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The secretive sale of Nevada's largest newspaper to the family of one of the wealthiest men in the country last month set off shock waves there. A new editor at the paper has devised ways that the paper will cover the new owner, the billionaire casino magnate and Republican donor Sheldon Adelson. His ownership of the paper raises serious concerns. NPR's David Folkenflik talked to one of Adelson's newest employees who has covered him for years and went broke facing him in court.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The sale of the Las Vegas Review-Journal in December came as a shock to employees. The identity of the new owner wasn't initially revealed. John L. Smith had a strong hunch.
JOHN L. SMITH: I think those were the first two words I said were Sheldon Adelson.
FOLKENFLIK: Smith has written for the Review-Journal for three decades. He writes five columns a week with a keen eye on the engines that drive the region.
SMITH: Locals, if they're here long enough, they view Las Vegas as a glitzy factory town. Much in the same way that the auto industry has been so big in Detroit, gaming and tourism is essential, you know, to Las Vegas development and growth.
FOLKENFLIK: No one eclipses Adelson there.
SMITH: There are companies with more casinos, but I think Sheldon's personality, his dramatic, tremendous success in Macau, his obvious embrace of Republican Party politics and willingness to dump millions and millions of dollars into the presidential campaign - this makes him a pre-eminent player.
FOLKENFLIK: Even after many cutbacks, the paper remains the largest news outlet in the state. Despite the secrecy of the sale, the newsroom scrambled to confirm the Adelson family's acquisition of the Review-Journal and other embarrassing details. Mike Hengel was the Review-Journal's editor and oversaw that reporting.
MIKE HENGEL: It takes a lot of courage on their part, not just skill, but courage. You know, it'd be easy to say oh, I don't want to touch this. This is radioactive. But they went after it.
FOLKENFLIK: Hengel is gone now, compelled to take a buyout in December. When John Smith riled Adelson a decade ago, it had enduring consequences.
Adelson sued Smith over a 2005 book called "Sharks In The Desert." Smith devoted a chapter to Adelson's rise in the working-class South Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. The passage sparking the lawsuit noted Adelson's early investments in vending machines. It also explored organized crime's presence in that trade, though it made no specific claims involving Adelson. Adelson alleged his repetition had been badly damaged. The billionaire sought $15 million from Smith.
SMITH: I was sued at a time my daughter was in the hospital being treated for brain cancer. She survived surgery and repeated chemotherapy and radiation.
FOLKENFLIK: Smith and his book publisher issued some corrections, even offered to publish them in his column. Adelson wanted something else, a kind of apology, offered initially, Smith said, through a rabbi.
SMITH: I was told that if I would admit that I meant to malign him and libel him and paid a dollar judgment, which would have ended my career, he offered $200,000 in a medical account as long as I didn't inform my bosses.
FOLKENFLIK: To make the stakes very clear, the casino mogul dangled $200,000 for Smith's daughter's medical treatment if Smith would admit libel, a cardinal journalistic sin. Instead, Smith filed for bankruptcy. Court documents cited more than $200,000 in legal fees and medical bills he could not pay.
SMITH: I thought it was particularly cruel quite frankly. But you know, we just soldiered on.
FOLKENFLIK: I asked Ron Reese about that suit. He's a senior vice president at the Las Vegas Sands Corporation controlled by the Adelson family.
RON REESE: Las Vegas Sands operates in an extremely competitive and highly regulated industry, which requires complete transparency and the highest ethical standards.
FOLKENFLIK: As a result, Reese says, Adelson's reputation means everything.
REESE: Whether it's, you know, careless reporting or malicious political attacks that impugn his reputation, he frankly has an obligation to the company's shareholders and the 50,000 employees of this company to set the record straight.
FOLKENFLIK: After several years, Adelson dropped the libel suit against Smith. Smith emerged from bankruptcy in 2011. Smith and his wife divorced several months later, and he subsequently wrote about his own treatment for cancer. In the years since, Smith has shared a few pictures of his daughter Amelia on his Twitter account.
SMITH: She is disabled today. She uses a wheelchair to get around, but she's doing just great. She's working on life every day, as we all are.
FOLKENFLIK: In 2013, Adelson sued a Wall Street Journal reporter in Hong Kong for calling him foul-mouthed in an article about a lawsuit alleging corruption in his Macau casinos. In court documents, The Journal argued that was intended to get her off the beat. Reese, the Sands executive, tells NPR he thinks it's a fair question whether the reporter now has a conflict of interest.
FOLKENFLIK: In Las Vegas, Smith has continued to write about Adelson, even since the family's purchase of his paper.
SMITH: Giving him the benefit of the doubt going forward, I think, is important. But the bottom line is I don't think he should own this or any newspaper.
FOLKENFLIK: In recent days, the paper's new acting editor says there's money to hire more reporters and has adopted a detailed policy spelling out exactly how the Review-Journal will cover Adelson.
For now, Smith says, he's still paid to have opinions about greater Las Vegas, even the ones about his paper's new owner.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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