As it enters the Adelson era, Review-Journal builds a master file of ‘perceived conflicts of interest’

On Monday, Michael Hengel, the editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, sent an assignment to his reporters over email. The task, as he later explained in an interview: Add to a document listing any “perceived conflicts of interest” between billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, patriarch of the family that now owns the paper, and their beats.

“We’re already working on a [standard disclaimer] phrase that we might need to use in stories or on the website and in the paper,” Hengel said.

Until then, Neal Morton may have become one of the first reporters at the paper to write his own, for an article published Monday about a new Nevada program that gives $5,000 grants to families who want to take their children out of public schools. After the article went live online, Morton cheekily tweeted: “I had the pleasure of writing my first Adelson disclaimer today—in a story about [education savings account] regulations.”

The subject matter of that story shows how wide Adelson’s influence spreads in Las Vegas—and how consistently the paper will have to acknowledge it, now that his family owns the paper.

Adelson is perhaps best known in national political circles for his hawkish views on Israel and his lavish support of favored Republican politicians. But in Vegas, his local footprint is, if anything, even more formidable. As chairman and CEO of the Sands Corp., he is a hugely important businessman and employer who has resisted all outside attempts to unionize his companies. He is also a significant philanthropic donor and the benefactor of a local Jewish school. (A Sands representative, Morton noted in his story, had testified before the legislature in favor of the school choice program.)

“I’ve never worked for an owner whose reach was that far and deep,” Hengel said. And, as the owner of an Israeli newspaper and someone with a history of suing journalists, Adelson hasn’t exactly cultivated the image of a hands-off media titan. [Update, 12/22: A few hours after this story was published, Hengel announced to staffers that he is taking a voluntary buyout.]

With the billionaire-owner model becoming more and more prevalent among American newspapers, the Review-Journal is hardly the first outlet to have to grapple with questions about conflicts of interest and potential interference from ownership. For that matter, it’s not even the first paper in Las Vegas to do so. But Adelson’s persona and presence in Vegas loom so large—and the circumstances of the paper’s sale have been so strange—that those issues have been brought into stark relief.

As Hengel’s email suggests, the staff of the Review-Journal is keenly sensitive to the stakes. An editorial published Dec. 19, soon after the Adelson family was outed as the owner, vowed to “disclose, disclose, disclose” and to “fight to keep your trust every day.” The following day, a detailed checklist compared Adelson’s views and interests on a range of issues to the established position of the editorial board—and highlighted several issues where, if Adelson decides to dictate editorial positions, it would amount to a “complete reversal.” And columnist John L. Smith, a Las Vegas Valley fixture and the target of one of Adelson’s most aggressive lawsuits, wrote that Adelson “is precisely the wrong person to own this or any newspaper” (though he conceded that “the family deserves the chance to make good on its stated intentions”).

The news side, meanwhile, has won wide praise for its coverage of the deal, beginning with a report last week that detailed how Adelson had engaged his son-in-law, Patrick Dumont, to pay the inflated purchase price of $140 million; that story apparently prompted the Adelson family to come forward as the buyer, after a week of mystery. Dumont is also an executive at the Sands Corp. 

The R-J followed that up with an astounding tale that would make anyone’s list of The Weirdest Media Stories of 2015. The story defies simple summation, but it involves several R-J journalists receiving an unusual assignment from corporate offices, a month before the sale was announced, to monitor three local judges. The reporters wound up amassing 15,000 words, which they uploaded to a drive, where, as far as anyone at the paper knows, they remain unread to this day, according to Hengel.

Then, in late November, a strange story appeared in a small Connecticut daily with connections to the corporate shell company used by the Adelsons for the R-J purchase. A spotty analysis of business courts around the country, attributed to a freelance writer no one has been able to track down, it included lengthy, critical observations about one of the Las Vegas judges the R-J had been keeping tabs on—who happens to be presiding over a major case involving Adelson. 

From the start, the assignment “made no sense,” Hengel said, adding, “None of us have ever been involved anything like that—and I’ve been in the news business for 40 years.”

There has been no evidence to date conclusively tying the judge assignment to the R-J sale. But, said Dan Kennedy, an associate journalism professor at Northeastern University and author of the “Media Nation” blog, “the whole story about the judge makes you feel like [Adelson] is off to a bad start … [and] like he has the potential to not leave the paper alone.”

Adelson’s history of conflict with the media raises further questions. In addition to several lawsuits targeting American journalists, he has a contentious history with a TV news channel in Israel, where he owns a right-wing newspaper; several journalists resigned after Adelson succeeded in obtaining a public apology from the station in 2011, according to Israeli news reports. Adelson and his Israeli paper are feuding with the station again just this week, contesting a court order obtained by the station that would make public details of his phone conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Hengel said the Review-Journal’s veteran casino reporter, Howard Stutz, has “reached out” to the Adelson family, with whom editors “would like to sit down…[and] ask all the questions we can imagine about how the paper will be operated going forward.” Such a meeting hasn’t happened yet, he said, because Adelson isn’t in Las Vegas. (Adelson representatives have not responded to inquiries from CJR since word of his involvement in the sale broke.)

For all the apprehension swirling about the sale, it does also raise the prospect of greater investment in the paper—the upside of local-billionaire ownership. In an anodyne statement last week, the Adelson family said it “wants a journalism product that is second-to-none and will continue to invest in the paper to achieve this goal.” And in a Dec. 22 message published on the paper’s website, the new owners said they “will deepen the newspaper’s involvement with the community and invest what is necessary to ensure that the R-J is reporting news in the ways our community expects.”

Patrick C. McDonnell, who served as an editor at both the Review-Journal and its rival and JOA partner, the Las Vegas Sun, said he observed occasional conflicts between news coverage at the Sun and the interests of its owner, Brian Greenspun. He also noted that Greenspun’s relationship to the community and thick bankroll resulted—at least for a time—in spending on accomplished journalists who were leaving precarious situations at other papers. In 2009, the Sun won a Pulitzer for public service. (The Sun itself has since shed much of its staff. And—necessary disclosure—I worked at the Sun from 2001 to 2009.)

James DeHaven, whose byline has been atop many of the stories the Review-Journal has published on Adelson’s purchase of the paper, told me he remains confident about the ability of his colleagues to resist any pressure.

When news of the sale broke, DeHaven himself was already scheduled to leave the paper for the Helena Independent, with Dec. 24 being his last day. At a send-off party Friday at Tenaya Creek Brewery, he said, “there was more beer than at other going-away parties I’ve been to—maybe out of frustration, or anticipation, or because there was more steam to blow off.”

DeHaven said he is looking forward to a slower pace and smaller town at his new paper, not to mention “more hunting and fishing.” He hopes to get out one more story on his last day. Moving forward, he said, “At least I can be confident that my colleagues know what they’re doing and will keep doing it—regardless of who signs their paychecks.”

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Timothy Pratt is a journalist based in the Atlanta area. He has written for The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, and many other publications. He also lived in Las Vegas and worked for the Las Vegas Sun from 2001-2009.