I passed on a Steve Wynn story over a decade ago. Here’s why

The Wynn casino in Las Vegas. Photo: Alex Proimos/flickr.

In March 2007, an email arrived in the inbox devoted to my Vegas interview podcast, The Strip, that should have piqued my attention more than it did.

“I used to be a cocktail waitress at the Wynn,” its anonymous author wrote from a Yahoo email address. “I’ve read your stories about Las Vegas and want to tell a journalist my story about something Steve Wynn did to me sexually when I worked there. Are you interested in my story?”

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The correct answer would have been to simply say yes, ask the woman if we could meet, and be attentive and empathetic to her understandable skittishness and lack of media experience.

Instead, I wrote back: “Hi there. Thanks for writing me. I guess I’d need to know if you had any proof of whatever happened? It’s a pretty bold allegation, and journalists have to be very careful about these things. Have you spoken to the police?  Some people might wonder if you’re trying to get money from Steve Wynn? How public are you willing to be about this?”

The author wrote back only once: “No, I don’t have any proof. And I don’t want any money.”

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I never heard from her again. I sent one follow-up note asking if we could speak in person. The author didn’t reply, and I probably thought my doubts had been confirmed. I don’t even remember. Her email, I learned this week, no longer works.

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I can’t know if this woman’s tale of the disgraced and now dethroned gambling mogul is among those now being reported by The Wall Street Journal, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and Las Vegas’s local Fox affiliate.

What I do know is I never found out because I handled the interaction precisely the wrong way, without sensitivity or tact. I screwed up. It’s easy now to smack my forehead over my response. But I’m certain the blunt way I tried to suss out the credibility of this accusation was typical, especially among male reporters, up until maybe last year.

This all came to mind this week because the Review-Journal, where I worked from 1996 to 1999 before my 12-year freelance career in Nevada, is enduring another round of name-calling from the journalistic community after it acknowledged that previous editors, publishers, and owners chose to spike a well-reported story about allegations against Wynn written by reporter Carri Geer Thevenot in 1998. According to Geer Thevenot, who was a friend back then and has long been a journalist of exceptional integrity, the bosses forced the women into polygraph tests but eventually killed the piece anyway.

I’m certain the blunt way I tried to suss out the credibility of this accusation was typical, especially among male reporters, up until maybe last year.

The publisher at the time, Sherman Frederick, now says he does not recall the episode; that claim is doing neither him nor his former institution any favors. Geer Thevenot’s recollections are specific and well documented. It’s difficult to fathom how this rather sensational set of events could have been so forgettable to him—or why it does him any good to say so in the face of evidence Geer Thevenot reported having this week, including a 20-year-old copy of the piece complete with editing notes.

I didn’t know of this episode when it happened, and several newsroom figures who might have are now deceased. But as easy as it is to fault those in charge in 1998 for over-lawyering the piece and failing to believe the accusers, the truth is that a lot of journalism was like that until very recently.

The #MeToo reckoning taking place demands some honest introspection and revision by the media. Today, the press believes the Wynn story was killed because the Las Vegas media was in the tank for the gaming industry. This is a popular fallacy: The Review-Journal and the Sun in that era were engaged in a great, classic newspaper war that included plenty of investigative journalism and unflattering reporting on the casino business. And the idea that the Review-Journal is only now more willing to take on the big boys is absurd when you remember the reason it’s become a conflict-of-interest laughingstock—it is now owned by the family of the world’s wealthiest gambling tycoon, Sheldon Adelson.

No, in 1998—and even in 2007 when I received that email about Wynn—most reporters simply handled sexual assault and impropriety allegations differently. Remember, 1998 was also the year Newsweek fumbled its scoop about Monica Lewinsky—Matt Drudge ran it instead. Journalists like Kim Masters and Sharon Waxman say reporters knew pieces of the Harvey Weinstein saga for the past 15 years, but were prevented from publishing.

The Geer Thevenot episode also took place soon after Wynn sued Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith and his book publisher, Lyle Stuart, for various perceived indignities related to Smith’s biography of Wynn and the publisher’s promotional material for it.  In August 1997, Wynn’s lawyers called Nevada’s sitting governor and Las Vegas’s sitting mayor to testify about Wynn’s character. Wynn won a $3.1 million settlement which bankrupted the publisher, even though it was overturned by the Nevada Supreme Court.  The week of the verdict, the Los Angeles Times wrote about the case under the headline, “Is It Getting Easier to Win Libel Suits?” That’s what the Review-Journal was up against.

Until very recently, journalists could comfortably decide our hands were tied if nobody went to the police, if a victim waited longer than we determined logical to say something, if there were no witnesses, and if the accuser insisted on anonymity. It wasn’t right, but it was the way business was done. What’s more, as strange as it seems now, the distinction between infidelity and abuse-of-power sexual intimidation or coercion was barely understood. Unless the garden-variety infidelity was being committed by someone, usually a politician or member of the clergy, whose strident public morality stances were hypocritical given their personal behavior, it was extremely risky for journalists to write about it.

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Today, thanks to The New York Times’s groundbreaking reporting on the Weinstein scandal and the other stories that have followed, we have a different template. But we also have more of the things that we craved for backup in prior eras: accusers willing to go on the record, compelling contemporaneous evidence of the incident, sometimes even reports to police or other authorities, as in the cases of Bill Cosby and Larry Nassar.

I’ve wondered this week what I might have done had I not scared off the Wynn accuser in 2007. Wynn was one of my best sources for terrific scoops in my other reporting. I certainly didn’t go easy on him; in many interviews I posted on my podcast, you could hear us arguing, me telling him his statements were untrue or unbelievable. He seemed to enjoy being challenged, to relish the parrying. Our listeners lived for the Wynn episodes, specifically to hear me get harangued by Wynn for saying something that displeased him.

So, yeah, I wouldn’t have wanted to shut down that story spigot. But, also, who would have let me write about anonymous allegations against the state’s most prominent figure? Would the then-staid New York Times, for whom I wrote frequently, have opened itself up at the time to accusations of sensationalism? Would anyone—other than Wynn’s attorneys—have paid attention if I’d posted it on my blog?

“We live in a different world now,” former US Representative Shelley Berkley, a Nevada Democrat, told me Wednesday as I helped The New York Times cover the fallout from Wynn’s resignation as chairman and CEO of his namesake conglomerate. “We know more now about this. I really don’t know what would have happened if the Review-Journal story had run in 1998. Probably very little.”

It’s a new day for the journalism of sexual impropriety. Some worry the media is overcorrecting, publishing any and all allegations without due diligence. The Washington Post’s resistance to a deliberately planted fake claim against then-Senate candidate Roy Moore shows how we can and must use discretion and caution.

Itt’s time for journalists everywhere to dust off those old notebooks and dig through those old emails. I cannot be the only reporter who received a potential bombshell but didn’t detonate it because of the climate of the times.

Journalists mustn’t be ashamed that they squandered potential scoops in the pre-Weinstein era. Instead, they should pursue them anew.

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Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor and a journalism instructor at Michigan State University. Follow him at @SteveFriess.