On Dec. 10, it was announced that the Las Vegas Review-Journal had been purchased by a newly formed Delaware limited liability company that turned out to be a front group for billionaire Sheldon Adelson—who, to be sure, had been the first suspect on nearly everyone’s list of possible mystery buyers.
That put the right wing billionaire—who has a history of using his Israeli newspaper as a political weapon—in control of the largest newspaper in the largest county of the state that holds the third presidential nominating event of 2016.
But what concerns Democrats on the local level is that it is of a piece with another development that also reduces the party’s ability to get its message out—the acquisition of several small newspapers around the state by a corporation co-owned by a former right-wing Review-Journal publisher.
Battle Born Media, owned by former RJ publisher Sherman Frederick and Associated Press sportswriter Tim Dahlberg, has acquired the Ely Times, Mineral County Independent-News, Lincoln County Record, Eureka Sentinel, Mesquite Local News, and Sparks Tribune. Frederick is a climate change denier who once claimed President Obama was having an affair.
In the case of Adelson, his newspaper Israel Hayom (Israel Today) is essentially an adjunct of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s career.
If the Nevada newspaper is used in similar fashion, it would be a powerful tool in a state whose demographics have been moving steadily Democratic. The combination of the biggest print organ in the state and scattered small print outlets could have an impact on state political debate.
If Adelson and Battle Born use their newspapers as weapons, “It completely distorts [political dialogue] and essentially eliminates it,” said political analyst Fred Lokken.
There are indications that Adelson was taking steps in that direction even before taking ownership of the RJ. About a month before the Review-Journal changed hands, while purchase talks were going on between the newspaper and Adelson representatives, RJ reporters were assigned to investigate three judges, including Elizabeth Gonzalez, who is presiding on a lawsuit against Adelson by one of his former Macau casino execs.
In 2014, Democratic lethargy and low turnout gave Republicans their most sweeping victory in Nevada since 1890, but expectations of Democratic comeback in 2016 have been frequent, both because of public reaction to GOP policies and because of the state’s demographics.
“Clark County is the Democratic stronghold,” said one state legislator on background last week. “A relentless pounding [by the newspaper] could take away our demographic advantages.”
“Not necessarily,” Lokken said.
If Adelson turns the newspaper into a Republican mouthpiece, he said, the damage could be more to the newspaper itself than to the Democrats because it would lose credibility, akin to Fox News in broadcasting.
“It then represents an ideology,” Lokken said. “It ceases to become a newspaper and becomes propaganda and the public reacts accordingly.”
Fox tends to attract not an audience looking for information, but an audience that seeks confirmation of what it already believes.
“People who have not made up their minds will look somewhere else for a newspaper” if the RJ becomes a conservative mouthpiece, Lokken said.
After the RJ takeover, Adelson’s managers posted an editorial promising to make the newspaper “fair, unbiased and accurate”—not greatly different from the Fox News slogan, “fair and balanced.” It was not an assurance that heartened the staff of the newspaper, given that it came on the heels of those same managers stopping the presses to remove a quote from one of the stories they’d written. But it did make the point that eventually, a publisher can enforce his will on the newspaper he owns.
“I don’t like journalism,” Adelson said on Nov. 9 last year, according to Israel’s Haaretz. (On the same occasion, he also said, “The Palestinians are an invented people,” according to the Times of Israel.) But that hasn’t stopped him from acquiring more properties. “How Sheldon Adelson is buying up Israel’s media,” was a 2014 headline in the Washington Post.
His Las Vegas public image is divisive. The newspaper he now owns reported in 2005, “He spent $2 million to support local candidates, and his battle against the Culinary Union made him such a polarizing figure that his support for anyone was like the kiss of a black-widow spider. He was hated by a large segment of the voters.”
Adelson in 2012 virtually single-handedly kept Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign alive with millions of dollars when the candidacy had become hopeless. Such episodes make some believe there is no reason to worry about Adelson’s impact, because his political judgment is so poor. In Time magazine last week, former RJ reporter Steve Friess wrote that Adelson’s history is of failed projects and unsuccessful political support. “He plunged $2 million to defeat three pro-labor Clark County Commission candidates amid his battles with the Culinary Union, and each won in landslides anyway,” he wrote.
When Adelson was outed as the new owner of the RJ, an Adelson “family statement” read, “This week, with each of the Republican candidates for president and the national media descending on Las Vegas for the year’s final debate, we did not want an announcement to distract from the important role Nevada continues to play in the 2016 presidential election.” Most PR experts would have known that secrecy would elevate, not diminish the news value of the purchase.
Nevertheless, having as publisher of the RJ one of the richest men on the planet, a man who has shown his willingness to spend freely to support his views, is certainly not good news for Nevada Democrats.
RJ editorials have long been fairly radical libertarian, and the good thing about the paper has been that—unlike some newspapers—it was not possible to detect those editorial views by reading its news pages. Some readers felt the editorials had become more moderate in recent months.
The RJ staff has laid the groundwork for readers to have a full sense of coming changes, posting a guide to the newspaper’s previous stances in its editorials and comparing them with Adelson’s known views. (Nevertheless, the newspaper still uses the industry-preferred term gaming for gambling.)
It is more difficult to track changes in the network of small newspapers under Battle Born’s ownership. Staffs have changed, and at the Sparks Tribune, liberal populist columnist Jake Highton was briefly cut loose but then brought back. Liberal columnist Andrew Barbano has had columns killed twice since the ownership change—one a piece about Republican legislator Michelle Fiore—which is twice as many times as in his previous 27-year history with the paper. It is difficult to trace any of this to Frederick’s influence. In many cases, the small newspapers exist in communities that were already strongly Republican.
(This writer, at various times, has written for RJ properties, including the Boulder City Review, Las Vegas Business Press, Pahrump Valley Times, and Tonopah Times Bonanza.)