It is becoming an article of faith within the newspaper industry that being owned by a benevolent billionaire may be the only way to survive an unforgiving corporate and economic environment for print media.
The Washington Post has surged to renewed prominence under Amazon titan Jeff Bezos. John Henry’s Boston Globe and Glen Taylor’s Star-Tribune, in Minneapolis, have attempted to chart paths forward for regional dailies. The ultra-wealthy physician Patrick Soon-Shiong is trying to rescue the Los Angeles Times from the comedy of errors that is tronc. Rich guys have the money to reinvest in their organization’s newsrooms—rather than suck out a few final pennies for investors—and these particular rich guys have said all the right things about letting their employees commit acts of journalism as they see fit.
Perhaps fittingly, the odd man out in this situation can be found in Las Vegas. Casino magnate and GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson’s 2015 purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal—which he initially tried to carry out in secret—muddled the benevolent billionaire narrative instantaneously. And over the past few days, the paper’s coverage of the new American embassy in Jerusalem showcases how billionaire owners can turn their media properties into personal playthings if they choose to.
Take a look at the Review-Journal’s front page on Monday, which was delivered to Nevada residents as Adelson was in Jerusalem, celebrating with Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netaynahu. Big news! But big and relevant enough for the lead story slot of a metro newspaper? All the unemployed assignment editors out there are shaking their heads.
Look even closer—past the happy headlines and lead photo glossing over the potential for protests throughout Monday—and you will find an explanation for this story placement. The columnist of this front-page op-ed is none other than Miriam Adelson (Sheldon’s wife), who also attended Monday’s opening ceremony in Jerusalem. (It was published simultaneously in Israel Hayom, an Israeli newspaper that the Adelsons also own.) She describes Trump as a miracle worker who accomplished a policy goal for which she and her husband have long lobbied:
The embassy opening is a crowning moment for U.S. foreign policy and for our president, Donald Trump. Just over a year into his first term, he has re-enshrined the United States as the standard-bearer of moral clarity and courage in a world that too often feels adrift.
But hey: The Review-Journal is the Adelson’s property; it is their right to run sycophantic front-page columns as often as they wish. As the owners of a newspaper purporting to cover Las Vegas and Nevada, it is also their right to spend money flying reporters out to Jerusalem for new embassy openings.
The Review-Journal’s initial news coverage of the ceremony on Tuesday, by Debra J. Saunders, was overwhelmingly positive, with a vague mention that Palestinians were protesting the move. Saunders even even quoted Sheldon Adelson in the piece, along with a disclosure of his ownership of the paper. (“People have been waiting for 70 years for this to happen. We can’t thank Trump enough,” Adelson said.)
Quite a get! Tuesday’s news coverage from Jerusalem was somewhat more balanced, detailing the death toll after Israeli troops fired on Palestinian protesters in Gaza, and parsing out the political and diplomatic ramifications of the Trump administration pushing the new embassy through. Yet this information was conveyed to Nevadans with a front-page picture of Steve Mnuchin unveiling the new embassy’s American seal along with some props from Netanyahu. It was given pride of place over a Supreme Court ruling on sports betting that could affect America’s gambling mecca in a huge way. As this clash between local issues and Adelson’s pet projects played out on the front page, meanwhile, the Review-Journal’s site has largely featured stories from closer to home.
This is a particularly black-and-white example of how newspapers can be transformed when gobbled up by billionaires. The daily reality—even in Adelson’s case—is a bit more complicated, if just as concerning. A slew of staffers departed in protest after it became clear Adelson was the stealth buyer in 2015. The New York Times reported in mid-2016 that he had also injected some cash into the newsroom, hiring new reporters and upgrading technology. The cost of such reinvestment, however, was that some reporters felt as though they’d lost their independence, as then-publisher Craig Moon and editor J. Keith Moyer would review all articles related to Adelson and his immense business interests. Here’s the Times (emphasis mine):
Mr. Moon and Glenn Cook, the managing editor, say neither Mr. Adelson, 82, nor his associates review articles or direct news coverage. “There’s never been any type of correspondence or information or calls from the Adelsons to do anything at this newspaper,” Mr. Moon, who reports directly to the Adelson family, said in a telephone interview.
Two years later, we have perhaps the clearest example yet of undue influence from up top. Moyer—who has since taken on publisher duties for the now-retired Moon—has yet to respond to my request for comment on how these front pages came together. Ditto for Cook.
But to address Moon’s 2016 defense: I believe his claim that the Adelsons don’t directly dictate news coverage, because they don’t need to in order to exert their influence. At any media outfit—for-profit or nonprofit—power functions through a series of unofficial rules and strategic decisions made consciously or unconsciously in response to where the money is. It shapes what gets done at advertising-centric operations, like Gizmodo Media Group, just as it does at those that rely on reader revenue, such as the New York Times.
At the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the purse-strings are controlled by a local powerbroker who is both a leading player in national politics and, as this week showed, international affairs. Maybe working under that influence is a tradeoff worth making in order to survive. But then it’s also worth at least acknowledging that tradeoff.