Newspaper column: Resignation offers a glimpse into the state of newspapering in Nevada

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.”

John L. Smith doing commentary at KNPR.

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.

While Adelson sues another journalist, John L. Smith says: Been there, done that, got the bankruptcy to show for it

Las Vegas Sands Chairman Sheldon Adelson, left, pictured in 2010 with Steve Jacobs, whose suit is roiling the lucrative Macau casino business. This photo accompanied the WSJ story that prompted a libel suit by Adelson. (Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

You may have heard by now, it was in all the papers, that Sheldon Adelson, billionaire owner of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., which has casinos in Las Vegas and Macau, has sued a Wall Street Journal reporter in a Hong Kong court over an article in which he was described as “a scrappy, foul-mouthed billionaire from working-class Dorchester, Mass,” with whom disagreements could turn into a “junkyard dogfight.”

The 79-year-old Adelson did not sue the newspaper or a second reporter who shared a byline on the Dec. 5, 2012, story.

The Daily Beast, to put the story in perspective, asked a newspaper columnist who had been sued previously by Adelson to tell his tale.

In the piece longtime Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith recounts how he was sued by Adelson, not over his column, but over a passage in a book about Las Vegas big-wigs called “Sharks in the Desert”:

“What might sound like grist for late-night comics is, in fact, a serious matter for a reporter. Even shallow and mean-spirited libel litigation can be costly and time-consuming. And even a journalist supported by a press institution of the WSJ’s stature is bound to feel some of the emotional distress such lawsuits can generate.

“I know of what I speak. Adelson sued me into bankruptcy over a brief passage in my 2005 book, ‘Sharks in the Desert: The Founding Fathers and Current Kings of Las Vegas.’ It was an enormously stressful experience that came at the most difficult time in my life.

“Although I wouldn’t claim to have gained much insight into Adelson’s character during the fight, I immediately learned he wasn’t shy about hitting you when you’re down. On the contrary.

“He sued me (and my publisher) while my then-8-year-old daughter Amelia was suffering from brain cancer, which had metastasized to her spine. She was literally fighting for her life. I learned of the impending litigation while at her bedside at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.”

Both John and his publisher ended up declaring bankruptcy due to the expense of relentless litigation.

Because the Review-Journal published excerpts from the book, including the chapter about Adelson, though I had edited out the section that was the grounds for his libel suit against Smith, I wound up having to give a deposition.

I wrote a couple of columns at the time about the surreal experience.

It took place in a tiny downtown office with Los Angeles attorney Marty Singer, “an aggressive plaintiff’s lawyer to the stars whose style includes florid and bombastic letters threatening legal action and financial ruin on behalf of his famous and deep-pocketed clientele,” I wrote at the time.

I figured Singer had to be tuckered out after having just spent 5 1/2 billable hours deposing Smith in the same office. John later described it as a brutal brow-beating.

According to Singer’s lawsuit, as recounted in another column, “Smith deceptively manipulates language, quotations and sources in order to concoct the smear that Adelson had dealings with the Boston Mob when Adelson was in the vending machine business. Smith’s claims are baseless — part of Smith’s Procrustean effort to find gangsters and molls behind every casino door.” (Procrustes was a robber in Greek legend who strapped his house guests to an iron bed. In order to make them fit, he either stretched them or cut off their legs. Of course, like the facts in the hands of crafty litigators, the victims never fit because the bed was adjustable.)

Among other things, Singer asked me if I would “consider it interesting about Sheldon Adelson’s beginning career, that he would … that he had Boston-area vending machines when he was a young man, a teenager, that were the target of mob influence.” That was the part I’d cut out of the newspaper excerpts.

I wanted to blurt out that this is Las Vegas, and if you’ve not had some “mob influence” in your life you’re a certified wallflower. Mob influences are old hat. Instead, I politely stated that the passage was cut “for the sake of brevity.”

In the column I pointed out that for a public figure to successfully win a libel case there have to be damages. Since the book was published, Adelson has gone from 15th richest in the world to sixth. Hardly damaging.

At one point Singer pulled out an incredibly indecipherable third-generation photocopy of an article with a generic illustration of a clown with dollar signs for eyes. He had it marked Exhibit 43, apparently to be used as evidence the Review-Journal was biased against Adelson.

I later tracked down a legible copy of the article. It turns out it was a 1998 op-ed piece penned by Shelley Berkley, who later became a U.S. representative, in reply to an attack on her published the prior week in the Review-Journal and written by none other than Sheldon Adelson. He accused Berkley of advising him, while in his employ as vice president of legal and government affairs, to do favors for county commissioners, get jobs for relatives, lease space to certain vendors. He proudly proclaimed he “wouldn’t be extorted” and had fired Berkley.

In Berkley’s reply, now Exhibit 43, she stated, “Over time, I observed Mr. Adelson plot vendettas against anyone whom he believed stood in his way. However minuscule the perceived affront, he was certain to go ballistic, using his money and position to bully any ‘opponent’ — great or small — into submission.”

The attorney for the WSJ reporter might wish to depose Berkley, because in libel cases truth is a defense.

Adelson dropped his suit against Smith shortly after attorney Don Campbell was able to obtain a copy of Adelson’s Gaming Control Board licensing file. If the case had gone to trial that information could have come out in open court, and apparently Adelson did not wish to see that happen.

Today John is having is head shaved by his now 17-year-old daughter Amelia for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which raises money in an attempt to find a cure for childhood cancer. You can donate online. Be sure and designate the money is for Amelia’s Team.

Smith has his head shaved for St. Baldrick’s in 2011. (R-J photo)

As a sort of post script, today both The Wall Street Journal and the Review-Journal are reporting that the Sands Corp. has filed an SEC document saying the company may have violated a federal law that bans the bribing of foreign public officials. That was one of the allegations in the litigation between Adelson and a former Macau-based Sands executive that was the topic of the original WSJ story that drew the libel suit.