Correction Follies

Vegas paper compounds confusion of a bungled rewrite

Business news is complicated, so mistakes happen. But there is no excuse for “fixing” the problem with an indecipherable correction.

That’s what happened after a late-December piece in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. A reporter rewrote a convoluted gambling-investigation story that had appeared a couple of days earlier in the Newark, New Jersey, Star-Ledger. In the course of describing the earlier story, about an on-going and ever-more-complicated investigation by New Jersey officials into a controversial MGM gambling partnership, the Vegas reporter got it all wrong. Then a pair of corrections published by the Review-Journal in late December and early January compounded the confusion.

Our main gripe here is with that pair of corrections. As far as the story itself goes: we don’t love rewrites, especially rewrites gone wrong. But the reporter has done solid work on shady gambling deals in the past, and presumably will continue to do so in the future. Yes, he made factual mistakes with this piece, but that alone would not have warranted our attention. Reporters make mistakes all the time in the pressures of daily journalism. But after reading the opaque correction, we still weren’t sure what the right story was. This is inexcusable.

A representative of the paper’s legal department refused to comment, so we’ll examine the correction on our own.

The news event here is another chapter in The Audit’s favorite gambling saga: New Jersey’s investigation into MGM’s casino partnership in Macau with international casino player Pansy Ho. The New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement has been investigating this partnership for three years, and the outcome will determine whether MGM gets a casino license for a $5 billion project in New Jersey. State officials there are attempting to discern whether Pansy Ho’s ties to her billionaire father, Stanley Ho—who is reported to have connections to organized crime—are strong enough to warrant a license denial to MGM.

This is the third time we have written about the New Jersey investigation, which seems to breed journalistic slip-ups.

The specific issue at hand involves a possible conflict-of-interest within the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement. Star-Ledger reporter Judy DeHaven wrote December 27 that:

The division has come under scrutiny because four of its investigators have been freelancing for a South Jersey casino consulting firm, Spectrum Gaming, which conducted its own investigation of the Hos and wrote a report detailing allegations of links between Stanley Ho and Chinese “triads” and raising questions about Pansy Ho’s independence from her father.

For those who aren’t familiar with the details of the story: DeHaven is essentially saying that the possible conflict of interest arose because investigators from the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement had been freelancing for a consulting firm that had previously written a report critical of Ho and her father. The nuances of DeHaven’s sentence become clear when we read its distortion in Review-Journal article headlined “Gaming officials built dossiers”:

New Jersey gaming investigators moonlighting for a consulting firm compiled the information for two explosive investigative dossiers leaked online earlier this year about MGM Mirage’s Macau business partner Pansy Ho and her father, Stanley Ho, a report from a New Jersey newspaper revealed this week.

The problem is that the Star-Ledger didn’t report this. It reported that New Jersey investigators freelanced for Spectrum, and that Spectrum had written a report on the Hos. The Review-Journal piece wrongly connected these two pieces of information, making the assumption that the New Jersey investigators had worked on the Spectrum report.

The New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement is indeed walking a fine line here, especially because Spectrum had compiled the critical report for a competitor of MGM, Las Vegas Sands. But here is what DeHaven wrote about that:

All four of the division investigators received written approval from their division director before accepting work from Spectrum, as required by state rules, said Peter Aseltine, spokesman for the attorney general. And the founder of Spectrum, Fred Gushin, a former assistant division director and former New Jersey assistant attorney general, said none of their work for his firm overlapped with their duties at the division, including the Macau investigation.

Essentially, the Las Vegas Review-Journal presented the relationship between Spectrum and the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement as more questionable than the Star-Ledger reported it to be—without presenting evidence beyond the Star-Ledger story.

Here is the Review-Journal again:

In 2003, according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger report, Spectrum Gaming was hired to compile the report on Pansy and Stanley Ho for Las Vegas Sands Corp. Spectrum also was instrumental in helping the casino operator win its Singapore bid.

The first sentence is correct. The second makes an unsupported leap. Here is what DeHaven reported:

In 2003, Spectrum was hired by an MGM rival, Venetian owner Las Vegas Sands, to investigate the Hos. Two years later, the Singapore government hired Spectrum to help it vet casino applicants. Gushin said the work the division investigators did for his firm was disclosed to the Singapore government before it hired Spectrum, and officials there saw no conflict.

Now for the published corrections.

The Review-Journal printed two lengthy corrections of its article, on two different dates at the behest of Spectrum. But the corrections only add more confusion.

Here is the Review-Journal’s early January correction restating the role the New Jersey investigators reportedly played—or, rather, didn’t play—in the Spectrum report:

In a Dec. 29 business story, headlined ‘Gaming officials built dossiers,’ it was incorrectly reported that New Jersey gaming investigators were hired by Spectrum Gaming Group to assist in its investigative work and that they compiled the information for investigative dossiers leaked online earlier this year about MGM Mirage’s Macau business partner Pansy Ho and her father. The Review-Journal regrets any confusion created by this error.

What about the confusion created by the correction? There are three key pieces of information in the corrective sentence, and its wording makes all of them sound like they are wrong. In fact, one is true, one is unclear and one is false.

True: “[I]nvestigators were hired by Spectrum Gaming Group.” This is undisputed.

Unclear: These investigators were hired “to assist in [Spectrum’s] investigative work.” It is not entirely clear to us what the investigators’ jobs at Spectrum entailed. New Jersey officials approved the freelance jobs, as DeHaven reports, but state Attorney General Anne Milgram is still reviewing their work and whether there was a conflict of interest.

False: The New Jersey investigators “compiled the information for investigative dossiers leaked online earlier this year about MGM Mirage’s Macau business partner Pansy Ho and her father.” Spectrum says that the investigators were not working on the Macau investigation, according to DeHaven. This is the heart of the Review-Journal story’s mistake, and should not have been woven in with the other points in the correction.

Part of the confusion here results from the fact that the Review-Journal article cited the Star-Ledger as its source, but the correction retracts its statements about Spectrum directly. So the correction sounds like it is retracting both the Review-Journal’s and the Star-Ledger’s assertions—which, as far as the unsuspecting reader knows, are one and the same. In reality, the Review Journal’s retracted statements about Spectrum were a distortion of the original piece. The original piece produced no retractions.

In fact we have noted Judy DeHaven’s solid reporting before on this issue, although not by name.

The Review-Journal made one more correction, this one dated December 30. It reads:

In Saturday’s edition, a Business story incorrectly reported that Spectrum Gaming helped Las Vegas Sands win a bid for a Singapore casino. Spectrum, a casino consulting firm, was retained by the government of Singapore, Ministry of Home Affairs, to conduct due diligence investigations of all applicants for proposed resorts. Spectrum did not assist any applicant in the process.

So, if you manage to work your way through all of these corrections, you will realize that the Review-Journal has essentially retracted the entire article, even if you may not realize what the real story is.

Again, this is a labyrinthine story. Mistakes happen. But a correction should do just that: correct them. Here, despite printing two corrections with a combined 165 words, the Las Vegas Review-Journal does a disservice to its readers—not to mention implicitly slighting the Star-Ledger. These corrections may have avoided a lawsuit from Spectrum, but what works for a paper’s legal department doesn’t necessarily work for anyone else.

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Elinore Longobardi is a Fellow and staff writer of The Audit, the business-press section of Columbia Journalism Review.