It's too late to keep family feuds in dark, out of Sun standoff

The Donners seemed like nice people.

But then the days grew short and the winter grew cold. They took bad advice, made fatal choices, and got stuck in the snow high in the Sierra Nevada.

That’s when, you might say, the real backbiting began.

These days history doesn’t remember the Donner Party as a group of sturdy settlers who braved the elements in the name of Manifest Destiny. The Donners are remembered most as the folks who, when the going got tough, practiced cannibalism. This is their legacy.

Although I don’t expect he’ll appreciate it, I believe there’s a lesson in there for Las Vegas Sun editor and publisher Brian Greenspun.

Greenspun recently sued Stephens Media, owner and publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which is seeking to dissolve the joint operating agreement the newspapers signed in 1989 and amended in 2005. Stephens began the process following an Aug. 7 vote in which Greenspun’s brother and two sisters voted to end the JOA in exchange for specified compensation and consideration. It wasn’t a final contract. In fact, it wasn’t a contract at all, U.S. District Judge James Mahan reminded the warring parties Friday morning in denying Greenspun’s attempt to win a motion for temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction stalling the process. But the siblings’ vote was an undeniable reminder of how far apart the family is these days.

Instead of focusing on the Sun’s increasingly grim reality in 2013 and deciding to preserve the legacy of the newspaper family once headed by firebrand publisher Hank Greenspun, Brian Greenspun has decided to fight on against his own siblings’ wishes. It’s probably too late to tell him to go in another direction and, for instance, reinvent the Sun as a feisty alternative weekly with a hefty Web profile. He is determined to keep marching even as the snow gets deeper.

That almost guarantees he’ll eventually be forced to start chewing on his own family members, and they’ll be compelled to take bites out of him, too.

It’s little secret the siblings have been at odds over the family’s business interests. Last year’s appointment of corporate restructuring specialist Paul Hamilton as president of Greenspun Corp. was seen by some observers as a dramatic shift in the level of confidence in the company’s leadership.

In March, Susan Greenspun Fine sued her brother Brian, accusing him of defaulting on a $2 million personal loan.

Not to make too much of a single snapshot, but the lack of contact between Brian Greenspun and brother Danny Greenspun before Friday morning’s hearing was painful and telling.

Lots of families have squabbles. But in the pantheon of Las Vegas power, the Greenspuns aren’t just any family.

Even if the warring siblings aren’t added to the lawsuit, they’re bound to be thoroughly deposed as the litigation progresses. Under oath they will be compelled to answer questions about big brother’s business acumen and the decisions he made in recent years that cost the family millions.

That sort of legal probing would surely thrill Southern Nevadans who dislike the Sun’s politics and detest the Greenspuns’ influence, but a bloodbath wouldn’t likely result in a victory for the family’s editor-in-chief. It’s always possible such an airing of family secrets and vitriol would result in him looking like a First Amendment hero and Hank Greenspun’s torch-bearer, but it’s just as likely he’d be made a caricature of abject ineptitude.

Win or lose, such a struggle wouldn’t make the Sun any more viable. It would only savage the Greenspun family legacy.

From the sound of things, plaintiff Greenspun isn’t the least bit concerned. He doesn’t believe he’ll have to sue his brother and sisters, but he seems poised to carry on no matter how deep the snow gets.

“I don’t think it’s necessary on this,” Greenspun said after the hearing. “There may come a time for whole different reasons, that this thing might devolve into something. Who knows, families being families. But on this issue, on whether the Review-Journal can own the JOA and put the Sun out of business, I think the law is absolutely clear. ... My issue here is to save the Las Vegas Sun and save the two-newspaper market here. ... I have one concern, that is to keep the Las Vegas Sun alive. ... It’s the only concern I’ve ever had.”

He might have plenty of concern, but he has only one vote.

The simmering battle between the Greenspuns obviously isn’t lost on Stephens Media attorneys Donald Campbell and Colby Williams, who wrote in their recent opposition that the “case represents a poorly camouflaged attempt to transform a long-simmering family feud between the owners of the Las Vegas Sun” into an inflammatory antitrust suit.

Instead of walking toward the obviously setting Sun and being remembered as a guy who fought a good fight, Greenspun’s lawsuit threatens to gnaw the last bone of Hank Greenspun’s legacy and consume his family in the process.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.