The R-J’s Paper Credibility Leaves With John L. Smith

john_l_smith_03_mouth_tape_shut_illo_WEBI have a conflict of interest. John L. Smith is a friend of mine. And I’m prouder than ever to say that.

After Sheldon Adelson bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal, then-acting editor Glenn Cook told Smith he couldn’t write about his new boss, who several years ago sued Smith for libel and forced him into bankruptcy. The case was dismissed. New editor J. Keith Moyer just informed Smith that Steve Wynn is off-limits because Wynn sued him unsuccessfully—despite Wynn since having granted interviews to him.

Smith resigned.

Smith could find other subjects to write about, of course. But Adelson and Wynn are involved in gaming, and to write only about other companies would be unfair. Suppose Smith, who loves average Joes and Joans, had a great story about a poker dealer at Encore. How can he write about a Wynn employee if he can’t write about the boss?

Adelson is involved in a stadium project that includes UNLV and possibly the Oakland Raiders. How could Smith write about anything involving higher education or sports or land development or related agencies, or anyone who is part of them, including politicians? What if his subject seemingly had no connection to any of this, but it turned out that a family member did? Where does the ban end?

Here in the Wild West, where the men are miners or punch little doggies and the women are all saloon girls, we desperately need someone to explain journalism and ethics to us.

Smith built up three decades of credibility at a newspaper that too often lacks it and isn’t doing enough to regain it. Critics of the R-J’s medieval editorial page forget humans and newspapers are entitled to their opinions. The problem is when the paper’s views or its publisher’s interests seep into news coverage. Those fearful that Adelson’s purchase of the R-J would hurt its reputation missed the point: Its news columns sometimes weren’t as pure as an angel’s drawers. Now they are dirtier.

That’s no criticism of outstanding reporters, editors and columnists. R-J staffers—including Smith—received deserved honors for digging into the strange circumstances of their paper’s sale. Recently, the R-J has done a fine job of covering questionable activities in the Nevada System of Higher Education.

The bio below refers to me as an associate professor of history at UNLV, a job I love and am grateful to have. I just mentioned NSHE. Is even the reference a conflict of interest? Since I work for UNLV, part of NSHE and the stadium deal, could Smith even mention me in a column? (And why would he?)

Perhaps we should ask Moyer, who told KNPR that if Smith “created even a perception of score settling in the minds of readers, then it would have reflected on the credibility of the institution. Invoking ‘conflict of interest’ restrictions might not be common in Nevada, but they are elsewhere.” Here in the Wild West, where the men are miners or punch little doggies and the women are all saloon girls, we desperately need someone to explain journalism and ethics to us. Moyer came here from Minnesota, where the daughter of a popular longtime local columnist was elected county attorney, then U.S. senator. When Moyer was publisher, did the Minneapolis Star Tribune ignore Amy Klobuchar or disclose that connection each time it mentioned her? It must have, to avoid any conflict.

But the R-J is another matter. Its promises of constant disclosure about Adelson have long since been broken. Considering its toothless coverage of the stadium deal, perhaps disclosure is unnecessary; we can guess who owns it. But for Moyer to lecture Smith and the rest of us on conflicts of interest is interesting and conflicted.

Journalistically, it’s a fine line. The media historically cover themselves worse than anyone or anything else. When a newspaper announces the appointment of a new executive or editor, it never provides the background and analysis we would expect if the subject were the new deputy assistant bottle washer for the Planet Zort.

We the people depend on columnists such as John L. Smith for opinions—and as a columnist,he is entitled to them—that are informative, entertaining or both. His popularity and the awards he has won, the afflicted he has comforted, are a testament to his success and credibility and to the content of his character. Sadly, for those who still work there, the questions now are about the character of the R-J’s content.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.