Sheldon Adelson, dark lord of journalism: Why the casino magnate's family just bought a newspaper — and why we should be very afraid

The billionaire's son-in-law secretly bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal. It didn't stay secret for long

Published December 17, 2015 7:16PM (EST)

Sheldon Adelson          (AP/Wong Maye-e)
Sheldon Adelson (AP/Wong Maye-e)

Last week, the staff at the Las Vegas Review-Journal learned that their newspaper had been sold. There was a catch, though: The new owners refused to reveal themselves.

Now, thanks to mounting public pressure and some dogged reporting by the Review-Journal, we know that the family of casino magnate and multi-billionaire Sheldon Adelson has purchased the title for $140 million. The deal was hammered out by Adelson's son-in-law, who, with Adelson's money, created the company which bought the Review-Journal. With that secret detail now out in the open, it's time for the world to pray for the people who work for the Review-Journal. They have just been plunged into a situation no journalist would ever wish for.

Adelson all but lied about his involvement with the paper in an interview with CNN on Tuesday, saying he had no "personal interest" in the Review-Journal—a statement that is only barely true in a technical sense.

The interview took place at Adelson's Venetian Resort Hotel Casino. As it happens, that's where Tuesday's Republican debate was held. This is not a coincidence. Adelson is not shy about his desire to influence the 2016 election, and to use his fortune to do the influencing. Candidates are falling over themselves to try to win the "Adelson primary." Now he has Nevada's most important paper in his clutches.

Adelson's family issued a statement saying it was committed to "a journalism product that is second-to-none." This should be taken with a truckload of salt. The conflicts facing the Review-Journal staff are almost too many to list. Adelson is a major player in the day-to-day business of Las Vegas, in the Republican Party, and in the key swing state of Nevada as a whole. Pity the poor Review-Journal reporters who have to find a way through that minefield with their dignity intact. They are now tasked with covering the happenings in one of the most important electoral battlegrounds in the country while the man who pays their salaries is doing everything he can to ensure that the election goes a certain way.

There is ample reason to believe that Adelson will not just sit back and let the Review-Journal do its thing. He clearly subscribes to what we might dub the Rupert Murdoch view of newspapering—that ownership allows you to do what you like with the thing. For evidence of this, we need only look at Israel Hayom, the hard-right free daily newspaper that Adelson launched in 2007. It's now Israel's biggest-selling paper, and its slavish backing of Adelson ally Benjamin Netanyahu is so infamous that Netanyahu's rivals have tried to pass laws curbing its influence. Adelson has been willing to lose buckets of money on the paper to both help Netanyahu and get around Israel's restrictive campaign finance laws. Why wouldn't he won't seek to use his new plaything for similar purposes? While he's at it, he can help stifle aggressive reporting on some of his more dubious business practices.

So far, the Review-Journal has done some admirably tough journalism on its new owner, but there are reasons to be worried about how long that will continue. Before Adelson's involvement was made public, NPR's David Folkenflik reported that Review-Journal publisher Jason Taylor was busy scrutinizing stories about the paper's new management and removing references to Adelson.

It's clearly going to be a tough road ahead for the people who work at the Review-Journal. Perhaps, by some chance, Adelson will be a hands-off sort of boss, and will stand aside to let his paper cover him with impartial scrutiny. In reality, though, even the most foolish gambler wouldn't take that bet.

Mystery Buyer of Vegas Paper Unmasked

By Jack Mirkinson

Jack Mirkinson is a writer living in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @jackmirkinson.

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