Truth to power: Why the RJ’s ethics problem is a problem for us all

It was only a matter of time until things were going to go sideways at the Las Vegas Review Journal* campus.

A stranger-than-fiction mystery buyer drama that got headlines from around the nation (and revealed billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson as the new owner) earned intrepid RJ reporters the esteemed Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism from the School of Journalism and Communication. Perhaps the universe has a wicked sense of humor or perhaps Catch-22 is a better prognosticator than we thought because as RJ journalists prepared to fly to Oregon to collect their award at the University of Oregon campus (Go Ducks!) a new ethical quandary erupted on Bonanza Road.

Just as the RJ is also featured in the Society for Professional Journalists magazine as heroes of ethics (PDF) during the Adelson ownership saga, on April 25, John L. Smith resigned from the RJ after 30 years at the newspaper. Smith, a well-known and award-winning columnist, announced his resignation publicly in a letter titled “Job Opening: Columnist” that was posted to twitter and said, in part:

I learned many years ago about the importance of not punching down in weight class. You don’t hit “little people” in this craft, you defend them. In Las Vegas, a quintessential company town, it’s the blowhard billionaires and their political toadies who are worth punching. And if you don’t have the freedom to call the community’s heavyweights to account, then that “commentary” tag isn’t worth the paper on which it’s printed.

It isn’t always easy to afflict the comfortable and question authority, but it’s an essential part of the job. And although I’ve fallen short of the mark many times over the past three decades, this is a job I’ve loved.

Smith’s words are stirring, especially to those of us who love this thing called journalism. The Fourth Estate has been somewhat tarnished of late, but there are still many of us who heed that higher calling to aim true and, yes, to afflict those whose comfort is bought on the backs of the little people through corruption, or worse.

That’s the whole point of the Fourth Estate, which is the nickname for the members of the media who keep the powerful in check. (It’s a reference to the so-called three estates of government.) I believe deeply in that covenant. It’s why I started The Sin City Siren nine years ago. It’s why I don’t stop – even when I’ve been threatened by those in power. (And yes, that includes the threat of lawsuits.)

Smith resigned after Adelson’s appointed editor in chief, Keith Moyer, publicly announced that the columnist would not be allowed to write about either Adelson or Steve Wynn, because both had at one time sued Smith for libel. He could have opted to allow Smith to continue to do his job – by openly disclosing his history with Wynn and Adelson whenever he wrote about them (the latter of whom buried Smith in court paperwork to the point the columnist went bankrupt). Instead Moyer, either by higher bidding or by personal decision influenced by a fear of Adelson, chose to send a terrible message to the public: The RJ’s voice has been bought and they will kowtow to any force that sues them.

Think about it. The precedent has been set. If you are a powerful figure with the means to sue a journalist at the RJ, you can count on the newspaper to fold under pressure. Furthermore, this editorial decision has a chilling effect on the tenacity of reporters in the newsroom. Why would anyone stick their neck out to challenge authority or push for the truth when they know that the institution that employs them won’t have their back, or worse, won’t print the story.

As Jon Ralston wrote:

I talked briefly to Smith last night and this morning. He knew it was “impossible” to do his job after the Adelson stooge’s edict. Moyer had a choice: Let Smith write columns with full disclosure or set a standard that anyone can sue his reporters to shut them up. After the way he has played stories involving Adelson, on his stadium and his company’s earnings, Moyer’s true colors already were known.

On a personal note, Smith and I have had differences over the years, some quite severe. But I can’t help but admire his decision to leave, especially with his well-known need for health insurance for his daughter and himself, both of who have had serious illnesses. It took courage, something lacking in the management shills now posing as journalists over there.

I know for those outside of journalism this might just seem like a lot of internal navel-gazing. Why should readers care if a columnist is prohibited from writing about arguably the two most powerful men in Nevada?

Here’s why: trust.

How do you trust the stories from a media outlet? This is when readers have to weigh what they know about media ownership and any other biases with what they read. Does it matter that shortly after Adelson bought the RJ their editorial bent did a 180-degree turn on publicly funded projects, such as Adelson’s proposed stadium? Did editorial decisions change because of Adelson? Are hiring decisions being filtered through Adelson or his proxies? If so – what stories are NOT being told because of that? What sources are not being heard? What questions are not being asked?

All of the sudden, you start to see how dominos keep falling. And as they fall, they erode the public’s trust more and more – until there’s nothing left.

Considering that the RJ parent company owns the largest media company in Nevada, that also starts to color how business is done industry wide in our market. If the RJ will back down when sued, will Greenspun Media? Or even where I work at Vegas Seven (Wendoh Media)? These things matter not only at the publication where they are happening, but also because they can be a harbinger for the status quo in a community. That matters.

There is one more reason to care what happens at the RJ. If journalism is the Fourth Estate – the watchers holding the line against corrupted power – then the readers are the last fail-safe in that system. Call them the Fifth Estate or whatever you want, but readers are the ones who watch the watchers. In an ideal world, the readers hold our feet to the fire and apply the smell test to our own work. Does it smell fishy? Then readers should vote with their dollars and clicks by not subscribing to media outlets that are unethical. Don’t click and share stories from outlets that don’t pass the smell test. (I know the weekly coupons are tempting from the paper subscription, but you know you can get those online for free, right?)

I am deeply troubled by what is happening at the RJ compound. And even more so, I feel the great loss of longtime journalists (including editor Jim Wright, who also left this week) and the vast institutional knowledge and history they take with them. The fact that John L. Smith has covered gaming in this town for 30 years is significant. He has a history and knowledge of Las Vegas that it is damn near impossible to match as a reporter with less experience or knowledge of our community. We all lose when journalists with that kind of experience disappear from the media landscape.

*Full Disclosure: I worked for the parent company that then-owned the RJ from 2000-2004 and again from 2005-2007.

Check back for more new columns, read more of my work at Vegas Seven, follow me @TheSinCitySiren and get daily news on Facebook.

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