Carnage at the R-J: a retrospective

Stephens Media Group replaced Las Vegas Review-Journal publisher Sherm Frederick, now a columnist/consultant, with advertising director Bob Brown on Nov. 12. Editor Tom Mitchell became “senior opinion editor,” which sounds like he’ll be visiting local Sun City communities to gauge seniors’ views. With a full-time publisher, as opposed to Frederick doubling as Stephens CEO, general manager Allan Fleming lost his job.

Newspapers are capable of reporting well on anything but themselves, so don’t expect the R-J to explore these changes. The Sun tried, but Mitchell hung up on its reporter, as he did when the Los Angeles Times tried to interview him about biased local news coverage of Harry Reid.

Hence the speculation that Reid’s victory triggered the upheaval, which probably wouldn’t have happened if profits had remained strong. Perhaps national attention for the R-J’s ridiculously anti-Reid coverage disturbed the Stephens Media overlords. With fingers in many financial pies, they should be worried that Reid doesn’t forget and rarely forgives.

Apparently Frederick and Mitchell forgot, or never knew, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s admonition: When you strike at a king, you must kill him. Their job is to know their state and readers, and, as their certitude about Reid’s defeat shows, they clearly don’t. They did their best—or worst—to Reid, and he still won, which speaks volumes about their lack of influence and judgment.

So does the R-J concentrate on being a paper of record, or keep letting bias govern too much of its political coverage? Granting that this is the first big change at the top under Stephens’ ownership, what does history tell us?

First, when the R-J changes, it isn’t incremental. From 1929 to 1960, Al and John Cahlan, generally conservative Democrats, ran the paper with two different co-owners. Majority owner Don Reynolds had an agreement with Al Cahlan, a co-owner, that one could buy out the other. On Dec. 11, 1960, with Hank Greenspun’s Sun gaining ground on the R-J, Reynolds cashed out Al Cahlan. The next day, Al Cahlan’s column vanished after 30 years, his presence erased from the paper. John Cahlan left shortly thereafter.

John’s replacement was—oddly—a man named Bob Brown, a veteran reporter, a newspaperman’s son and later my boss at The Valley Times. He and his staff redesigned the R-J for the first time in years. A Republican, he clashed with Reynolds, a Democrat hoping for an ambassadorship. When Reynolds ordered him to slant coverage against GOP Senate candidate Paul Laxalt in 1964 and for incumbent Democrat Howard Cannon, Brown quit.

While the R-J grew more conservative under Reynolds, it didn’t turn sharply right until another regime change in the early 1980s. New editor George Collier redesigned the R-J and forced out Bill Wright, the longtime general manager and by then the dominant presence at the paper. The next editor, Tom Keevil, gave considerable latitude to his sharp, libertarian editorial page editor Rafael Tammariello—but Tammariello didn’t control the newsroom.

Frederick arrived in 1989 after Keevil’s death. Under Frederick and Mitchell, the R-J tilted further right editorially, but, more importantly, editorial attitudes increasingly affected what the R-J covered, how it was covered and where it appeared in the paper. During the Reid campaign, the R-J was so blatant that it was embarrassing, including for some R-J staffers.

Whatever Frederick did or didn’t do as publisher, his love for history and Nevada served us well in The First 100, an outstanding history of Southern Nevada, and in the purchase of several rural weeklies that otherwise might not have survived. He was a journalist, while Brown comes from advertising. But that isn’t too different: In the 1960s, R-J ad salesmen had preferred parking and could make reporters move their cars, prompting one ink-stained wretch, Colin McKinlay to park his sports car in the lobby.

As for Mitchell, besides hanging up on callers, he ordered one professor whom he called a “communist” banned from being quoted in political stories, but didn’t require Republican professors to be identified as such. Fidel Castro and I discussed this at our most recent meeting.

But, like the earlier Brown, this Brown also has his work cut out for him. Credibility and morale have suffered in recent years. For his paper’s good, and thus the community’s, he deserves our best wishes.

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