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Jim Myers

Sheldon Adelson's newspaper buy has Nevadans talking, and some fretting

18 December 2015

As a Republican mega-donor who pours millions into campaigns and political action committees, Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson is already courted by elected officials.

Add to that his new status as owner of Nevada's largest newspaper.

There is much yet to learn about the group that bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal last week. After six days of uncertainty surrounding News + Media Capital Group LLC — a newly formed Delaware-domiciled company backed by "undisclosed financial backers with expertise in the media industry" — the Review-Journal on Wednesday confirmed that Adelson's son-in-law, Patrick Dumont, arranged the company's $140 million purchase of the newspaper on behalf of the chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands.

Media mavens and pundits took to Twitter and Facebook to ask what the purchase might mean for the paper's news coverage and candidate endorsements. Readers and staffers wondered aloud about the move's impact on the paper's reputation and the identity of other, still unnamed parties in the purchase.

A statement from the Adelsons late Wednesday offered precious few answers to those questions, though it did try to explain the secrecy of the move as a desire to avoid a distraction on the eve of Wednesday night's GOP presidential debate at Sands' Venetian hotel.

Speculation surrounding the consequences of the purchase shows no signs of slowing.

Last week's sale saw News + Media pay around $38 million more than New Media Investment Group paid in March for all of Stephens Media LLC, a national chain of eight daily newspapers that included the Review-Journal.

It remains unclear if that inflated purchase price came with strings attached to the Adelsons.

Corporate no comment

Michael Reed, CEO of New Media Investment Corp., the parent company of the former RJ owner GateHouse Media, declined to offer any assurance that the Adelsons would not exert influence over the paper's content. GateHouse Media will continue managing the newspaper under the deal.

He also sidestepped when asked if his company or the casino mogul had already influenced editorial decisions made by Review-Journal Publisher Jason Taylor.

"I don't have a comment on that," Reed told a reporter. "My recommendation is focus your energy on making the brand stronger."

Taylor has said that in face-to-face meetings, he has been assured that the RJ's new owners will not meddle in the newspaper's editorial content.

Not everyone is convinced.

"The way the Adelson family began its ownership of the Review-Journal — with secrecy, deception, and one opaque announcement after another — does not inspire confidence," said media critic and New York University professor Jay Rosen. "Possibly this rocky start could be overcome, but the place to begin would have been with the public announcement of the purchase. In that announcement there is nothing about preserving the independence of the Review-Journal newsroom from undue influence by Sheldon Adelson, who as everyone knows is one of the most powerful people in the state and in Republican politics nationwide.

"What creative measures were announced to insulate news coverage from the enormous wealth and power of the Adelson family? None that I can see. And that does not inspire confidence," Rosen said.

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, agreed the statement left questions unanswered — perhaps especially about the impact of the move on the RJ's ability to attract and retain reporting talent.

"The statement sounds the right notes, but time will tell," Edmonds said. "If they didn't want to eclipse the GOP debate, I have to wonder why the announcement wasn't simply delayed a week. So I would guess they may have hoped to keep the thing secret.

"As for hiring and retaining talent and the credibility of the investigative team, I certainly see and sympathize with the apprehension,' Edmonds said. "It's premature to assume bad practice — but should that happen. the impact would be potentially devastating."

Owner ID doesn't end speculation

From Carson City to Washington, D.C., the Adelson family's new investment has the political world roiling.

"Sheldon Adelson is spending unbelievable sums of money, not just on elections, but for control of our media too," tweeted U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a Democratic candidate for president.

In the 2012 presidential race, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson and their daughters donated $92 million to conservative SuperPACs, according to the Federal Election Commission and the Sunlight Foundation, the nonprofit that tracks political contributions. In 2012, Adelson gave to political groups that supported former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and later the eventual GOP nominee, Mitt Romney.

Members of the Adelson family also gave a total of $1.7 million to other individual candidates and to the Republican National Committee, National Republican Congressional Committee, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Since 2013 the family has contributed about $1.9 million to political action committees, with two-thirds to the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Republican National Committee, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, on the other hand, expressed hope that new ownership will mean a change in the newspaper's editorial stances.

"They are not libertarians. They are crazy," Reid said of the newspaper's editorial stance during a Thursday interview.

He also suggested that Adelson hire more reporters and not use so many articles written by other news outlets.

Reid described Adelson as a "nice person" and a "friend."

"I've known Sheldon Adelson for a long time. I knew him when he was a Democrat. He and I have a good relationship," he said.

In response to a question, Reid conceded it might not be a "good idea" for someone involved in politics and a community's major industry to also own the local newspaper.

"It is a free country. If he wants to run a newspaper, let him run a newspaper," he said before taking another swipe at the paper. "I want a better newspaper."

The Adelson-owned Israel Hayom, a free daily newspaper in Israel, is known to strongly support Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose center-right Likud party favors Israeli settlements in disputed territories and rejects the notion of a Palestinian state. The Israeli newspaper says on its website it has "clear and precise standards" for coverage, including fact-checking and an ombudsman to respond to reader concerns.

Nevada business leaders weigh in

A spokesman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, a frequent target of Adelson's ire, declined comment.

Caesars Entertainment Corp. has also feuded with Adelson over the legalization of online gaming, which he opposes.

"I think Sheldon Adelson has his opinions," said Senior Vice President Jan Jones Blackhurst. "But, he'll respect the laws of journalism and be fair and impartial."

Station Casinos Chairman and CEO Frank Fertitta III said the company has, "a great deal of respect and admiration for the Adelson family and their dedication to the Las Vegas community."

"We are pleased that the ownership of the Review-Journal will remain in Iocal hands and are confident that it will retain its journalistic integrity and professionalism," Fertitta said.

Response to the move also reverberated hundreds of miles north in Carson City, where state lawmakers met Thursday in a special special session to discuss tax incentives for car company Faraday Future.

Jim Wadhams, a veteran Las Vegas attorney and Carson City lobbyist, said the RJ's sale was a hot topic in the capitol.

"We have a lot of time between discussion of bills to talk about anything that comes to mind," said Wadhams, whose clients include insurance brokers, home builders, mining companies and banks. "(The sale) is certainly drawing a lot of interest and a lot of commentary."

Wadhams said opinion is mixed, but noted that Adelson "has been very politically active the last several years, and the power of the pen is mightier than the sword. So there is some concern that this will give him an advantage. But that's the nature of a free press."

Most observers said they'll take a wait-and-see attitude, he added.

Wadhams called the purchase both "impressive and curious."

"It's a significant investment in print journalism at this point," he said. "It struck me that there is somebody with substantial resources who will hopefully continue to inject some life into that newspaper process, and he's essentially local, so that struck me as a positive thing."

The Culinary Workers Local 226, which represents about 57,000 workers employed in casino-resort jobs, said in a statement it hopes the Review-Journal continues coverage of issues important to "working families," such as comprehensive immigration reform, health care, and workplace rights.

Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, said the new owners deserve a chance to show they can run the paper without trying to influence its coverage.

"Now the expectation is they keep a very solid arm's distance away and allow you to do your work," he said.

Lokken said it's important for the RJ to avoid "becoming the 'Fox News' of the newspaper industry," a reference to the network often accused of tilting right in news coverage.

Meanwhile, in Washington...

Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., made a joke when asked to comment on the news.

"I didn't know. I'm shocked that he didn't check with me before doing that," Amodei quipped.

Rep. Cresent Hardy, R-Nev., expressed surprise that Adelson would buy a newspaper.

"But he's a business guy. I'll let him be the businessman that he is," Hardy said, repeating an earlier comment about hoping the new owner would continue to "play fair."

"I believe the Review-Journal has done that in the past, not always to my benefit," Hardy said. "I think I've had an opportunity to deal with some pretty good staff, pretty fair people, so those things are always in consideration. Who he keeps. Who he lets go."

He also expressed hope that Adelson will continue doing "what he does best: create employees, create jobs, develop a strong economy."

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., on the House floor Wednesday had urged an end to the mystery surrounding the new owner.

"I appreciate them coming forward. I think that was the important thing,' she said Thursday. "It was never about who owned it, particular. It was about knowing who owned it.

"I'm hoping that they will have a fair editorial policy. Maybe I will get the RJ endorsement at some point."

Reporters James DeHaven, Jennifer Robison and Howard Stutz, and Database Editor Adelaide Chen contributed to this report.