Las Vegas Review-Journal Columnist Resigns for Not Being Allowed to Write About Sheldon Adelson
In December 2015, the Las Vegas Review-Journal was sold for $140 million to a secret buyer soon revealed to be Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson, online poker’s top enemy and mega-billionaire Republican political donor. At the time, the paper’s publisher, Jason Taylor, promised that Adelson would have no influence on the editorial content of the paper, despite suspicion that Adelson had purchased it as a political play. Turns out Taylor was wrong. On Tuesday, Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith resigned from the paper because his superiors forbade him from writing anything about Adelson or casino magnate Steve Wynn.
On January 28th, 2016, Craig Moon replaced Taylor as publisher. Corporate hierarchy had Moon reporting directly to the paper’s new ownership, whereas Taylor did not. One of Moon’s first orders of business was to remove a disclosure about Adelson’s ownership of the LVRJ from the third page, perhaps the first sign that Adelson was not going to remain hands-off as to the paper’s editorial content.
That same day, reported POLITICO, John L. Smith was told not to write about Adelson. That prohibition was kept largely a secret until this past weekend. On Saturday, LVRJ editor J. Keith Moyer (I will reserve comment on people who go by first initial-middle name) was interviewed by UNLV journalism professor Mary Hausch at a public Society of Professional Journalists meeting. Multiple journalists live-tweeted the event, including Review-Journal reporter Pashtana Usufzy, who also broadcast the interview on Periscope. It was via these live updates from Usufzy and others that we know Moyer said, “As long as I’m editor, John won’t write about Sheldon Adelson.”
Moyer gave his reasoning, saying, “I will tell you that John Smith and Sheldon Adelson have some personal—they have a long history, a legal history. Frankly, I personally think it was a conflict for John to write about Sheldon. The fact that he was [writing about Adelson] was a problem. It wasn’t right.”
The legal history is in the form of a libel lawsuit filed by Adelson against Smith in 2005 based on a book Smith had written about the billionaire Republican puppeteer. Steve Wynn also sued Smith in 1997 for similar reasons. Judges dismissed both cases. Moyer, who arrived at the Review-Journal in February, said in the interview that he did not know about the Wynn lawsuit.
Nevada political writer and host of Ralston Reports, Jon Ralston, reported that on Monday, Moyer told Smith to stop writing about Wynn, as well. Ralston’s sources have also told him that Usufzy was severely reprimanded by Moyer on Monday, so much so that she was “reduced to tears.”
Ralston gave his own opinion on the mess:
No one would argue Smith should disclose the lawsuits if he writes about these public figures. But to bar him from writing about either man?
Is the standard now that if you sue a reporter at the RJ, that is a method to kill coverage? Really?
And speaking of standards, how is it a conflict for a columnist sued by Adelson to write about him and his interests but not a conflict for a newspaper owned by Adelson to promote his interests (i.e. a publicly financed stadium)? Do tell, Mr. Moyer.
John L. Smith dropped copies of a letter to his colleagues in the office on his way out to give his parting shots. He did specifically say that he had been told not to write about Adelson and Wynn, but the message is pretty obvious, especially to his fellow journalists.
“If the Strip’s thin-skinned casino bosses aren’t grist for commentary, who is?” he wrote.
Smith’s full letter, shared by Review-Journal journalist Bethany Barnes on Twitter, has been transcribed below:
Job Opening: Columnist
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, the 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.
It isn’t always easy to afflict the comfortable and question authority, but it’s an essential part of the job. And although I’ve fallen short of the mark many times over the past three decades, this is a job I’ve loved.
But recent events have convinced me that I can no longer remain employed at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a spirited newspaper that has battled to remain an independent voice of journalism in this community. 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?
It’s been an honor working with you all. Your hard work and dedication remind me every day that journalism is better than ever – even if management leaves something to be desired.
John L. Smith