Adelson henchmen cleaning house

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My friend John L Smith — 30-year star columnist of the (still) daily Las Vegas Review-Journal — resigned Tuesday after the paper’s new casino mouthpiece management banned him from writing columns about the newspaper’s owner, billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, The Guardian reported this week at http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/apr/26/columnist-resigns-sheldon-adelson-las-vegas-review-journal.

In a letter that he distributed in the newsroom, Smith said that due to “recent events” he will “no longer remain employed” by the company.

“I learned many years ago about the importance of not punching down in weight class. You don’t hit ‘little people’ in this craft,” Smith wrote, “you defend them. In Las Vegas, a quintessential company town, it’s the blowhard billionaires and their political toadies who are worth punching. And if you don’t have the freedom to call the community’s heavyweights to account, then that ‘commentary’ tag isn’t worth the paper on which it’s printed.”

The Review-Journal’s new editor, Keith Moyer, made the gag order public last Saturday during a local meeting of the Society of Professional Journalists at UNLV, saying “As long as I’m editor, John won’t write about Sheldon Adelson.”

Moyer claimed the policy was due to a conflict of interest, citing Adelson’s failed defamation suit against Smith in 2005 regarding a passage from his book “Sharks in the Desert: The Founding Fathers and Current Kings of Las Vegas.”

That case was thrown out, but not before the legal proceedings bankrupted the columnist, whose daughter was undergoing brain cancer treatment at the time, The Guardian reminds us.

“If a Las Vegas columnist is considered ‘conflicted’ because he’s been unsuccessfully sued by two of the most powerful and outspoken players in the gaming industry, then it’s time to move on,” Smith wrote in his letter.

Calling Adelson the “bullyboy of Las Vegas Boulevard” in a 2013 Daily Beast story about the defamation suit, Smith said: “At its dark heart, the case wasn’t about defamation, but about making me an object lesson for my newspaper and other journalists who dared to criticize the billionaire.”

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One of the richest men in the world, Adelson bought the Review-Journal in December 2015, but for weeks attempted to keep the identity of the new owner secret. Once the Adelson family was revealed as the new owners, they vowed not to interfere in news coverage. For a time, a list of rules designed to prevent such meddling ran on page three. That list disappeared as soon as Craig Moon was named Adelson’s new publisher, early this year.

“According to a Politico source, Smith was first told not to write about Adelson on Jan. 28, the same day that Craig Moon was named publisher of the paper,” writes former R-J editor Tom Mitchell at https://4thst8.wordpress.com/ . (Moon, former publisher of USA Today, does not appear to have had a full-time newspaper job since 2009. Politico reports one of his duties at his new post is to carefully screen stories about Adelson’s plans to bring the Oakland Raiders NFL franchise to town, tailoring any reference to the fact that the deal might include a requirement that $600 million in tax dollars be diverted to help build a stadium — the kind of provision that for more than 20 years the old, let’s-downsize-government Review-Journal would carefully warn was a “deal-killer,” but which today’s Review-Journal (surprise!) now calls a “must-do.” (See http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/media/2016/02/8590189/sheldon-adelson-tightens-grip-review-journal .)

But the Jane. 28 gag order “did not become public until Saturday,” Mitchell reports on his blog, “when Moyer used the excuse of the lawsuit as a conflict of interest, even though the suit was thrown out and Smith had written about Adelson many times over the years since then.”

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“I will tell you that John Smith and Sheldon Adelson have some personal — they have a long history, a legal history. Frankly, I personally think it was a conflict for John to write about Sheldon. The fact that he was [writing about Adelson] was a problem. It wasn’t right,” Politico quotes Moyer as saying during the meeting. “As long as I’m editor, John won’t write about Sheldon Adelson.”

Moyer, who’s been editor of the Vegas paper for months, apparently learned over the weekend that “Mirage” developer Steve Wynn had also had sued Smith unsuccessfully for libel, years ago -– not about anything contained in Smith’s 1995 Wynn book, “Running Scared,” but over a publisher’s advertisement for the book — an advertisement that Smith had no role in writing.

So Moyer reportedly told Smith Monday that he couldn’t write about Wynn, either.

(I wonder when they’ll tell him prostitution is legal in Nevada? Oh, wait. I bet he checked.)

SUIT THROWN OUT ‘WITH PREJUDICE’

Adelson sued Smith in 2005 over a passage in a book called “Sharks in the Desert” that Adelson’s attorneys said contained a false implication that Adelson “was associated with unsavory characters and unsavory activities.” (In fact, the book indicates a young Adelson did well to survive in the candy-vending-machine business in Boston, despite the fact the business had a reputation for being dominated by unsavory characters.)

The case was dismissed in 2008 when Smith’s attorney obtained access to confidential Gaming Control Board records relating to Adelson’s gaming license, Mitchell recalls. “Had the case gone to trial, that could have become evidence. But with the dismissal it remains sealed.”

In an affidavit filed in the case, attorney Don Campbell wrote that the “most compelling reason for Adelson’s dramatic desire to dismiss was unquestionably the fact that Smith was about to acquire evidence from the Gaming Control Board which would, by any reasonable analysis, lend itself to thoroughly impeaching critical portions of Mr. Adelson’s sworn testimony as it related to his personal and business history. . . . In short, Adelson’s claims were about to be exposed for what they were . . . false and vindictive.”

According to NPR, then-interim managing editor Glenn Cook had told Smith he could not write about Adelson back in January, Mitchell reports. When Smith replied, “He’s the one who sued me, he lost, and I’m conflicted?” Smith says Cook told him: “You can’t do it or you’ll be fired.”

Moyer told NPR, “I never suggested or believed John would use his column to settle a personal score, but if his writing on Adelson 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. Invoking ‘conflict of interest’ restrictions might not be common in Nevada, but they are elsewhere.”

Tom Mitchell reminds us that, in dismissing Adelson’s lawsuit against Smith, Bankruptcy Judge Bruce Markell also noted that as a journalist and author, Smith’s reputation is a valuable asset. The judge thus made clear several times, despite a settlement by the book publisher, that Smith was the “prevailing party” in that case and that any characterization to the contrary by Adelson might itself be defamatory.

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I SEEK SOME CLARIFICATION FROM ‘BENT-NOSE TONY’

What does all this mean for the future of newspaper coverage of the casino industry — and of the plans of Mr. Adelson and his associates to further enrich themselves using tax dollars to build themselves a big stadium — in Las Vegas? Seeking some expert guidance, I called my buddy Patrice “Bent-Nose Tony” LaGumba, proprietor of the Venus de Milo casino and nightclub, one long block off the Las Vegas strip, to remind him that the R-J’s new editor, J. Keith Moyer — who mysteriously departed as publisher of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune shortly after Avista Capital Partners bought that headed-for-bankruptcy paper in late 2006 and apparently hadn’t worked at an actual newspaper for nine years -– bragged upon his arrival here a few months back that he intends to “build the Review-Journal into a regional media force,” that “Plans he’s weighing include greater emphasis on investigative and enterprise reporting.”

(I believe five new editors and publishers have now made such speeches at the R-J in the past four years. The major change introduced by one — other than the big layoffs? “Department heads” became “team leaders.”)

Does Tony worry about rumors that said investigative reporting might include a probe into alleged money-laundering there at the Venus de Milo, as well as repeated rumors that some of Tony’s senior “casino hosts” have long-standing ties to the Cleveland mob?

“Vinnie, you got it all wrong. We like this Keith Moyer guy. He’s a guy we can work with, if you catch my meaning, just like I know we can always work with my friend Sheldon Adelson, who by the way I have never met or associated with, as I’m sure you will be careful to note.”

“No concerns?”

“Don’t you read the paper, Vinnie? My attorney assures me that Mr. Moyer has used this whole John L. Smith matter to send us a message, and a very warm and convivial message, at that. Let us say he should hire this four-man investigative team, as it is rumored, and that they should then be so misguided as to look into these old, long-discredited rumors about skimming and money-laundering here at the Venus de Milo.”

“OK, let’s.”

“Then all we would need to do is to file a libel lawsuit against said reporters, contending that in their previous mentions of me and my establishment in print, they have tended to cast me in a bad light.”

“But you’d have to prove that.”

“No! Vinnie, that’s the beauty of the thing. We don’t have to prove nothin’. For the cost of the filin’ fee, I can sue these kids even if the only time they previously mentioned my fine establishment was to write up our two-for-one Monday-night buffet, which I would be remiss if I did not mention is a great bargain, by the way, with all-you-can-eat crab legs. So let us say the judge then throws out our libel action as frivolous, rules it’s nothin’ but an attempt at intimidation, dismisses the thing with prejudice, says the defendant plaintiff reporters are the ‘prevailin’ party,’ makes us pay these little reporters’ court costs — just like the court threw out them suits against John L. Smith by Mr. Wynn and Mr. Adelson — neither of whom I have ever met or been associated with, by the way.

“That’s the beauty of the thing. It don’t matter. Mr. Moyer the editor’s new rule is that if a reporter has ever been sued by a business owner, said reporter can’t ever write about or mention said business owner in print in his newspaper, ever again. Right? He didn’t say nothin’ about the suit has to hold up in court, or the reporter has to be found in the wrong. Just gettin’ sued gives them a ‘conflict of interest’ that puts a lock on their keyboards. So if these little ‘investigative reporters’ don’t get the point, we just have a few of our other friends in the gaming industry — none of whom I have ever met or been associated with, you understand — sue them for libel, as well. Pretty soon the only thing they’ll be doin’ any ‘investigative reportin’ about is girls’ high-school softball. Get it?”

“Yes, I see. So you don’t feel a need to worry about a lot of in-depth coverage of your industry in the new, improved, Sheldon-Adelson-owned Review-Journal?”

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“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. We’re very excited about this new approach at the newspaper. You know, when I first came to this town as a young security consultant 50 years ago, the Review-Journal had really great gamin’ coverage. You opened to the “Casino News” page, and there you’d find two really big pitchers, one of a couple of showgirls relaxin’ in their bathin’ suits by the pool, sometimes watchin’ the horizon for the A-bomb tests to go off, and the second pitcher would show some big winner, some housewife from Moline who’d won a big Keno Jackpot at the Frontier or the Stardust, blowin’ kisses and wavin’ a big wad o’ greenbacks.

“That was it. None of this borin’ stuff about loans from union pension funds and clumsy card-counters fallin’ down and unfortunately breakin’ their arms and guys jumpin’ out of tall winders after they lost their bankrolls, stuff that just gets people confused and depressed. This was all handled by just payin’ certain editors at the time a modest ‘consultin’ fee,’ you understand. Not that I believe that would any longer be necessary, today. But that’s the kind of coverage of our industry that we’ve always appreciated, let me tell you, and I feel sure that with our new friends Mr. Moon and Mr. Moyer in charge down there on West Bonanza, that’s the kind of positive, supportive coverage of our industry we can expect to see, again.

“Speakin’ of which, if you and any other employees of Mr. Adelson are ever lookin’ for a good time, youse just give me a call and come on down to the Venus de Milo — you’ll find everythin’ here is ‘on the house,’ if you catch my meaning.”

“But I don’t work for Mr. Adelson, Tony.”

“Oh, right. I gotcha. Never met him, I’m sure.”

“Really, Tony.”

“Right, right. Nice talkin’ to ya, Vinnie. Call any time.”

OK, I invented my buddy Bent-Nose Tony LaGumba. But I didn’t make up Shermam Frederick, who was the publisher of the Review-Journal in the days long before it was bought up by a petty and vindictive billionaire who laughably promised not to interfere in the paper’s editorial content, a character who — if he’d wanted to show he was really a big man — could have made it clear to his resurrected front men Messrs. Moon and Moyer that he wanted the gentlemanly John L. Smith left free to write anything he wanted about Sheldon Adelson.

And it was Sherman Frederick who commented on Tom Mitchell’s blog, this week: “So, if you want to stop an RJ writer from writing about you, you sue ’em? That’s an unsustainable standard.”

4 Comments to “Adelson henchmen cleaning house”

  1. Thomas Mitchell Says:

    Pete Seeger’s “Newspapermen” lyrics:

    Oh, publishers are such interesting people!
    Their policy’s an acrobatic thing.
    They claim they represent the common people.
    It’s funny Wall Street never has complained.
    But the publishers have worries, for publishers must go
    To working folks for readers, and big shots for their dough.
    Now, are publishers are such interesting people!
    It could be press-titution, I don’t know.

  2. Hank Bond Says:

    This is like all big money ownership in today’s climate the demise of quality.

  3. John L. Smith Says:

    Vin —

    I don’t recall reading this when it was fresh. It is hilarious. I appreciate your insight — and your remarkable understanding of the shadow on the story that somehow remains from one generation to the next.

    Take care,

    John

  4. Vin Suprynowicz » Blog Archive » The Way Things Work in Vegas . . . Part Two Says:

    […] write about either Adelson OR Mirage magnate Steve Wynn as soon as the casino moghul took over. ( https://www.vinsuprynowicz.com/?p=3050 .)That would be the Review-Journal that’s running headlines this week ridiculing “hoaxsters” […]

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