ANALYSIS: Casinos, Newspapers, Elections: If It Can Be Bought, Sheldon Adelson Will Buy It
SEATTLE — Less than a year ago, Nevada’s largest paper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, was sold as part of a group of seven regional newspapers for $100 million. This week, the reporters at the paper discovered it had been sold again.
But the latest sale was exceedingly unusual. The Review-Journal was not part of a package deal. It was sold as a stand-alone property for $140 million. Strangest of all, the new buyer was not an individual or even a company, but a limited liability company, News + Media Capital Group LLC.
Though LLCs have legitimate purposes in business, they are often used to conceal the identity of controversial buyers or to shield them from legal disputes or accountability. The New York Times published two exposes this year on the use of such corporate legal stratagems to shield corrupt politicians and oligarchs from review of massive luxury real estate purchases in New York and Los Angeles.
The Review-Journal’s mysterious new owner: Sheldon Adelson
The deal had the fingerprints of Sheldon Adelson, the owner of the Las Vegas Sands Casino empire, all over it. Mother Jones also associated the GOP megadonor with the transaction prior to any confirmed reports.
The actual owner is Adelson’s son-in-law, Patrick Dumont, an executive with the Sands holding company. Sivan Ochshorn Dumont, Patrick’s wife and Adelson’s stepdaughter, is listed as the owner of the billionaire’s Israeli media properties.
The journalists at the Review-Journal, who have the most to lose in this transaction, did the shoe-leather work to penetrate the web of secrecy surrounding the deal. They discovered that the only individual’s name listed on the LLC incorporation agreement was a New England newspaper publisher, Michael Schroeder, who is listed as the manager of News + Media. In buying his current stable of media properties, Schroeder used the same secret process, refusing to name his fellow investors.
Coincidentally, Schroeder was also in Las Vegas the night of the most recent Republican presidential debate. He stayed at the site of the debate, Adelson’s Sands Hotel.
Schroeder was born on Long Island and honed his early newspapering skills at Newsday, the region’s major paper. Later, he went into business with Russel Pergament, a New York publishing executive. In 2007, they founded a chain of neighborhood papers, BostonNOW, with the support of investors from Iceland, just as that country’s economy was tanking. The investment tanked, too and the chain folded almost exactly a year later. Together, they also founded am New York, a free commuter-oriented publication which was sold to Cablevision in 2008.
Since we know so little about Schroeder aside from his newspaper experience, and since we know so much about Adelson’s political views, it’s worthwhile to explore the former’s relationship with Pergament. Though it’s not known whether Pergament will play a role in the Review-Journal, his politics closely mirror those of Adelson. Also, his latest media venture, JNS (Jewish News Service), is a pro-Israel “newswire,” which has a deal to distribute articles from Israel HaYom (Israel Today), that country’s largest newspaper, which is also owned by Adelson.
Israel HaYom: Adelson’s $40M annual subsidy
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly stated that he could not have been elected without the support of Israel HaYom, which is consequently called, somewhat derisively, Bibiton (“Bibipaper”) in Hebrew. It was founded by Adelson to support one major cause: Netanyahu. Of course, it has journalists who report on other stories. But by far the most important stories advance Netanyahu and his political enterprise. It loses money every year — nearly $40 million, according to Israeli media reports. But this is a small price to pay for propping up Adelson’s political protege, Netanyahu.
Israel has never seen such a media enterprise before. In fact, some competitors call it an “anti-newspaper” because it breaks virtually all the conventional rules about how media outlets operate. Prior to Adelson, newspapers either supported a specific political party or were founded by family dynasties. They reflected a political ideology, but always attempted to maintain some semblance of balance. Israel HaYom has thrown all this to the winds. It has also pummeled the remaining Israeli papers in commercial competition. Since it doesn’t worry about deficits or profits, it is a free paper. Every other media property has to worry about these factors and maintains a subscription model. Consumers, when faced with the option to pay or read a free paper, will often choose what’s free.
At least one Israeli paper, Maariv, was driven into bankruptcy. Adelson scooped up its online subsidiary, NRG. He also owns another paper he rescued from insolvency, Makor Rishon, whose constituency is the Orthodox religious right wing. He stands above the deluge, watching as Israel’s remaining serious papers flail about, keeping their heads barely above water. Yediot Achronot is drowning in red ink. If it weren’t for the deep pockets of Israeli oligarch Leonid Nevzlin and a German investor, Haaretz would be in imminent danger as well.
Adelson exerts his share of fear and intimidation within Israeli media as well. He carefully follows how he is portrayed. When a reporter crosses a red line, his stable of lawyers stand ready to respond aggressively. In 2011, Israel’s Channel 10 aired an unflattering profile of the gambling tycoon’s litigious nature, which Adelson responded to with–what else?– threats of a libel lawsuit (Israeli libel laws are much more favorable to accusers than in the U.S.). That resulted in an abject, on-air apology, which drove the two leading news executives to resign in anger at management’s capitulation to Adelson’s ego.
Though the GOP megadonor understands that the U.S. is not the same as Israel, he will likely seek to transform the political climate into one that is closer to Israel’s. He will transform the Review-Journal from an independent news outlet to one completely dedicated to the GOP agenda. It will closely track Adelson’s business interests and publish news that flatters and advances them. It will ruthlessly attack anyone who stands in the billionaire’s way, whether it’s a federal prosecutor, a senator or even a president.
Adelson’s history with Israeli media is important because it offers a model for what could happen in Las Vegas. The Review-Journal purchase is even more consequential than his Israel holdings because it offers him a stakehold in American media. With it, he will be able to exert tremendous influence not just in state politics, but the national debate as well. It’s no accident that the most recent GOP debate was held at his Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.
The Review-Journal as an extension of Adelson’s national political ambitions
Nevada is an early primary state, which increases its impact on the national stage. Though a typically Western, mostly rural blue state (except for Las Vegas), it elects Democrats regularly to national office, including one Adelson would dearly love to take out, Sen. Harry Reid. Adelson’s goal would be to turn the state completely red with a Senate and House contingent that is all-GOP.
But the biggest prize of all is the presidency. Adelson spent at least $150 million in 2012 trying to get Mitt Romney elected — and Mitt wasn’t even his preferred candidate. That was Newt Gingrich, whose flailing campaign, at one point, was single-handedly kept afloat by the mega donor’s cash. The Las Vegas billionaire will certainly spend more, probably far more, in the 2016 cycle. It would shock few political observers if Adelson shelled out anywhere from $250-500 million this time around.
During this cycle, Adelson is backing Sen. Marco Rubio, though he also met with Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, for an hour before the latest debate. That meeting could become quite important if Trump wins the nomination. Despite his wealth, even Trump could not afford the $1-2 billion necessary for a presidential general election campaign. Adelson’s support could be critical to him in that event.
Though Adelson has several interests politically, he’s essentially a one-issue donor: Israel. Yes, he hates online gambling as a threat to his worldwide casino empire, but Israel is where his heart lies. Adelson wants U.S. Mideast policy to move much further to the right than it currently is. He wants Washington to be an overseas outpost of the Likud Party. If he could, he’d like to see Israel’s leader and America’s as co-presidents, co-equal partners in a joint enterprise.
Even the Israel Lobby is sometimes too moderate for him. A 2008 New Yorker profile noted that he intensely dislikes the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, because he believes it’s too moderate. The fact that the largest Israel lobby group makes a point of being bipartisan (at least in name) would also rankle Adelson, who has no use for Democrats. The group and its donors raise huge sums, both for Democratic and Republican candidates.
Also important is the role his new media investment can play in defending him from a continuing federal investigation, a whistleblower lawsuit of a former Sands executive, and another lawsuit by a former Chinese business partner in his Macao property. All of these have cast a large pall over Adelson and his business empire. There can be no doubt that any Democratic administration would enjoy taking its pound of flesh from Adelson, who is one of the largest donors to the national GOP.
Returning to the Review-Journal, it’s worth speculating on whether there may be a role for Russel Pergament in the new venture. Michael Schroeder clearly is intended to be the business operations manager. While Pergament has expertise in this side of newspapering, he would also bring the requisite pro-Israel political messaging to the paper.
For a sense of where he stands, the Jewish Press, a Kahanist New York publication interviewed Pergament in 2014, where he spoke about his views:
“Media coverage of Israel around the world is not merely unfriendly but reflexively hostile. There almost is a conspiracy in the media to somehow delegitimize Israel and make it hesitant and ashamed to use its legitimate means of self-defense. In some ways, it’s like liberal media are trying to impose an externally imposed unilateral disarmament on Israel. That troubled me a lot.
Even more troubling is that in newspaper coverage there’s very little context provided. Israel is the size of New Jersey, the armistice lines are only eight miles from Tel Aviv, it’s been invaded four times by seven Arab armies, the Hamas charter calls for the destruction of Israel, and there are six million Jews in Israel versus 370 million Arabs around the world. When people understand that, it’s much harder to envision Israel as a monolithic Nazi-like war machine.
We weave all these educational, irrefutable, simple core facts material into a lot of our coverage to kind of fortify our readership with some reality basing.”
This sort of view is music to Adelson’s ears. In fact, Pergament spoke on a panel about media Israel-bashing at the 2014 Israeli-American Council conference. The group was founded largely with Adelson funding to be an Israeli counterpart to AIPAC in the U.S. Its mission is to lobby on behalf of the as many as 500,000 Israelis living in this country and act as a counterweight to any moderate elements in the Israel lobby.
Given Adelson’s past media history and strident pro-Israel views, it seems clear that either Pergament or someone very similar to him will infuse the pages of the Review-Journal with the fervor demanded by t]he wealthy pro-Israel patriot, who has expressed regret that he served in the U.S. Army rather than the Israeli Defense Forces.
Do Adelson’s media ambitions pose any danger to American Jews?
This raises another important issue: dual loyalty. Adelson clearly views the interests of Israel and the U.S. as one. There can be no distinction. What’s good for Israel is good for America. If pressed, however, Adelson would likely say if there ever were a case in which the two sets of interests diverged, he would choose Israel’s interests.
So what impact will an ambitious Adelson media venture have on American Jews? He will be touting an editorial line that is stridently pro-Likud, while the Jewish community here is certainly not. The problem is that the American Jewish leadership is relatively weak and easily co-opted when it comes to Israel. It’s certainly possible that Adelson’s billions and his pugilistic political stance will cow anyone standing in his way. He will avow to speak for all American Jews. He will attempt to set the community’s pro-Israel agenda. Who will say different?
If Jews do not oppose his attempts at co-optation, we run the risk of being accused of favoring Israel’s interests over America’s. With a monomaniac like Adelson at the helm, this will be far more likely and lead to uncomfortable outcomes. It will be so much easier for demagogues to subsume their anti-Semitism into “anti-Israelism.” Though the two issues are not the same, there are many on the far right (both Jews and non-Jews) who prefer “Jew” and “Israel” to be one and the same. Such confusion poses great danger for American Jews.
Finally, this new Adelson media venture only makes sense if there is a national component to it. It’s well and good to own Nevada’s major newspaper and exert significant influence in the political life of the state, but Adelson’s ambitions don’t stop at the state line. He desperately wants to see a Republican in the White House, and he’ll stop at almost nothing to achieve this ambition. It makes perfect sense for him to envision a similar strategy to the one used by Israel HaYom to dominate the national political media debate and get a Republican elected president.
To do this, he will have to either expand the Review-Journal’s ambitions from its regional base, or he will have to develop a brand that incorporates the Nevada paper and extends it to the national stage.
There are many mysterious, unfathomable aspects to Adelson’s thinking and decision-making, but one thing is certain: The future will not be boring.
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