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Chris Jones
 

Times Series Rankles Las Vegas Officials

7 June 2004

For those still curious why many local business leaders are in a tizzy over this week's New York Times series on life in Las Vegas, here's a quick recap of some of the articles' content:

An account of distraught newcomers idling away time in a cheap motel?

Check.

Tales of drugged-out teenagers, overcrowded schools and a money-grubbing stripper with big dreams of life after the pole? Colorful phrases such as "broken promised land" mixed with comparisons to "normal cities?"

All present and accounted for.

As a result of that coverage, approximately 30 local business and community leaders gathered Friday at the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce's Hughes Center headquarters, intent on rebutting what they felt was the series' largely negative portrayal of this area.

Several in attendance at the closed-door gathering later said the nation's oft-proclaimed newspaper of record delivered what amounted to a kick in Southern Nevada's collective gut, marking yet another local knock after last year's minicontroversies surrounding the "What happens here, stays here" ads and the National Football League's ongoing anti-Vegas stance.

Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Kara Kelley dismissed the Times' six-day series as "lazy journalism at best," claiming the newspaper's writers set out to only portray the city's seedier side. The chamber plans to pen an op-ed rebuttal Kelley hopes will soon be published in the Times; Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said Friday he has separately written the newspaper criticizing the series.

"The Times obviously had some agenda; there (was) certainly a one-sided slant," Kelley said. "I've talked to people who were interviewed. The first call to the school district was, `I want you to put me in touch with a kindergarten teacher who is a stripper.'

"From what I understand, when people they were interviewing were offering what were the more-meaningful components of our community, (the Times writers) didn't care."

Not so, said Lawrence Downes, who edited the Times' Las Vegas series. He said Friday the paper's six reporters -- along with himself and one photographer -- in late March traveled from their bases in New York, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco hoping to illustrate some of the many national trends that seem to be converging in Southern Nevada.

"It hit on me that Vegas might be a way to explore a lot of different things going on in America right now," Downes said. "There's an incredible migration of Americans to the Southwest, and Vegas' rapid growth has been unparalleled. There are issues of (the United States) becoming more of a service industry economy; issues of retirees going there, issues of the growing sexuality in American culture."

Contrary to Kelley's claims, The Times crew had no negative agenda but instead tried to explain what was going on here by profiling "real stories on real people," he said.

"We tried to express all sides of the story," said Downes, who repeatedly cited a positive piece on a Mexican immigrant who's advanced from poverty to middle-class status by working as a Strip waitress. "We can't wish away the problems in Las Vegas any more than we could in New York, but we tried to explain a place that's changed profoundly in the past three decades."

Downes added he's fascinated by the city and its many facets and hoped to do additional stories, including a look at Las Vegas' burgeoning religious community and a profile on local retirees. He said the paper's editors balked at more than a six-day series.

Attorney Sean Higgins, who serves as general counsel for Las Vegas-based Herbst Oil, is among those who would have welcomed more positive coverage. He accused the paper's editors of trying to capitalize on the city's current popularity by writing primarily tawdry tales.

"You could go to any large metropolitan area in the United States and write the same exact article," Higgins said. "The fact that they attached the name `Las Vegas' to it was because it sells papers, to be blunt."

Higgins said his father, a surgeon, raised 10 children here, eight of whom still live in Southern Nevada. Despite going away to colleges all over the nation, Higgins said he and his siblings largely returned home because they feel Las Vegas "is a great community."

He said legions of newer residents also share that opinion, an opinion he said was largely overlooked by the Times.

"This isn't real journalism," Higgins said. "(The Times writers) went out and found what they were looking for; they weren't looking for a good story; they didn't care about the good stories.

"To say you can't raise kids here or those kids aren't good citizens, I disagree with that. ... It bothers me that people would paint that negative picture without looking at both sides."

But Downs disagreed.

"To say that we went in there and wrote about them in a way to prove some agenda or trash another city is unfair," he said.

Kelley said those she spoke with aren't concerned the series will hurt the city's tourism and trade-show industries. But those in the business community aren't convinced other aspects of the job market won't be affected by the Times' series.

"What we hope it doesn't do is give second thoughts to a doctor who is thinking about relocating here to teach at a cancer institute," Kelley said.

Nevada Development Authority President and CEO Somer Hollingsworth also said Friday he was disappointed with the Times' efforts, though he doubts the series will dissuade new businesses from locating in Southern Nevada.

"I don't think people want to be here, or that corporations move here, because we have topless bars or major problems," said Hollingsworth, who moved here with his parents in 1953. "This isn't any different than any other city in America, but the plus side is people can be more successful here than in any other community in America."

Hollingsworth added he was surprised the Times devoted so much attention to the city's dark side.

"Maybe there are more negative stories here than I care to believe, but I think you would have really had to hunt to find people to do those kinds of stories," Hollingsworth said. "Obviously, they weren't looking for the positive side."