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The most prominent columnist at the biggest newspaper in Nevada quit this week. He was told he could not write about two of the state's most powerful figures. One of them is the paper's new owner. Here's NPR's David Folkenflik.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Sheldon Adelson is the billionaire chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation. Late last year, he and his family bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal in a transaction intended to keep their identity a secret. A team from the Review-Journal newsroom revealed that secret. The columnist John L. Smith was among them.
JOHN L. SMITH: Adelson's not just a casino boss. He's King Kong of his casino bosses. When it comes to politics in Nevada, I don't think there is more powerful player. When it comes to politics in the Republican Party, there may be no more powerful player.
FOLKENFLIK: For nearly three decades, Smith wrote frequently about Adelson and the gambling and tourism businesses. In January, Smith says, he was told he could no longer write anything about Adelson because the billionaire had sued him over a passage in a 2005 book. The suit was dismissed, but the legal bills forced Smith to declare bankruptcy.
Keith Moyer, a veteran newspaper editor and publisher, came onboard as editor-in-chief in February. He praises Smith but kept the policy because he agrees with it.
KEITH MOYER: It's a conflict of interest for John. It was something that happened in a private situation and not something that he had done with the Review-Journal.
FOLKENFLIK: Smith objected but abided by the ban in his columns. Last weekend, the editor Keith Moyer learned that Adelson's rival Las Vegas casino mogul, Steve Wynn, had also sued Smith over a book in the 1990s, also unsuccessfully. Moyer banned Smith from writing about Wynn as well.
MOYER: John had a general interest column on our metro cover, and I don't think anywhere in his job description was that he was to be the only watchdog to cover the big movers and shakers here in Las Vegas.
FOLKENFLIK: Days after Smith was informed he couldn't write about the Adelsons, they announced plans to build a huge new stadium to draw an NFL team to Las Vegas. Moyer says the ban had nothing to do with the stadium plans. Once Steve Wynn was off-limits too, however, Smith said he could swallow no more.
SMITH: As a journalist, if you can't write about the major players, well, then you're really stuck, metaphorically speaking, writing about the gardening club. And you know, it takes all the fun out of the job.
FOLKENFLIK: Moyer says the Adelsons have kept promises to provide more funds to build up the newsroom and to stay out of newsroom decisions. But the Adelsons keep making headlines. Earlier today, the advocates for their NFL stadium plan conceded it would require three quarters of a billion dollars in public money. Moyer says there are no sacred cows, and he praises his paper's stadium coverage. Smith argues it falls short.
SMITH: We've certainly covered one side of it aggressively, of how great it will be if we can get an NFL team in Las Vegas. I noticed that we've covered that side of it pretty darn aggressively.
FOLKENFLIK: I reached Smith by phone in Oregon this morning. He's there with that team of reporters who revealed that Adelsons had secretly bought their paper. They're receiving a national award in journalism ethics. David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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