The newspaper community in Nevada is a rather small clique of writers and editors, competing against each other for the hot news scoops and heart-tugging feature stories and precious pearls of political punditry. It is the competition that makes all the papers just a little better than they otherwise would be.
Writers and readers are a little poorer when one of the stars of the journalism craft in the state feels he must walk away in order to maintain his integrity and creditability.
A month ago, John L. Smith, who has written a general interest column four or five days a week for more than 30 years at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, resigned.
The situation offers readers a rare glimpse inside the nuanced world of Nevada newspaper journalism, which seldom gets any coverage and where credibility is often a matter of perspective, motives are suspect and excuses can replace sound judgment and diligent editing.
Smith was among a handful of writers at the Las Vegas newspaper who unearthed the identity of the paper’s new ownership in December — Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino owner and generous donor to Republican political candidates. All have since left the paper.
In a December column, Smith commented that Adelson is “precisely the wrong person to own this or any newspaper.”
In January, shortly after Adelson named a new publisher for the newspaper, Smith was told he could no longer write about Adelson because the casino owner had once unsuccessfully sued Smith over a couple of sentences in a book about casino executives called “Sharks in the Desert.” Smith protested but reluctantly followed orders, though he had written often about Adelson over the years since the suit was thrown out in 2008 as baseless.
Then a month ago, the newly ensconced editor of the paper, Keith Moyer, appeared at a weekend meeting of the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists to talk about the future of the paper. According to Twitter feeds posted during the meeting, Moyer publicly declared, “I personally think it was a conflict for John to write about Sheldon,” and, “As long as I’m editor, John won’t write about Sheldon Adelson.”
Smith replied with a Tweet: “Wasn’t I also sued by Wynn?” referring to a lawsuit by casino executive Steve Wynn over an ad for a book about Wynn called “Running Scared” that was dismissed by the Nevada Supreme Court in 2001.
The following Monday, Moyer told Smith he could not write about Wynn either. The next day Smith resigned, leaving a letter on desks in the newsroom saying in part: “I learned many years ago about the importance of not punching down in weight class. You don’t hit ‘little people’ in this craft, 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. … 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.”
One man’s conflict is another man’s job well done.
Adelson’s suit said “Sharks” made false implications that he “was associated with unsavory characters and unsavory activities.”
Adelson asked that the case be dismissed when Smith’s attorney, Don Campbell, obtained confidential Gaming Control Board records. “In short, Adelson’s claims were about to be exposed for what they were … false and vindictive,” Campbell said at the time.
Wynn sued when an ad for “Running Scared,” an ad Smith did not write, said the book ”details why a confidential Scotland Yard report calls Wynn a front man for the Genovese crime family.”
The book itself reported that the New Scotland Yard report was “not entirely accurate” and was politically motivated and largely based on investigative efforts of U.S. authorities who did not reach the same conclusion.
I’ve always lectured reporters that every story should have a WSIGAD — why should I give a damn.
You may have never read the Las Vegas newspaper and never heard of John L. Smith, but all the journalists in the state know of his plight, and, when they contemplate covering the rich and powerful, there will be a hitch in their gait that will affect the news you get. That’s why you should give a damn.
Disclosure: I edited Smith’s columns for more than 20 years.
A version of this column appears this week many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.