James Wesley Pruden Jr. (1935–2019)
Wesley Pruden was an American journalist best known for serving as a reporter, editor, and columnist with the Washington Times for more than three decades. He was a leader of the paper’s effort to establish itself as a conservative alternative to the U.S. capital city’s iconic Washington Post.
James Wesley Pruden Jr. was born on December 18, 1935, in Jackson, Mississippi, to James Wesley Pruden Sr. and Anne Wilder Pruden. His father was a prominent and controversial minister who abandoned his itinerant preaching shortly after his son’s birth. Returning to Little Rock (Pulaski County), he pioneered radio preaching before becoming chaplain for—and later president of—the Capital Citizens’ Council, which was the Little Rock chapter of the White Citizens’ Council, a white supremacist organization, during the battle over the desegregation of the city’s Central High School in 1957–58.
From the moment he started an alternative paper at Pulaski Heights Junior High School, the younger Wesley Pruden seemed destined to become a journalist. After working on his high school paper, he started working at the Arkansas Gazette beginning in his junior year. He graduated from Little Rock High School in 1953 and then attended Little Rock Junior College, now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UA Little Rock). At the same time, he was furthering his journalistic career, working first as a sportswriter and then as assistant state editor for the Arkansas Gazette, from 1953 to 1956, before heading to Memphis, Tennessee. He reported for the Commercial Appeal from 1956 until 1963, when he moved to the nation’s capital.
Pruden married Anne Rice Pulliam in 1960, but they ultimately divorced. He had an adopted son.
In Washington DC, he was a political and foreign correspondent with the National Observer, working for the well-respected paper until it folded in 1976.
From 1976 to 1982, Pruden spent his time writing what he called “The Great American Novel,” which went unpublished. His savings exhausted, he returned to journalism, with an old friend who was with the Washington Times convincing him to join the paper’s staff. The fact of his having been away from the world of daily journalism for some time—coupled with reports that he had, in fact, left the National Observer amid allegations of manufacturing quotations for his stories—made his initial hiring a probationary one.
He soon established himself with the fledgling daily, and from 1982 to 1983, Pruden was chief political correspondent for the Times. In 1983, he became assistant managing editor; he was named managing editor in 1985. In 1992, Pruden was named the paper’s editor in chief, a position he held until his retirement in 2008. For most of his tenure, he also wrote the regular column “Pruden on Politics.”
Pruden and the Times were at the peak of their influence in the 1980s, as the paper was seen as the capital’s voice for the Ronald Reagan administration. Pruden acknowledges that the paper used that status to secure better access to and exclusive interviews from high-ranking officials, beginning with the Reagan administration and continuing through to that of George W. Bush. In contrast, during the Bill Clinton years, the paper served, in Pruden’s view, as a vigilant watchdog monitoring what it saw as that administration’s misguided and often irresponsible efforts.
Pruden himself made no secret of his conservative leanings, once calling conservative icon Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina his favorite senator and writing disparagingly on issues of particular concern to conservatives, such as efforts to achieve immigration reform or address climate change. In 1991, he received the H. L. Mencken Prize for excellence in commentary and writing from Mencken’s old newspaper, the Baltimore Sun.
Pruden announced his retirement in 2008. The news that he was stepping down was accompanied by reports that he was forced out amid allegations that he had allowed an atmosphere of racism to develop uncontested in the newsroom. Such charges were particularly touchy given his father’s reputation, and yet while he stepped down as editor, he maintained a relationship with the paper, continuing to write a twice-weekly column on politics.
In early 2013, during a major staff overhaul that followed the death of the paper’s controversial founder, Reverend Sun Yung Moon, Pruden returned to run the paper’s commentary section. Controversy surrounded his return, but as was announced at the time, the appointment was short lived. After he had helped reorganize the paper’s commentary and editorial pages, he again stepped aside, although he continued to write his column, “Pruden on Politics,” for the Times. He was named editor-in-chief emeritus in 2015.
Pruden was found dead at his home on July 17, 2019.
For additional information:
Beirich, Heidi, and Bob Moser, “The Washington Times Pushes Extremist, Neo Confederate Ideas.” Intelligencer Report (Summer 2003). Online at http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2003/summer/defending-dixie (accessed September 9, 2021).
Blake, Mariah, “The Washington Times Takes a Giant Step—Backwards.” Columbia Journalism Review, February 11, 2013. http://www.cjr.org/united_states_project/the_washington_times_takes_a_b.php?page=all (accessed September 9, 2021).
“Clip: Q&A with Wesley Pruden.” C-Span. http://www.c-span.org/video/?c2376140/clip-qa-wesley-pruden (accessed September 9, 2021).
Richardson, Valerie. “Washington Times Editor, Columnist Wesley Pruden Dies at 83 after Remarkable Six-Decade Career.” Washington Times, June 17, 2019. https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2019/jul/17/wes-pruden-washington-times-editor-and-columnist-d/ (accessed September 9, 2021).
Turnage, Clara. “Editor Got Start at Gazette in ’50s.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 20, 2019, p. 2B.
“Wesley Pruden.” The Washington Times. http://www.washingtontimes.com/staff/wesley-pruden/ (accessed September 9, 2021).
William H. Pruden III
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