LAS VEGAS — A prominent journalist has left his post at Nevada’s largest news organization after being told he could no longer cover prominent casino owners, including the wealthy investor who owns the paper.
Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire donor to the Republican Party, purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal in December for $140 million via a shell company. Several reporters and staff left the company shortly after the purchase, including Michael Hengel, the former editor.
The latest to resign, John L. Smith, had a history of covering casinos and their owners, and fighting costly legal battles in defense of his freedom of speech. Adelson sued Smith over his 2005 book, “Sharks In The Desert,” which included a passage on the billionaire. According to a January report from NPR, Adelson refused Smith and his publisher’s offers to make corrections for unsold copies of the book and print the corrections in his column in the Review-Journal. In a bizarre counter-offer, Adelson suggested Smith admit to libel and make an apology in court; in return, Adelson would pay $200,000 to cover medical expenses for Smith’s daughter, who had been undergoing chemotherapy treatments for brain cancer.
“Instead, Smith filed for bankruptcy,” reported David Folkenflik. “In court documents, a judge cited more than $200,000 in legal fees and medical bills that Smith could not pay.”
Although his finances were ruined, Smith ultimately prevailed against Adelson in court, and again in a lawsuit filed against him and others by casino owner Steve Wynn.
Despite Smith’s legal victories, the ban on Smith’s coverage of casino owners was apparently instituted earlier this year by the paper’s new publisher, Craig Moon.
“Soon after, the Adelson family announced its intent to build a football stadium to try to lure an NFL team to Las Vegas,” Folkenflik wrote last month. “That deal would rely on public tax dollars in a public-private partnership that Smith calls ‘a boondoggle … that always seems to work for the private partners but not the public.’”
Smith resigned soon after J. Keith Moyer, Hengel’s replacement, discussed the ban at a Society of Professional Journalists, broadcast on the livestreaming service Periscope.
“I think sometimes when you have that kind of deep animosity, that it was problematic for John to be writing about Sheldon Adelson,” Moyer said, according to a report by The New York Times. “As long as I’m editor, John won’t write about Sheldon Adelson.”
However, Moyer insisted that Adelson “had nothing to do with this decision.” He later expanded the ban to include writing about Wynn, as well.
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.”
Smith shot back in a letter he distributed to his colleagues in the newsroom, later reprinted by Politico. He argued:
“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. If the Strip’s thin-skinned casino bosses aren’t grist for commentary, who is?”
J.K. Trotter concurred in an April 26 analysis for Gawker:
“[B]anning Smith from commenting on either Adelson or Wynn sets an odious precedent, under which powerful and immensely wealthy public figures can effectively silence a pesky Review-Journal columnist simply by suing him or her for libel, no matter how frivolous the grounds for doing so would be.”