Newspaper column: Give the gift of knowledge about Nevada and the West

Christmas is coming and you’re still scratching your head over just what to get for that special Nevada friend or family member. How about a gift that will keep giving for years to come — a book, specifically a book about Nevada and/or the West?

A couple of the newest additions to this narrow genre are David Philipps’ “Wild Horse Country” and Range magazine’s “The Good, the Bad and the Bovine.”

Philipps explores the history of the wild horse in the West with a number of stops along the way in Nevada. He also addresses the issue of feral horse overpopulation and delves into the various options for solving the problem. It is thought provoking and informative.

In November, Range published a collection of articles and photos from its archive of thorough coverage of the people, places and issues touching on ranching and farming on the rangeland of the West. Titles include: “Don’t Fence ’Em In,” “The Ultimate Recycler,” “It’s in the Breeding,” “Cow Pie” and “A Ranger’s Reflection” — dispatches from the empty quarter.

Range boasts of the book, “The hardcover coffee-table edition is a not only a photographic tribute featuring works by some of the best ranch and wildlife photographers in the country, but there are some meaty stories penned by prize-winning writers.”

The magazine also has available on its website other books from recent years. Two of my favorites are “Brushstrokes & Balladeers” and “Reflections of the West.” Both are coffee-table quality books packed with insightful poetry about life on the range and eye-popping paintings that stand up to favorable comparison to Remington and Russell. The wink-and-a-smirk doggerel of Elko’s Waddie Mitchell is worth the cover price alone.

Then there are the books from the dawn of the state’s history that should be on every Nevadan’s bookshelf. These include’s Mark Twain’s “Roughing It,” of course, about his sojourn in Nevada during the Civil War and his misadventures in newspapering as a reporter and briefly as an editor. He claimed his editorials prompted no less than six invitations to duel.

From the same era comes Twain’s editor’s reminiscences about “The Big Bonanza” — Dan de Quille’s foray into the goings-on during the days of the Comstock Lode.

To learn more about the truth stretching Twain, one could pick up a copy of Andrew Hoffman’s biography, “Inventing Mark Twain.” My personal favorite insight is Hoffman’s busting the myth that Sam Clemens took his pseudonym from his steamboat days.

“People who knew Sam in Nevada said that he arrived at the pseudonym by entering a saloon and calling out in the leadsman’s singsong intonation ‘Mark twain!’ — meaning the bartender should pour two drinks and mark them down on the debit ledger,” writes Hoffman.”

For insight into the people who invented modern day Nevada, there are books such as Dallas Morning News reporter Doug Swanson’s “Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker.” The book takes the reader from Benion’s humble beginnings in Pilot Grove, Texas, to dangerous Deep Ellum in Dallas, until he drifted and grifted — and reportedly killed — into downtown Las Vegas.

Former Las Vegas newspaper columnist John L. Smith writes about a number of Nevada notables in “Sharks in the Desert,” covers the rise of casino owner Steve Wynn in “Running Scared” and tells of the mob lawyer-turned-Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman in “Of Rats and Men.”

Sally Denton reveals the company and the men who built Hoover Dam in her thoroughly researched book “The Profiteers” about the Bechtel Corporation.

Denton and Roger Morris also penned a book titled “The Money and the Power” about the making of Las Vegas since World War II, offering insightful peeks into the likes of gangsters Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, politician Pat McCarran and newspaper publisher Hank Greenspun.

For those who would like to climb out of the armchair and go visit on foot some of the gorgeous landscapes in Nevada and neighboring states, there is travel writer Deborah Wall’s “Base Camp Las Vegas,” which details how to get to and how to explore 101 hiking trails — from Arches to Zion National Parks, from Death Valley to the Ruby Mountains.

Many of these are available in local bookstores. All can be found online with the aid of a search engine.

And finally a blatant plug. If you’d like to keep your Nevada friends and family informed in the future, you can always give a subscription to this newspaper.

A version of this column appeared this week in 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.

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Walters goes in one day from millionaire winner to loser

Billy Walters arrives for court in New York (Bloomberg pix)

His winning streak is over.

As John L. Smith reports in a column for The Nevada Independent, Las Vegas sports bettor and golf course developer Billy Walters, having beaten several investigations and indictments, has been convicted in New York of insider trading.

As Smith relates, “He collected pliable politicians and malleable reporters like posies, and nearly always managed to get the best of it. Even law enforcement, which in the past three decades had suspected him of everything from illegal bookmaking to money laundering, could never seem to bust him out.” Until Friday, when a jury convicted him in an insider trading deal that netted him $43 million.

Smith has been keeping an eye on Walters for years and in 2011 got a chuckle and a newspaper column out of a “60 Minutes” swooning interview with the smooth-talking Kentucky-born gambler and huckster.

Of course, the columnist took the opportunity to tell the story that “60 Minutes”missed:

Walters was a founding member of the infamous and feared “Computer Group,” the breakthrough collective of gamblers, handicappers and investors who processed the day’s sports schedule at such a high level they consistently produced better odds than those on the wall of your local sports book. The Computer Group banked millions, and the bookies took a beating. The Computer Group spawned a generation of imitators, some of whom pounded the sports books to pieces.

But the FBI and Metro were watching, and indictments followed. A trial came later, and Computer Group lawyers mopped the floor with the feds. The FBI and U.S. attorney’s office were so embarrassed they put gambling cases on the back burner of their list of prosecutorial priorities.

Walters & Co. seemed to have the opposite effect on Nevada gaming regulation. The sports book industry was so routed it sought protection against Walters from the Gaming Control Board. That led to big rule changes, but Walters managed to adjust.

One of my favorite Walters stories is the time he scored an uncanny, and statistically improbable, winning record at roulette at the Golden Nugget. Casino bosses were sure he had to be cheating. So they had the wheel analyzed by engineers, who found nothing wrong with it. And the legend of Billy Walters grew.

Some of Walters’ biggest scores have come in the chambers of local government. His golf course land proposals at the city and county were tailored like Sinatra’s suits to fit his needs. The fact the public didn’t get the best of it rarely crossed the minds of mesmerized members of the City Council and County Commission.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Daffy souls who hoped to see Walters embarrassed or exposed on television surely were disappointed. They should have known better.

Billy Walters always gets the best of it, and his “60 Minutes” valentine is just another example.

One of those tailored deals was the lease of land from McCarran International Airport for Walters’ Bali Hai Golf Club for 10 years without paying a dime in rent. McCarran was to receive 40 percent of the course’s net profit, but there was no profit because Walters paid his own company a management fee of $6 million.

Walters, 70, now goes from being worth $500 million, the owner of seven homes and a $20 million jet, to facing a cramped jail cell.

Smith accepts induction into Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame with grace and humor

The best line from John L. Smith’s acceptance speech after being inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame came after he recounted how the most famous member of that august hall left town — either to avoid a duel or being brought up on charges of arranging a duel. Smith noted it is easier to “spin a yarn if no one is threatening to shoot you or sue you into bankruptcy.” This was followed by knowing laughs.

Smith also claimed he could out drink Twain, perhaps forgetting just how Sam Clemens got that nickname. Upon entering the bar in Virginia City after a thirst-inducing deadline he did not shout to the barkeep to put two on his tab, instead he called out: “Mark twain.”

Some things just don’t seem to hold their value — such as induction into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame

Some things just aren’t as significant as they used to be.

I’m sure there was a nice story and photo in the paper back around the turn of the century when Review-Journal Publisher Sherman Frederick was inducted in the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame. That was before electronic archives.

When longtime R-J investigative reporter A.D. Hopkins was inducted into the Hall in 2010 there was a nice writeup in the paper and I penned a column on the topic.

When R-J capital bureau chief Ed Vogel was inducted in 2012 there was a glowing account of his storied career. I mentioned Vogel’s Hall of Fame status in a blog once.

In 2014, the induction of Dave Sanford, whose family ran the Mason Valley News in Yerington for decades, and Brian Greenspun, editor and publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, warranted a sidebar in the paper.

But in 2015 when the late R-J political reporter Laura Myers was inducted the news was fully contained in the third paragraph of a story about the paper’s Nevada Newspaper Association awards. AP carried a short story. I defended Myers’ reputation in a blog earlier this year and remarked on her passing at the time.

On Sunday the paper reported the induction of former, 30-plus-years columnist John L. Smith. The news was contained in the third from last paragraph of an awards story: “John L. Smith, a longtime columnist for the Review-Journal, was inducted to the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.”

Talk about deflation in value. I wonder why that is.

Smith doing commentary at KNPR

John L. Smith doing commentary at KNPR

 

Laura Myers

Laura Myers

 

Ed Vogel

Ed Vogel

 

A.D. Hopkins

A.D. Hopkins

 

Sherman Frederick

Sherman Frederick

Publisher has hissy fit over former columnist receiving Hall of Fame honor

In one of the most petty, petulant and pusillanimous acts of perfidy in the annals of alleged journalism, the publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal has resigned from the board of directors of the Nevada Press Association in a fit of pique over longtime newspaper columnist John L. Smith being named to the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame, according to sources.

The announcement of Smith’s well deserved and frankly overdue induction into the Hall of Fame officially came during the NPA awards banquet in Mesquite Saturday night. Publisher Craig Moon’s resignation from the board came the day before. He reportedly did not attend the banquet, though few would have recognized him if he had.

Smith, who has written a general interest column four or five days a week for more than 30 years at the Review-Journal, about 5,500 columns, resigned earlier this year after being told he could not write about two of the most significant characters in the Las Vegas gaming industry — Sheldon Adelson, now owner of the newspaper, and casino executive Steve Wynn, both of whom had unsuccessfully sued Smith for libel over passages in two of the 15 books he has written.

Smith was among a handful of writers at the Las Vegas newspaper who unearthed the identity of Adelson as the paper’s new owner in December. That enterprise contributed to one of the newspaper’s awards Saturday night. Adelson heads the Las Vegas Sands hotel and casino operation and is a generous donor to Republican political candidates. All the reporters who unearthed Adelson as the new owner have since left the paper. At least two of them won writing awards in the NPA annual contest.

In the resignation letter that he left on the desks of fellow staffers, Smith wrote, “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.”

Adelson’s suit said Smith’s book “Sharks in the Desert” made false implications that he “was associated with unsavory characters and unsavory activities.”

Adelson asked that the libel case against Smith 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. Though he prevailed, the litigation forced Smith into bankruptcy.

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. Smith eventually was dismissed as a defendant and the publisher of the book reached an undisclosed settlement.

That the suits over books unrelated to his job as a columnist were dismissed for lacking merit mattered not to the new Adelson minions, who haven’t been in Las Vegas long enough to learn what the word “juice” means, though they certainly kowtow to those who have it.

 

 

Newspaper finally tells readers columnist has left

This is the way the column has ended, not with a bang, but a whimper.

kolm

After 30 years as the newspaper’s star general interest columnist, the paper relegates his departure to a single sentence.

Good luck to Paul, he’ll do a good job.

But watch out for the mines, Paul.

 

John L. Smith: The tweets heard ’round the newsroom

sunpiece

While the management of the Las Vegas newspaper wimps out and refuses to acknowledge to its readers that its 30-year star columnist, John L. Smith, has resigned, the Las Vegas Sun insert in that paper today broke the news with a story in print that it had first posted online on Tuesday evening. A little slow on the uptake over at the Sun.

That Sun story relates:

On Saturday, editor Keith Moyer (editor of the Review-Journal) told a meeting of the Society of Professional Journalists at UNLV that Smith would no longer be allowed to write about Adelson “as long as I’m editor,” according to an R-J reporter who tweeted details of the event. Smith had written numerous times about Adelson, including in a December 2015 R-J column following the revelation that the billionaire Las Vegas casino magnate and his family had purchased the paper.

In that column, Smith called Adelson “precisely the wrong person to own this or any newspaper.”

reportertweet

editortweet

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, but that did not become public until Saturday, 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.

Apparently Moyer was not aware that Smith had also been sued unsuccessfully by casino owner Steve Wynn, because the reporter tweeted:

wynntweet

This series of exchanges prompted a retweet by Smith and some additional commentary of the 140-character variety:

smithtweet

Reportedly Smith and the reporter were chewed out for embarrassing the paper with their Twitter comments, though it was the editor who publicly embarrassed the paper. Smith was also told he could not write about Wynn, though he had recently been writing about the legal power struggle between Wynn and his ex-wife.

Smith resigned on Tuesday and the paper has since been silent on the matter.

“If I can’t do my job, if I can’t hold the heavyweights in the community to account, then I’m just treading water,” Smith told NPR in an interview. “It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but there was no other decision to make — at least in my mind.”

Adelson sued Smith in 2005 over a passage in a book called “Sharks in the Desert” that Adelson’s attorneys said were false implications that Adelson “was associated with unsavory characters and unsavory activities.”

The case was dismissed in 2008 when Smith’s attorney obtained access to confidential Gaming Control Board records relating to Adelson’s gaming license. 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.”

Moyer wrote in an email to NPR, “I was sorry to see him resign and I wish him the very best. I decided that the strongest measure was best for the Review-Journal. John had thousands of other people, things and news events from which to choose to write about.”

According to NPR, then-interim managing editor Glenn Cook had told Smith he could not write about Adelson, to which 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.”

Moyer took the opportunity to lecture those who might deign to criticize the paper’s management and/or ownership: “The real question reporters should be asking is: ‘Did Sheldon Adelson order the ban?’ But I suspect they’re not asking that because they’ve already made up their minds that he did. Shame on them.”

Shame?

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