The news about the news

Recently, the Las Vegas Review-Journal endorsed Carolyn Goodman for mayor and Bob Coffin for City Council Ward 3.  This was more significant than it appeared at first glance.

Start with Goodman.  You may have heard of her husband.  When he ran for mayor in 1999, the R-J’s editorial page said, “Considering Mr. Goodman as the official spokesman for Las Vegas is like considering Bill Clinton as headmaster of a school for wayward girls.”  Today the R-J might have referred instead to John Ensign, whose peccadilloes it did its best to minimize.

Coffin’s endorsement was more supportive than might have been expected, since his opponent, Adriana Martinez, reportedly doesn’t even live in the district she is running to represent.  Also, Martinez and her supporters attacked Coffin over, of all things, selling historical documents 15 years ago to UNLV, which bought them through a foundation so that there would be no ethical questions about Coffin as a state senator. The Ethics Commission gave them a clean bill of health (and I’ll say, as a historian of Las Vegas, Coffin’s Union Pacific Railroad material is the most important document collection available on the city’s early days, including some of the area they are vying to represent).

Ironically, when Coffin sold the documents, the R-J was critical of him and UNLV, although then-publisher Sherman Frederick loves history — enough to have the R-J put together the wonderful First 100 profiles of important figures in local history (Disclosure:  I was a consultant).  But Coffin was and is married to Mary Hausch, the R-J’s managing editor when Frederick, and then Thomas Mitchell, were brought in over her to run the paper, and she wound up with a discrimination case against then-owner Donrey Media.  Was that a factor in the old days?  You be the judge.

You may not have noticed that the staff listing on the Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial page has changed.  It still lists the publisher, the editor, and its three right-wing editorializers.  But recently a name has been missing:  Mitchell, the “senior opinion editor.”  He’s no longer with the R-J.

Mitchell’s departure from the R-J was quiet and came about six months after Stephens Media made major changes atop the R-J.  Publisher Sherman Frederick, who had numerous health issues last year, retained his column but became a consultant.  Mitchell had been the R-J’s managing editor for more than three years and then editor for more than 18 years — the longest tenure of any top editor there since the days of Al and John Cahlan, who ran the R-J for more than three decades.  And thereby hangs part of this tale.

Al Cahlan came to the R-J in 1926 as editor and part-owner with Frank Garside, who eventually didn’t want to expand as aggressively as Cahlan did.  In 1949, Cahlan found a buyer for Garside’s share, Donald W. Reynolds.  Cahlan remained “managing director” (essentially, the publisher), with his brother as managing editor, until 1960.  Then, Reynolds used a clause in their agreement to buy him out.  On December 11, 1960, Cahlan’s name appeared on the masthead and his column, “From Where I Sit,” appeared in its customary spot on the editorial page, as it had for 30 years.  The next day, they were gone, with no explanation.

Why is Frederick no longer publisher and Mitchell demoted and now gone?  The speculation has involved the R-J’s blatantly biased coverage of last year’s Senate campaign, in which the R-J did its best (or worst) against Sen. Harry Reid.  Maybe it was Frederick’s health, although that doesn’t explain Mitchell’s simultaneous departure from the top editing job.  If it was the economy and the R-J’s decline in ad revenue, why wait until right after the election, and why shift both the publisher and the editor?  The R-J isn’t going to tell us, nor should we expect it to.  The media does many things badly, and the worst may be reporting on itself.

So, you can love or hate Frederick and Mitchell, but their editorial and business decisions have influenced affairs here for more than two decades.  Now Frederick’s role is substantially less and Mitchell is gone altogether.  They mattered, and Mitchell’s departure deserved more attention.  New publisher Bob Brown and new editor Michael Hengel may make more changes before they are through, but whether and how the R-J changes deserves attention — and it will matter.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.

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