The Strange Story of Newsweek and Olivet University


For the past two years, readers of Newsweek may have noticed that the publication has developed an extraordinarily niche interest in the activities of Olivet University, a small Christian college located in California, and its founder, the Korean-American pastor David Jang.

Newsweek's interest has led to the skewing of editorial priorities. Apparently, news about Olivet is of greater import than the war in Ukraine and the fallout from the overturning of Roe vs Wade.

The Ukraine war and the Roe vs Wade debate are subsumed by three pieces about Olivet

(Photo : The Ukraine war and the Roe vs Wade debate are subsumed by three pieces about Olivet)

So what lies behind this extraordinary interest?

In a public statement in 2022, Newsweek's Global Editor-in-Chief Nancy Cooper, explained: "We've been accused of being a partisan actor in the shareholder dispute because we've committed resources to covering a little-known Christian sect whose latest troubles have drawn scant attention from other media outlets. If these controversies had no connection to Newsweek's owners, we'd likely not cover them either. But it's crucial for us to report on our proprietors. We absolutely cannot be in the position of knowing about law-enforcement activity related to the company and failing to report on it."

Since 2013, Newsweek has been owned by IBT Media Inc. At the time IBT Media Inc. was owned by Etienne Uzac and Johnathan Davis. IBT maintains that Pragad's current claim of ownership of Newsweek issued from a 2018 agreement is invalid.

Until recently, Uzac, Davis and Pragad were all members of the Olivet church founded by Jang.

In 2020, Olivet University pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges (and not money laundering). The university has not been charged with any other crimes before or since. 

Had Cooper made her statement in 2017 or 2018, it would have made sense. However, Cooper was writing in mid-2022, by which time Pragad had ended his association with Jang and Olivet. Davis followed suit just a few months later.

"It's crucial for us to report on our proprietors" is clearly not the real reason for the continued coverage of Olivet and Jang. Both apparent proprietors have severed their connections with Jang and Olivet, and yet the coverage continues.

So what is the real reason?

We now turn to a shareholder dispute and Pragad.

Pragad has been accused of reneging on a 2018 deal to return Newsweek to Uzac and of effectively making off with the brand without paying a penny. A lawsuit followed, which was dismissed, but more legal challenges are likely.

Davis, whose wife is a former president of Olivet University, initially sided with Uzac and challenged Pragad's management of Newsweek in the courts. Pragad was found to have awarded himself exorbitant pay and bonuses without board approval. In mid-2023, Davis and Pragad came to an undisclosed settlement agreement.

However, when the dispute began in early 2022, Pragad allegedly began making threats via mutual acquaintances to use Newsweek's editorial and institutional power to get what he wanted.

Screenshot of the summons in the case of Johnathan Davis v. Dev Pragad, Supreme Court of New York, County of New York, Index No: 652366/2022
Screenshot of the summons in the case of Johnathan Davis v. Dev Pragad, Supreme Court of New York, County of New York, Index No: 652366/2022. The summons designates New York County as the place of trial pursuant to CPLR 503(a) and states that the court has jurisdiction over the defendant under CPLR 301 and 302.

In her statement, Cooper said, "No one outside the newsroom has any influence on these stories" and that they were "clearly the product of an independent newsroom."

But Cooper's claim that the stories relate to holding her proprietors to account are clearly not true - no proprietor is being held to account in the Olivet stories. It is also clear that the beginning of Newsweek's intensified interest in Olivet and Jang coincided almost exactly with Pragad's threats to use the newsroom to his advantage (16 stories in the last two years, compared to none in the previous four).

So when Cooper says, "No one outside the newsroom has any influence on these stories," is she lying or has she been lied to?

The two key figures here are Naveed Jamali, a self-described former double agent, and Newsweek congressional correspondent Alex Rouhandeh.

Both figures appear to have developed a certain modus operandi when it comes to Olivet-related stories. The basic maneuver is to spread allegations (whether founded or not) about Olivet to interested parties and then report on the outraged reaction as if it was news.

A Freedom of Information request made to the New York State Education Department by Olivet in 2022 revealed an email exchange between Jamali and NYSED officials regarding unsubstantiated claims of money laundering, trafficking and visa fraud. NYSED ultimately decided not to renew Olivet's permission to operate in the state, leading to the departure of the school from New York.

A follow-up Newsweek article dated July 2, 2022, written by Jamali, portrayed the non-renewal as a "shut down" of Olivet. This led to multiple inquiries being opened, but most of the state agencies closed those inquiries, leaving Olivet in good standing.

More recently, Rouhandeh's reporting about alleged human labor trafficking at Olivet is based on accusations by four ex-students of the university. These students were formerly anonymous but revealed their identities in a civil lawsuit filed against the school on Sept. 14, 2023, which the university has called frivolous and without merit. On Oct. 26, 2023, the university also filed a cross-complaint against the former students alleging fraud.

According to a university employee, Rouhandeh's reporting on the topic was secretive and unusual.

"Many neighbors have contacted school personnel, commenting on the 'strangeness' of Rouhandeh's secretive behavior and actions while in town. Rouhandeh did not always disclose his purpose when meeting with people. On occasions when he did admit that he came to write a story about Olivet, Rouhandeh indicated that he was not interested in contacting the school itself directly nor stepping foot onto its campus, despite it being the subject of his story. This puzzled some residents of the town," they said.

University staff also said neither Rouhandeh nor any other reporter visited the campus while he was in town writing his story.

The four ex-students' civil lawsuit was dismissed in a "motion to demur" in California state court due to lacking such basic details as names, times, and places about the alleged events. The civil lawsuit was then amended and refiled, but the attorney for the students stayed his own case on April 2, 2024.

Newsweek had previously published sensationalized headlines accusing Olivet University of human trafficking, but this has shown to be untrue. Newsweek writers then quietly downgraded their rhetoric to accusations of "human labor trafficking."

Pragad and Davis may have come to an agreement, but litigation continues to rage between Pragad, Newsweek, Uzac, Jang and Olivet. It is clear that elements of the Newsweek newsroom have been deployed at Pragad's behest either to secure his position at Newsweek or simply because this has become a vendetta for him.

Far from seeking the truth or speaking truth to power, as journalists like to say, Jamali, Rouhandeh and quite possibly Cooper, are engaged in spreading highly contested allegations in order to dirty Olivet's reputation, all in the service of the private interests of a businessman who is known to have paid himself vast amounts of company money without board approval. This last fact, of course, has not been reported by Newsweek.

William Dove is a journalist based in the United Kingdom. He helped found IBTimes UK.

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