Even though he has written almost 15,000 words about the Sheldon Adelson-era at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, New York University Professor Jay Rosen still has a few questions.
The widely followed media critic said the confusing story of how the family of one of Nevada’s most powerful individuals came to own the Las Vegas Review-Journal sheds light on today’s media environment and what information the public can rely on.
But, he said, the community needs to know more, and more importantly, it needs aggressive reporting.
He visited Las Vegas to speak at UNLV, and he also sat down for an interview with KNPR’s State of Nevada.
You call this episode at the RJ a “civic disaster.” That’s a strong term. What do you mean by that?
When you have the loss of talented people, who have been in the community for years, they are institution memory and they know the depth and the detail of stories that are going to be reported on. You also have a loss of autonomy in the newsroom as Sheldon Adelson’s grip over it continues be tightening.
And it’s probably… although I don’t know this for sure… it’s probably become difficult to attract truly talented people to the Review-Journal because of the notoriety of events here. With the Review-Journal being such an important part of the news eco-system in Las Vegas, I think it qualifies as a civic disaster because the newsroom is weaker than it was before.
What does the newspaper owe to the community? It’s a privately held business.
The people who work in the newsroom don’t look at it that way. They have a public service mission. In order for them to do their work of letting people know what’s going on in Las Vegas, they need a certain amount of trust in what they do, confidence. People have to care about, not just the news, but they have to believe that their institutions for news are sources with integrity.
If you own it, you can do what you want with it, but that’s not what causes people to go into journalism. That’s not why they suffer with lower salaries than many other businesses. That’s not what gets them fired up. There’s a public service mission there that is not just good for the newspaper, it’s good for community. You need watchful eyes. You need there to be investigative reporters.
It seems that what happened at the RJ — a deep-pocket company or partnership buys the paper — is something that’s tradition in newspapers. By that I mean, newspaper owners have sacred cows that their reporters aren’t supposed to delve into:
That’s true but there are a couple of little special things here. When Sheldon Adelson or the Adelson family bought the Review-Journal, they tried to keep it a secret. And we don’t know why they kept it a secret. They won’t tell us.
And another thing, rich people have always owned newspapers but Sheldon Adelson is a uniquely powerful person in town and in Nevada and someone whose deeds are constantly in the news. So, that makes it a little bit trickier, but it’s not like all the other newspapers in the country are run as pure public service mission driven organizations – they’re not.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal, while important in Nevada, is not well known outside of the state. Why did write about this situation?
I was inspired by the journalist in the Review-Journal newsroom who were determined to find out who bought them. And were obviously proceeding in a risky venture by investigating their own ownership, but the fact that they wouldn’t quit is inspiring and some of the events surrounding what they dug up were outrageous.
When you have a newspaper company like Gatehouse Media, the previous owner of the Review-Journal, trying to interest one of its papers in investigating Nevada judges for reasons that don’t make sense to anyone, which is one of the things that the Review-Journal dug up, that’s the sort of thing that has to be explained.
Gatehouse owns more newspapers than any company in the U.S. They’re behavior in this episode is atrocious. I was interested in that.
What are some your 20 questions that you brought with you?
Why did Sheldon Adelson deny that he is the owner of the Las Vegas Review-Journal? And say that it was something his children wanted and he has no interest in it, when people he has hired describe him as an owner of the Las Vegas newspaper. That’s a very strange thing in my opinion.
Why did Gatehouse Media, when it was still operating the Review-Journal, order its reporters to investigate Nevada judges and monitor their behavior, including one who is presiding over a lawsuit involving Sheldon Adelson?
Why did Gatehouse try to get a newspaper in Florida to investigate judges in Nevada? That’s a very weird thing.
Why did Sheldon Adelson send Michael Schroeder into the Review-Journal newsroom – a Connecticut publisher who is acting as a kind of middleman -- to serve as his representative? Why did Schroeder say to the reporters: ‘Don’t worry about who owns you just go back and do your jobs. Do your work.’ If he knew anything at all about the culture of a newspaper, he would know that those words are an invitation to journalists to investigate.
Why was somebody who knows so little put in charge of a major metropolitan newspaper?
Why do you think that Sheldon Adelson wanted to become involved in the newspaper business?
I don’t know. That’s another unknown in this story.
The official answer from the Adelson family is: ‘We love the community and we want it to be better. The newspaper will help make a great Las Vegas.’ If you like that sort of thing, then that’s a good enough explanation for you.
We don’t what he thinks he’s doing. We don’t know what – to use a loaded term – his agenda is. I’m not sure he knows.
Is there a way that the Review-Journal can go about rehabbing its reputation?
Well, they could start by fulfilling a promise the Adelson family made when it bought the paper which was to appoint a reader’s representative or ombudsman. So that when people have complaints they have someone to go to. That was December we’ve heard nothing about it since.
They also pledged to fund a new investigative team. That hasn’t arrived, as far as I know, in the Review-Journal newsroom. They could do that.
And it would not have been difficult for Adelson to devise some sort of board structure where the editor and publisher are hired not by him, and therefore don’t answer to him, but to some layer in between him and Review-Journal. He could have devised something like that. It wouldn’t have been too hard, but he didn’t try to and he didn’t want to.
It would not be hard to let the newsroom know: ‘When you have a story that involves Adelson or Sands Corp. I want you to show you independence. I want you to show the community that I am not controlling you because that will be the way people really trust this newspaper.’ He could have said that, but nothing like that has been said, as far as I know.
Jay Rosen, New York Universitry professor and meida critic
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