Casino titan Sheldon Adelson likes to tell the story of his early days as a newsboy in Boston, elbowing the bigger kids for a chance to hawk nickel dailies on the street corner. It's an inspiring tale torn straight from the pages of Horatio Alger.
The scrapper from Dorchester has come a long way since then, and today ranks among the world's richest men, but this past week we learned Adelson has entered the local newspaper business in a big way. Not on a street corner, but as the proxy owner of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
After being pulled from the shadows of a Delaware LLC by intrepid Review-Journal reporters, the Adelson family made its jaw-dropping $140 million acquisition official and insisted in a statement that it has only the best interests of the community and journalism in mind. We'll see.
Perhaps the approaching backstretch of the 2016 presidential election, in which Adelson plays such a large role as a Republican Party mega-donor, is merely coincidence. But he wouldn't be the first wealthy businessman to buy a newspaper and play press baron, and his family already owns the right-wing daily Israel Hayom.
Adelson has every right, and certainly the bankroll, to buy this newspaper. In theory, at least, a local ownership group might bring an improved sensitivity to the needs of the community in one of America's most complex company towns.
But Adelson is precisely the wrong person to own this or any newspaper. His disdain for the working press and its prickly processes is palpable — and easily illustrated by his well-known litigiousness.
I experienced this first hand when Adelson sued me for a few lines I'd written in my 2005 book "Sharks in the Desert: The Founding Fathers and Current Kings of Las Vegas." At the time, my daughter Amelia was being treated for brain cancer. After an excruciating civil process, during which I was forced to declare bankruptcy, the case was dismissed with prejudice by U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Bruce Markell, who declared me the prevailing party.
Now consider a current Adelson litigation involving Macau gaming reporter Kate O'Keeffe of The Wall Street Journal. She's being sued personally — not her powerhouse newspaper — in a Hong Kong court for calling him a "scrappy, foul-mouthed billionaire from working-class Dorchester" in an article. The allegation would be laughable except for the fact Adelson can afford to spend any amount on attorneys.
If Adelson wants to send a signal that he now has a more enlightened view of press freedom, then he could do so by dismissing the specious O'Keeffe lawsuit.
Then there's the civil case involving Macau businessman Richard Suen, in which Adelson hired renowned attorney Alan Dershowitz to perform the equivalent of a legal back flip in an effort to have the press and public barred from viewing the court proceedings. When that failed, Dershowitz — who had once argued so eloquently for the importance of camera access in the courtroom — tried to make the case for banning cameras from the trial. Dershowitz failed.
Going forward, reporters will be challenged when attempting to cover issues involving Adelson, whose amazing Macau casino gambit has proven so lucrative and so controversial — not to mention his competition in the gaming industry. Readers will be inclined to filter every story through the knowledge that it's being printed in an Adelson newspaper.
When it comes to politics, there may be no bigger corporate player than Adelson, whose obsession with funding a winning Republican presidential candidate appears to know no limits. Nevada will be a swing state in 2016, and Review-Journal reporters will fight every day against the perception the newspaper's pages reflect Adelson's views.
Where's the firewall between ownership and the newsroom? Given Adelson's reputation as a micromanager, it had better be made of asbestos. The purchase of the Review-Journal signals a tectonic shift in the political landscape of Las Vegas and Nevada and has the potential to reverberate all the way to the White House.
Sheldon Adelson can buy the newspaper. It's his right. For a man of his means, that's the easy part. And the family deserves the chance to make good on its stated intentions.
But Adelson can't purchase the credibility of an independent press. That has to be earned every day on the street by reporters, columnists and editors who must be able to throw elbows without fear or favor — even at the new boss.