Attack of the hacks

They tend to come in bunches. For months, even a few years, the national media will all but ignore Las Vegas. But then, for whatever reason — a lull in the news cycle, something in New York City’s water — the big newspapers and magazines get the collective itch to dispatch their scribes to Las Vegas.

For decades, those writers have spent a couple of days wandering the Strip and maybe ventured out to Industrial Road, then returned to the office with a head full of conclusions about what makes this city tick. The articles generated by these “parachute” journalists rarely live up to the reputations for quality in which these publications take pride. A trip to Las Vegas seems to spur even the best writers to regress to stereotypes and clichés.

For the incurious writer, Las Vegas is “Sin City,” the ultimate den of iniquity. The population consists of gamblers, strippers, hookers and mobsters. Everybody has an angle, everybody is on the take. There’s the Strip, and then there are some banal suburbs that can be summed up in one snarky line.

Las Vegas is dealing this week with its latest flurry of national media attention. Things actually started out reasonably well with New Yorker magazine architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s review of CityCenter. Although overall it’s a negative review, it does credit CityCenter for taking architecture seriously, in contrast to the kitschy themed resorts surrounding it. “Whether or not CityCenter manages to lure people away from theme-park hotels, you can, at least, imagine seeing it every day without getting sick of it,” he writes. Fair enough.

On Sunday, The New York Times got into the act with a story on Page One headlined, “Las Vegas Faces Its Deepest Slide Since 1940s.” Some local observers have declared Adam Nagourney’s article a “hit piece.” Although I’m not convinced that’s an entirely fair characterization, the article does paint a grim picture of the Las Vegas economy. The absence of some of the more encouraging numbers suggesting a stabilizing tourism industry was certain to miff local loyalists. But it’s equally true that Nagourney could have been even more brutal if he’d delved into the alarming economic picture beyond the still-bustling Strip.

Regardless of your take on the Times article, it was a gentle slap compared with the beat-down administered in the October issue of the Smithsonian magazine. The piece, “Las Vegas: An American Paradox,” is particularly distressing because it was written by J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author for whom I otherwise have great respect. Moehringer wrote the wonderful memoir “The Tender Bar,” and co-wrote Andre Agassi’s critically acclaimed autobiography, “Open.” But Moehringer’s article about Las Vegas — based on his two years here working with Agassi — is a stunning waste of paper and ink.

His first description of Las Vegas is, you guessed it, the inside of a strip club. The second bit of scene-setting: a billboard for a strip club. Then he summarizes the friends of his party-animal apartment neighbor: “slackers, strippers, jokers, yokels, models and moguls.” They make lots of noise, disrupting his writing.

Ah, but Moehringer is far from finished feeding the cliché machine. Here’s an actual sentence from his article: “Nothing says Vegas like swinging by Safeway at midnight for a quart of milk and seeing three grandmas feed their Social Security checks into the slots as if they were reverse ATMs.”

First of all, we don’t have Safeway stores in Las Vegas. He meant to say Vons, I assume. Also, haven’t journalists remarked upon elderly women playing slot machines about 10,000 times already? Tom Wolfe pretty well covered the “old babes” at the slots in a celebrated Esquire article about Las Vegas published in 1964.

Unsatisfied with small clichés, Moehringer offers a big one: “Vegas isn’t a real city. It’s a Sodom and Gomorrah theme park surrounded by hideous exurban sprawl and wasteland so barren it makes the moon look like an English rose garden.”

Sodom and Gomorrah? How many times have we had to endure that emaciated line? Haven’t there been a few “sin cities” to compare Las Vegas with since the time of the Old Testament? And Moehringer is only about 200 years late with his characterization of the forbidding landscape of the Southwest. In the more than two centuries since California-bound migrants found it difficult to love this rugged region, many people choosing to live and visit here have found great beauty and tranquility in the desert.

Moehringer’s false notes continue. He describes McCarran International Airport as “Purgatory,” without explaining why. He gives a rundown of prominent local news events — “a front-row seat at the apocalypse” — somehow suggesting that outside Las Vegas, there are no political scandals, armed robberies or medical malpractice cases. Please. (Oh, and for those writers who don’t get out much, Las Vegas hardly has an exclusive on topless clubs. Most cities of any size have a number of them.)

What grates for me is not the harsh criticism of Las Vegas. There’s plenty to criticize here. It’s the unrelenting litany of shoddy journalism that reduces Las Vegas to the same old handful of clichés. It’s lazy, embarrassing and, worst of all, boring.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal’s director of community publications. His column appears Friday.

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