The Vegas Columnist And The Newspaper Owner Who Once Sued Him For Libel
The secretive sale late last year of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Nevada's largest news organization, to the family of one of the wealthiest men in the country set off shock waves in that newsroom.
The vast financial and political interests of the billionaire casino magnate and major Republican donor Sheldon Adelson raise nettlesome questions about how the paper can cover him.
Yet some journalists say there is a more pointed problem: his sensitivity to what reporters actually do. His lawyers have filed three libel suits against journalists on his behalf, one of which is still ongoing.
One of the people he sued went broke facing him in court. That reporter, John L. Smith, is among Adelson's newest and most prominent employees. Smith writes a column five days a week for the Review-Journal. And he has written frequently about Adelson, his industry competitors and his politics.
"Las Vegas looks one way to tourists and another way to locals," Smith says. "Locals, if they're here long enough, view Las Vegas as a glitzy factory town. Much in the same way that the auto industry has been so big to Detroit, gaming and tourism is essential, really, to Las Vegas development and growth."
No one in Vegas eclipses the importance of Adelson, chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp.
"There are companies with more casinos," Smith says, "but I think Sheldon's personality — his dramatic, tremendous success in Macau, his obvious embrace of Republican Party politics and willingness to dump millions and millions of dollars into the presidential campaign — this makes him a pre-eminent player."
Reporting On Newspaper's New Owner
The Adelson family's involvement was kept secret in December when the former owners, known as GateHouse Media, announced the sale.
GateHouse Media continued to manage the paper. But after the change in ownership, the publisher, Jason Taylor, became involved in personally reviewing, delaying and at times changing the paper's reporting. An executive brought in to oversee the transition told staffers they did not need to know the details of their new owners. He advised them just to do their jobs.
The newsroom interpreted that literally, scrambling to confirm the Adelson family's acquisition of the Review-Journal. Mike Hengel was the Review-Journal's editor until late December and oversaw that reporting.
"It takes a lot of courage on their part — not just skill but courage," Hengel says. "It would be easy to say, 'I don't want to touch this. This is radioactive.' But they went after it."
Hengel says he was compelled by his bosses to take a buyout after clashing with Taylor, the publisher, over coverage of the newspaper's sale.
Court Clash With Las Vegas Reporter
When John Smith's writing vexed Adelson a decade ago, it had enduring consequences for him personally. This account is based on interviews with Smith and Smith's current and former colleagues as well as a review of voluminous court records in state and federal courts and contemporaneous news reports.
Adelson sued Smith over a 2005 book called Sharks in the Desert. Smith devoted a chapter to Adelson's rise in the working-class neighborhood of Dorchester in south Boston. The passage sparking the lawsuit noted Adelson's early investments in vending machines. It also explored organized crime's presence in that trade, though it made no specific claims involving Adelson.
Adelson alleged his reputation had been badly damaged. The billionaire sought $15 million.
Smith already faced other pressing concerns.
"I was sued at a time when my daughter was in the hospital being treated for brain cancer," Smith says. "I thought it was particularly cruel, quite frankly."
Smith says his daughter, Amelia, survived surgery and repeated chemotherapy and radiation.
To address Adelson's objections, Smith and his book publisher issued some corrections for unsold copies and even offered to publish them in his Review-Journal column to reach a wider audience.
Adelson wanted something else. His team suggested a specific kind of apology to be made in court. The offer initially arrived, Smith says, through a rabbi.
According to Smith, Adelson would drop the suit, if "I would admit that I meant to malign him, and libel him, and paid a [one] dollar judgment, which would have ended my career."
"And he of course knew that," Smith says.
Adelson's representatives sweetened the deal: He would place $200,000 in an account for the Smith family's medical bills, Smith says, as long as the reporter did not tell his bosses.
Instead, Smith filed for bankruptcy. In court documents, a judge cited more than $200,000 in legal fees and medical bills that Smith could not pay.
"We just soldiered on," Smith says.
A spokesman for Adelson on newspaper issues referred questions to his corporate executives at Las Vegas Sands Corp.
"Las Vegas Sands operates in an extremely competitive and regulated industry, which requires complete transparency and the highest ethical standards," says Ron Reese, senior vice president for global communications at Las Vegas Sands. "In short, Mr. Adelson's reputation means everything — especially in this business."
Adelson's ownership of newspaper properties does not diminish the importance of that fact, Reese says.
"Whether it's careless reporting or malicious political attacks that impugn his reputation, he frankly has an obligation to the company's shareholders and the 50,000 employees of this company to set the record straight."
After several years, Adelson dropped the libel suit against Smith. It was dismissed with prejudice, which means it cannot be revived.
Smith emerged from bankruptcy in early 2011. He and his wife divorced several months later, and he subsequently wrote about his own treatment for cancer. In the years since, Smith has shared a few pictures of his daughter on his Twitter account.
"She is disabled today. She uses a wheelchair to get around. But she's doing just great," Smith says. "She is working on life every day, as we all are."
Taking On Other Journalists In Court
In 2013, Adelson sued a Wall Street Journal reporter in Hong Kong, Kate O'Keeffe, for describing him as "foul-mouthed" in an article about a lawsuit alleging corruption in his Macau casinos, one of the key drivers of his wealth. Though Adelson sued the reporter as an individual, and did not include her employer, the Journal defended her in court.
In court filings, the Journal suggested an "ulterior motive" of Adelson's lawsuit was to get O'Keeffe pulled off the beat. The newspaper's lawyers cited a telephone conversation in which Reese, the Sands executive, asked a Journal editor whether she would be reassigned.
Reese tells NPR that he believes many fair-minded people would ask whether O'Keeffe now has a conflict of interest in covering the company. (The Columbia Journalism Review reached a different conclusion.)
O'Keeffe and her attorney declined to comment for this story. Colleen Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the Journal's parent company, Dow Jones, says O'Keeffe has been kept on the beat throughout the proceedings and received a promotion, though she will soon move to the newspaper's bureau in Washington, D.C.
Reach Of Adelson's Interests
Adelson's philanthropy and political interests span local, national and international affairs. In the 2012 election cycle, the investigative reporting organization ProPublica found that Adelson and his wife spent at least $98 million to aid various Republican candidates, especially political action committees favoring Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. The true figure may be far larger, ProPublica reported.
Adelson also has been an advocate for Israel, especially the hawkish stance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Adelson created a free newspaper, Israel Hayom, which has become the largest circulating newspaper in Israel, sometimes called "Bibi-ton," a play on Netanyahu's nickname and the Hebrew word for newspaper.
"It has not only had an impact stoking right-wing politics, but also on media," Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Jewish publication The Forward, tells NPR in an email. "It [poses] a direct economic challenge to other outlets, who after all, have to charge for their product."
Future Of The 'Review-Journal'
Former Review-Journal editor Hengel says columnist Smith has always been fearless in the past — and remains so. Under the new ownership, Smith has weighed in several times about Adelson and his executives.
Reese, the Sands executive, says Adelson's ownership of newspaper properties does not color his drive to protect his reputation. Reese would not address what the future holds for the Review-Journal.
But, he adds, "I know I saw a John L. Smith column in the newspaper yesterday, so I would just leave it at that."
Taylor, the Review-Journal publisher, started to smooth the waters by naming a new acting editor, Glenn Cook. As the paper's editorial page editor, Cook had written critically of the secrecy initially cloaking the paper's purchase.
Last week, Cook announced there would be money to rehire more reporters. After sessions with reporters, Cook unveiled a detailed policy spelling out exactly how the Review-Journal will cover Adelson, with an emphasis on full disclosure of his interests.
The paper will still be managed by its previous owners at GateHouse.
Yet Smith acknowledges nervousness about having Adelson as his paper's new owner.
"Giving him the benefit of the doubt going forward, I think, is important," Smith says. "But the bottom line is I don't think he should own this or any newspaper."
For now, Smith says, he's still paid to have opinions about greater Las Vegas. Even that one.