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Late last year, the family of billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper, the largest newspaper in the state.
The deal unleashed a seismic series of events in the newsroom that began with reporters trying to discover who owned the newspaper they worked for.
Then there was a revolving door at the editor's office, which has been filled by three people in four months.
Reporters and editors have left and new reporters and editors have been hired.
Finally, it led to yesterday's departure of the paper’s best-known columnist, John L. Smith.
Smith’s departure followed a decision by current editor Keith Moyer that Smith couldn’t write about Adelson because he was sued by the casino magnate. The lawsuit forced the columnist into bankruptcy as he spent money to defend himself. Adelson lost the lawsuit.
Moyer also decided that Smith could not write about Steve Wynn, who also sued Smith and also lost.
In a resignation letter that was immediately shared by many Review-Journal staffers via social media, the 30-year RJ veteran wrote:
This tumult unspooled amid questions about how Adelson, who has given tens of millions to conservative political candidates and is one of the most powerful people in the casino industry, would try to shape the newspaper's coverage.
Jon Ralston is the host of Ralston Live on Vegas PBS and political columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal. He worked at the Review-Journal several years ago.
He told KNPR’s State of Nevada that Smith’s job was “made impossible.” He also believes it is “outrageous” that Smith was told he couldn’t write about two of the most powerful people in Las Vegas.
“Why would you not consider allowing John Smith to write about Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson and if you’re worried about score settling then scrutinize every column, force them to disclose the history and make a judgement on a case by case basis… why didn’t he make that decision instead of gaging a reporter?” Ralston asked.
Mary Hausch agreed with Ralston. Hausch is an affiliate professor of journalism and media studies at UNLV. She is also a former reporter and editor at the Review-Journal.
She believes the problem could have been solved by a note in any column that dealt with either man.
“John’s a good journalist and he’s a fair person,” she said. “He knew he couldn’t work under these conditions. His hands were going to be tied to the point that he couldn’t tolerate.”
She admits when she worked at the Las Vegas Review-Journal the paper would not have written stories criticizing the owners at the time, saying “that is how business is done.”
Ralston believes Smith’s departure is a “symptom of a greater problem.”
Sheldon Adelson can buy a paper and use it however he chooses, Ralston said, but “what is disturbing to anybody in journalism is the perversion of journalism that’s occurring over there now. What should be disturbing to the community but probably isn’t.”
Ralston pointed to the newspaper’s coverage of the proposed stadium as an example of a drastic turnaround for the newspaper, which just a year earlier had decried the use of public money for a proposed soccer stadium downtown.
“The stadium proposal has been completely hyped by the Review-Journal both in columns and in the news pages,” he said.
Hausch said people in the community are, “going to have to read [the Review-Journal] with a big grain of salt I guess and a lot of skepticism.”
Barry Smith is the executive director of the Nevada Press Association. He called Smith’s resignation “a sad, unfortunate thing to happen.”
“I think everyone in journalism respects what the Review-Journal has stood for and stood up for as far as open government and the stand it has taken there,” Smith said.
When the Adelson family purchased the paper, many people pointed out that other wealthy and influential people had purchased media outlets in the past, perhaps the most high profile being Jeff Bezos of Amazon and the Washington Post.
Ralston, however, dismissed that comparison because of the level of influence Adelson has in the state.
“No one in any state is as much involved in business and politics both local and statewide, nationally, internationally as Sheldon Adelson is,” he said, “Everything essentially is affected by him.”
Ralston said longtime gaming reporter Howard Stutz left his position at the Review-Journal for “no other reason than because of inference in how he was trying to cover the state’s most prominent industry.”
Review-Journal editor Keith Moyer agreed to be part of the discussion on KNPR’s State of Nevada, but canceled his appearance. He did send KNPR News the following statement that reads in part:
“I never suggested John would use his column to settle a personal score, but if his writing on the Adelsons and Wynn created even a perception of score settling in the minds of readers then it would have reflected on the credibility of the institution.
I simply applied the tried-and-true principle that the editor in chief of a media organization should always place the credibility of the newspaper above the interests of any one individual.”
The statement goes on to read:
“As to the straw argument that others might sue our reporters or columnists to deter them, I can say unequivocally that we will defend Review-Journal work by our journalists to the bitter end with the best legal minds available -- without those journalists having to fear retribution from the newspaper for having been sued. The notion that we would do otherwise is absurd.”
Both Hausch and Ralston took issue with that statement.
“That’s how it should but he’s just trying to defend what he was doing to John and what they’re doing with John was wrong,” Hausch stated simply.
“It’s a deflection and it’s really sad that an editor of a newspaper would try to deflect from the real issue at hand by raising a straw man like that,” Ralston said.
From Desert Companion: Goodbye, Review-Journal
Jon Ralston, Reno Gazette-Journal columnist; host of "Ralston Live" on Vegas PBS; Mary Hausch, affiliate professor, UNLV School of Journalism and Media Studies; Barry Smith, executive editor, Nevada Press Association
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