A prominent columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the largest news organization in Nevada, resigned after being told he could no longer write about two of the state's biggest players, including his newspaper's new owner, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
"If I can't do my job, if I can't hold the heavyweights in the community to account, then I'm just treading water," the columnist, John L. Smith, told NPR in an interview. "It wasn't an easy decision to make, but there was no other decision to make — at least in my mind."
Smith had written columns for the Review-Journal for nearly three decades, with a frequent focus on Adelson, one of the most powerful figures in Nevada gambling and national Republican politics. The billionaire sued Smith for libel over a passage in a 2005 book about power players of Las Vegas.
Smith prevailed in court, but paying the fees helped bankrupt him. (NPR told that remarkable story, including a rabbi's offer of a secret $200,000 payoff from Adelson for Smith to admit libel, earlier this year.) Years later, the case has helped trigger the end of Smith's career at the Review-Journal, as his new bosses cited it as a conflict of interest.
"I was sorry to see him resign and I wish him the very best," the paper's editor-in-chief, J. Keith Moyer, wrote in an email to NPR. "I decided that the strongest measure was best for the Review-Journal. John had thousands of other people, things and news events from which to choose to write about."
Late last year, Adelson and his family bought the Review-Journal in a transaction that was initially intended to keep the new owners' identity secret from the public and the newsroom itself. The paper's reporters covered the mystery and subsequently identified the Adelsons despite the efforts of the paper's publisher to delay and soften the coverage. The paper's editor was among those who subsequently left. Promises of scrupulous disclosure of the Adelsons' interests were scaled back.
Smith says new management implemented a new policy earlier this year: He could not cover anything to do with Adelson. The then-acting editor, Glenn Cook, regretfully conveyed the decision from publisher Craig Moon. Smith says he took issue: "I said, 'He's the one who sued me, he lost, and I'm conflicted?' "
Smith says Cook told him: "You can't do it or you'll be fired."
Soon after, the Adelson family announced its intent to build a football stadium to try to lure an NFL team to Las Vegas. 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 says although the stadium was a subject ripe for coverage, he didn't challenge his new restrictions and left it alone. At a journalism conference last weekend, however, Moyer, the new editor, publicly acknowledged that Smith was barred from writing about the Adelsons and their interests. Attendees tweeted out those remarks. One person present asked Moyer whether Smith could write about Steve Wynn, another billionaire casino magnate who had also sued the columnist in the 1990s. Smith was dismissed as a party from that lawsuit, which was unsuccessful.
On Monday, Moyer told Smith he couldn't write about Wynn, either.
Moyer arrived in Las Vegas after the decision was made by the new publisher, Moon, on coverage of Adelson. Moyer says he was simply affirming the policy that he fundamentally agreed with and extending it to Wynn.
"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," Moyer told NPR. "Invoking 'conflict of interest' restrictions might not be common in Nevada, but they are elsewhere."
Publicity around both the policy and Smith's decision to resign has triggered a new round of criticism aimed at the paper. Moyer argues that the criticism misses the point.
"The real question reporters should be asking is: 'Did Sheldon Adelson order the ban?' But I suspect they're not asking that because they've already made up their minds that he did. Shame on them," Moyer says.
He says he only took the job after Adelson promised him, in person, that neither he nor his family would ever interfere in newsroom matters. He says that promise has been kept. In addition, he says, the Adelsons have provided new resources to rebuild the newsroom that had been cut back significantly under previous owners.
Other reporters and columnists for the paper will scrutinize Adelson, Wynn and other powerful players, Moyer says.
Smith is 56 and says his financial circumstances mean he cannot yet afford to retire. He says he hopes to find a new home to report and write.
"In many areas we will be as tough or tougher than we ever were," Smith says, speaking as though he were still part of the Review-Journal's staff. "The question is whether we'll be able to carry on in some of the most important areas.
"I believe they show, day after day, that management is not mature enough or professional enough to let the reporters do their job, to let the columnists have their say, and put it in the public eye," Smith says.
This week, a team of Review-Journal reporters is in Oregon to receive a prominent prize in media ethics for coverage of the paper's secretive sale last year and for uncovering the Adelsons as the new owners. Smith is among them.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The most prominent columnist at the biggest newspaper in Nevada quit this week. He was told he could not write about two of the state's most powerful figures. One of them is the paper's new owner. Here's NPR's David Folkenflik.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Sheldon Adelson is the billionaire chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation. Late last year, he and his family bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal in a transaction intended to keep their identity a secret. A team from the Review-Journal newsroom revealed that secret. The columnist John L. Smith was among them.
JOHN L. SMITH: Adelson's not just a casino boss. He's King Kong of his casino bosses. When it comes to politics in Nevada, I don't think there is more powerful player. When it comes to politics in the Republican Party, there may be no more powerful player.
FOLKENFLIK: For nearly three decades, Smith wrote frequently about Adelson and the gambling and tourism businesses. In January, Smith says, he was told he could no longer write anything about Adelson because the billionaire had sued him over a passage in a 2005 book. The suit was dismissed, but the legal bills forced Smith to declare bankruptcy.
Keith Moyer, a veteran newspaper editor and publisher, came onboard as editor-in-chief in February. He praises Smith but kept the policy because he agrees with it.
KEITH MOYER: It's a conflict of interest for John. It was something that happened in a private situation and not something that he had done with the Review-Journal.
FOLKENFLIK: Smith objected but abided by the ban in his columns. Last weekend, the editor Keith Moyer learned that Adelson's rival Las Vegas casino mogul, Steve Wynn, had also sued Smith over a book in the 1990s, also unsuccessfully. Moyer banned Smith from writing about Wynn as well.
MOYER: John had a general interest column on our metro cover, and I don't think anywhere in his job description was that he was to be the only watchdog to cover the big movers and shakers here in Las Vegas.
FOLKENFLIK: Days after Smith was informed he couldn't write about the Adelsons, they announced plans to build a huge new stadium to draw an NFL team to Las Vegas. Moyer says the ban had nothing to do with the stadium plans. Once Steve Wynn was off-limits too, however, Smith said he could swallow no more.
SMITH: As a journalist, if you can't write about the major players, well, then you're really stuck, metaphorically speaking, writing about the gardening club. And you know, it takes all the fun out of the job.
FOLKENFLIK: Moyer says the Adelsons have kept promises to provide more funds to build up the newsroom and to stay out of newsroom decisions. But the Adelsons keep making headlines. Earlier today, the advocates for their NFL stadium plan conceded it would require three quarters of a billion dollars in public money. Moyer says there are no sacred cows, and he praises his paper's stadium coverage. Smith argues it falls short.
SMITH: We've certainly covered one side of it aggressively, of how great it will be if we can get an NFL team in Las Vegas. I noticed that we've covered that side of it pretty darn aggressively.
FOLKENFLIK: I reached Smith by phone in Oregon this morning. He's there with that team of reporters who revealed that Adelsons had secretly bought their paper. They're receiving a national award in journalism ethics. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.