The surreal Kabuki of a libel deposition


The life journalistic is usually a mundane and guileless routine, a recitation of news and commentary interspersed with features and photos interrupted betimes by some annoying contretemps.

Then you fall down the rabbit hole.

For me, the rabbit hole came in the form of a subpoena to be deposed in a libel lawsuit filed in California by Venetian hotel owner Sheldon Adelson against Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith over a couple of passages in his book "Sharks in the Desert: The Founding Fathers and Current Kings of Las Vegas."

The reason I was dragged into it was because the Review-Journal excerpted a couple of chapters and published them in the newspaper, including the one about Adelson, except we edited the chapter to a more appropriate newspaper length and omitted the portion that prompted the libel action.

So there I was in a tiny room in a downtown Las Vegas law office facing Los Angeles attorney Marty Singer, an aggressive plaintiff's lawyer to the stars whose style includes florid and bombastic letters threatening legal action and financial ruin on behalf of his famous and deep-pocketed clientele.

Because of Nevada's strict shield law, my questioning was supposed to be narrowly focused on the editing of the book excerpts, which I did personally.

I figured Singer had to be tuckered out after having just spent 5 1/2 billable hours deposing Smith in the same offices. That ordeal was later described to me as a brutal brow-beating.

I was at one end of the table, a videographer at the other, my two attorneys to my left, Singer and a court reporter to my right. During the half-hour questioning, I gave more than four dozen one or two-word answers: "yes," "no," "that's correct," "OK."

Dozens of smart-aleck replies raced through my head. Like the moment Singer asked me if I would "consider it interesting about Sheldon Adelson's beginning career, that he would ... that he had Boston-area vending machines when he was a young man, a teenager, that were the target of mob influence."

I wanted to blurt out that this is Las Vegas, and if you've not had some "mob influence" in your life you're a certified wallflower. Mob influences are old hat.

Instead, I politely stated the truth. "For the sake of brevity."

Singer kept referring to the statements in Smith's book as false in an apparent attempt to lull me into agreement, because for a public figure such as Adelson to prevail in a libel lawsuit, the statements about him must be shown to be false. Then you need to show the material was published either with malice or reckless disregard for the truth, which was why I was (apparently) being deposed -- to try to buoy some later legal argument, I guess, that an editor other than the one at Barricade Books had qualms about the passages in question.

Of course, you also have to prove damage. Damage? Since the book was published, Adelson has gone from 15th richest in the world to sixth.

Then it got weird, right before devolving into the utterly surreal.

The attorney simply could not leave without playing the malice card.

"Is it your belief that the Las Vegas Review-Journal has some sort of bias for Sheldon Adelson?" Singer asked.

My incredulous one-word reply, "No."

The equally ham-fisted follow-up was whether the newspaper had written many articles placing his client in a "negative light."

Same answer.

Then he pulls out this incredibly indecipherable third-generation photocopy of an article with a generic illustration of a clown with dollar signs for eyes. He had it marked Exhibit 43, apparently to be used as evidence the Review-Journal was biased against Adelson.

I later tracked down a legible copy of the article. It turns out it was a 1998 op-ed piece penned by now-Rep. Shelley Berkley in reply to an attack on her published the prior week in the Review-Journal and written by none other than ... Sheldon Adelson. His piece was on page 1 of the section, hers on page 3.

Adelson accused Berkley, whose election he was opposing with huge expenditures, of advising him, while in his employ as vice president of legal and government affairs, to do favors for county commissioners, get jobs for relatives, lease space to certain vendors. He proudly proclaimed he "wouldn't be extorted" and had fired Berkley.

In Berkley's reply, now Exhibit 43, she stated, "Over time, I observed Mr. Adelson plot vendettas against anyone whom he believed stood in his way. However minuscule the perceived affront, he was certain to go ballistic, using his money and position to bully any 'opponent' -- great or small -- into submission."

I'll gladly provide a legible copy of both articles to the jurors if the case ever gets that far.

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com.

 

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