated media organizations, including IBT, as an essential part of his mission to build the kingdom of God on Earth. He has said that media companies affiliated with the Community are part of a new Noah's ark designed to save the world from a biblical flood of information.
I tried to reach Jang through Olivet, which he founded, and two other organizations he still officially leads. A Mother Jones reporter also visited an Olivet satellite campus in downtown Manhattan where Jang preaches to deliver written questions, but Jang never responded. I repeatedly sought to interview Uzac, Davis, or other IBT representatives and sent detailed questions to both men and their PR representative, who replied that IBT would not respond in detail and that the questions were "formed by unethical sources that have been demonstrated in the past to falsify information." IBT offered an official statement, reiterating that Davis (31) and Uzac (30) alone founded and own the company, and saying IBT was "grateful" for help from an internship program with Olivet. "Any claims that we are engaged in activities with organizations that go beyond what is commonly recognized as appropriate and ethical behavior are categorically false," the statement reads. "Furthermore, our conduct with partners is compliant with all applicable laws."
IBT is hardly the first media company with close ties to a religious group. The Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church founded the Washington Times; the Christian Science Church has published the Christian Science Monitor for decades. But while those affiliations are formal and public, IBT's ties to the Community are neither. In one email, Davis went so far as to refer to his Community role as "inherently covert."
There's nothing unusual about business leaders associating with people or institutions that share their values. And Impoco seems satisfied that his editorial operations are walled off from his bosses' religious affiliation. "The notion that this is a Christian company is ludicrous. I don't think about [Uzac and Davis] being Christians any more than I used to think about Mort Zuckerman being Jewish," says Impoco, who worked for Zuckerman at US News.
So why have Uzac and Davis been so eager to downplay their ties to Jang?
In the summer of 2005, a young woman stopped Anne near her college campus in southeast China and asked if she'd found Jesus.
"The first time I heard the Bible, I cried," Anne told me later. The missionary belonged to Apostolos Campus Ministries, a Christian evangelizing group Jang founded in the early '90s. Anne began attending off-campus Bible study twice a day. Before long, her tutor told her she was ready to become an evangelist herself. Anne was sent to a nearby college, where she led Bible study sessions in a house close to campus. She soon found herself devoting nine hours a day to Apostolos: three hours of Bible study, three hours of evangelizing, and three hours of praying. The 3-3-3 practice, another former member told me, is an expectation throughout the Community that leaves little time for anything else. It makes you "malleable," she said.
Anne dropped out of school and, at the direction of a group leader, moved to Beijing to recruit other students into the Community. She shared a small house with members of Apostolos and another group that Jang founded, Young Disciples of Jesus. None of the evangelists in Anne's house had jobs, she told me. To survive, they borrowed money from their friends and families. When those funds dried up, Anne decided to apply for a bank loan, telling the loan officer that she needed it to pay her college tuition. She gave the money to Apostolos, then asked her parents to help pay off the loan. "I was a good girl then," she said, "so they believed me."
As a new member, Anne started with "basic" Bible study focused on traditional Christian concepts. But as the courses progressed, Jang's name popped up with increasing frequency. Parables related by the pastor appeared side by side with the teachings of Jesus and other biblical characters. "We listened to him a lot," she told me. "We memorized the articles."
The lessons all seemed to lead toward some larger revelation. After completing the final reading, another former member told me, her tutor drew a question mark on the page and asked in a whisper, "Do you know who is the Second Coming Christ?" She hesitated for a moment before responding, "Pastor David." "They make you confess it," she told me, "like Peter did to Jesus Christ." The secret of Jang's true identity, she was told, must be protected because nonbelievers would "kill the Second Coming Lord as they did the first one."
Susan Chua, another former Community member, gave me a similar account. Indeed, every ex-Community member I spoke to either said they believed Jang was the Second Coming or said they were aware that others believed it. But Jang himself has repeatedly denied that he is the Second Coming and discouraged his followers from using the term. Several investigations by the heresy committee of the Christian Council of Korea concluded there was "no evidence" to indicate that he had made such claims, and in 2009, a Korean court sanctioned a newspaper for saying that Young Disciples taught that Jang was the Second Coming. In the Times, Davis and Uzac vigorously dismissed the idea that they considered Jang the Messiah.
I asked Anne whether she ever heard anyone in the Community publicly refer to Jang as Christ. "No one said directly," she replied. "But I think he was. Just like I ask you, 'Two plus two equals?' The answer is four. They only said, 'Two plus two.' No one said four directly." Back then, did she believe it was true? "Yes," she said. "With all my heart."
Born JaeHyung Jang in 1949 to a conservative Christian family, Jang came of age during the Korean War. As a child, he often retreated to the mountains near his home, where he spent long hours praying. On one such occasion, Jang recalled during a Bible study session in San Francisco in February 2005, he looked up to find a young man who looked much like himself on his knees beside him. "I had this kind of trembling feeling," Jang said, according to a transcript of the event. "As I'm praying, I am looking at myself praying. This is the supernatural power. I came out of myself, and I can see myself."
Soon, such out-of-body experiences became a regular occurrence. Sitting in church, Jang said, he seemed to float above the congregation, looking down on the congregants as the pastor spoke: "I would be on my knees and my spirit would just go up. My head would hit the ceiling." He became fascinated by the Rapture—the idea that, during the end of days, God will whisk true believers away while sinners are left on Earth to suffer. Once, while other children played at recess, Jang stood watching a balloon float into the sky and wondered if he, too, would one day float up to heaven. But around the time he founded the Community in 1992, his views shifted. Christians, he has said, should not focus on their reward in heaven; instead, they should work to create heaven on Earth, building institutions that will remake the world in the image of the church.