Why the R-J gave Harry hell

When people yelled, “Give ’em hell, Harry,” Harry Truman replied, “I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.” Today’s version, 60-plus years later, is rooted here in Las Vegas, with the Review-Journal giving another Harry hell, him returning the favor, and the rest of us left to wonder whether the feud is entertaining, historic or lamentable. Actually, it’s all three.

In 2004, after years of attacking Sen. Harry Reid as a liberal, R-J publisher Sherman Frederick wrote that Reid’s persistence and knowledge of the Senate in making Sloan Canyon a national conservation area “caused me to rethink the meaning of power and seniority in Congress. Reid is probably the most powerful elected Nevadan … ever.” Frederick retained doubts about Reid, given that he hadn’t stopped Yucca Mountain, but later that year, the R-J endorsed Reid over opponent Richard Ziser, who made a smaller impression than a laundry mark.

Although Reid, in the years since, appears to have stopped Yucca Mountain, Frederick seems to have forgotten his brief enthusiasm for the senator—judging from the steady escalation of blogs against Reid and columns even beyond his usual Sunday appearances. Reid hasn’t made nice, either. At a Chamber of Commerce luncheon last year, he told the R-J’s ad manager he hoped the paper went out of business. Frederick howled that Reid was trying to shut down the newspaper.

That dust-up was silly—on both sides. Reid shouldn’t have said it (even if he was joking), and Frederick should have studied Nevada history more attentively. In Truman’s time, Sen. Pat McCarran found one local editor so offensive he helped organize a conspiracy to deprive him of advertising from every major Las Vegas casino—and kept critical editors from getting printing contracts that helped them stay in business. By McCarran’s standard, Reid wouldn’t have even been on the radar.

The Reid/R-J relationship has worsened recently, as you may have noticed. Frederick believes Reid has become a Beltway liberal who’s forgotten the home folks. He’s entitled to his opinion. But life and journalism are never that simple:

  • Historically, Nevada newspapers have been partisan, whether on the opinion page or the front page. The R-J’s very first issue, as the Clark County Review in 1909, promised it would be Democratic, “provided the Democrats behave themselves and ‘come across’ occasionally.” During McCarran’s tenure, the R-J was virtually his house organ. In the 1960s, Publisher Don Reynolds ordered coverage skewed for Democrats, reportedly in hopes of an appointment as ambassador. Now it’s skewed toward the GOP. Maybe it’s their turn.
  • Frederick became a Republican last June. And he isn’t the only publisher to switch parties. The Sun’s Brian Greenspun had already become a Democrat. Not that that inspired Frederick to go the other way, though those two probably couldn’t agree that water is wet. Their disagreements go all the way back to when the Sun rose under Brian’s father, Hank—the editor McCarran tried to shutter.
  • A Joint Operating Agreement between the two papers in 1989 eventually led to the Sun appearing inside the R-J and pursuing a different approach. While the R-J has been more a paper of record, the Sun aims for an in-depth approach. (In both cases, it can produce fine journalism.)

The Sun now reaches all R-J subscribers. Since that change, the R-J has been more transparent politically. The editorial pages are opinionated, as they should be, but their influence on coverage and placement brings more attention to Reid’s problems than, oh, Republican Sen. John Ensign’s wandering … eyes. Some reporters never quote a Democrat or liberal—except when a conservative or Republican immediately provides a contradiction.

That isn’t quite printing the news and raising hell, but it’s traditional here. And Frederick should remember that Truman once threatened to kick a newspaperman in the jewels. The First Amendment gives the R-J the right to kick Harry Reid. It also gives him the right to kick back—and if fair coverage is the issue, the R-J has it coming.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada and author of several books and articles on Nevada history and politics.