Covering somebody who’s suing you

The WSJ sticks it to Sheldon Adelson by keeping a reporter on the beat

Francine McKenna asked a good question on Twitter the other day about Wall Street Journal coverage of Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands: Is it okay for the reporter Kate O’Keeffe to cover Adelson while he’s suing her for libel?

The short answer is yes, and it’s worth unpacking why.

Back in December, the Journal published a story about a lawsuit exposing corporate infighting between Adelson and his senior executive in China. Adelson is steamed that the paper called him “a scrappy, foul-mouthed billionaire from working-class Dorchester, Mass.”

Seriously. That’s what he’s suing O’Keeffe over.

We trust the Journal got it correct when it reported that Adelson has a foul mouth (which doesn’t exactly seem like a stretch, now does it?), and will until shown otherwise.

But even if the paper got it wrong, suing somebody who calls you “foul-mouthed” for libel is pretty frivolous. You’d think becoming a billionaire 27 times over—in the casino business, no less—would buy you a thick skin. Apparently not.

Despite the fact that Alexandra Berzon shared the byline, Adelson is only suing O’Keeffe. He’s not even suing the WSJ or News Corporation.

So what’s going on here?

Adelson has a history of suing the press, as John L. Smith noted in The Daily Beast a few months ago. Adelson sued Smith into bankruptcy in 2007 over a passage in a book he wrote. A judge later ordered Adelson to pay Smith’s attorney’s court costs and Adelson later dropped the case.

Smith also reports that Adelson has also sued the Daily Mail and the late Las Vegas reporter Jeff Simpson (twice).

The WSJ and O’Keeffe have had some good scoops on the serious federal corruption investigations into Las Vegas Sands—reporting Adelson presumably didn’t like.

By keeping O’Keeffe on the beat, the Journal is telling Adelson (and future lawsuit-happy folks) that it won’t be bullied into soft-pedaling coverage and that it won’t let him control who covers him and his company. Reassigning O’Keeffe would have effectively let him do that.

The Journal and O’Keeffe get the benefit of the doubt on their objectivity regarding Adelson and his casino company. She’s a pro, and everything has to go through editors anyway.

The WSJ is doing exactly the right thing here.

(home page photo via bectrigger)

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,