A while back, I mentioned that the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the newspaper most heavily involved with copyright troll Righthaven, had been bought by an unknown buyer. More details have now emerged. It turns out that the mystery buyer was the family of Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Allegedly, Adelson subsequently passed orders to the paper, as well as another Adelson-owned paper in Florida, to investigate several Clark County judges who had made Adelson look bad.
This doesn’t have a whole lot to do with e-reading directly, so I’m not going into the accusations here. Boing Boing and the Review-Journal itself have the sordid details. I mention it mainly because it answers the question brought up by the paper’s previous mention, and also because, if true, it seems like such an intriguing inversion of the way mobile technology is letting citizens become their own personal journalists. When you’re a billionaire, you can effectively turn journalists into your own personal private investigators.
It’s tempting to imagine that if the Review-Journal hadn’t backed Righthaven, it wouldn’t have ended up in this dire strait, but we don’t know that. Adelson could well have bought the paper even if it had stayed away from Righthaven; he is a billionaire, after all. But when newspapers are becoming increasingly owned by corporations and buyers whose own interests may not necessarily coincide with those of the public, it makes you wonder whether citizen journalists might be more reliable sources of news in the end.
Update: David called my attention to a couple of editorials from the Review-Journal. In one, the Review-Journal reminds readers that it was responsible for ferreting out that it was the Adelsons who bought the paper to begin with, and that it is determined to do whatever it takes to keep readers’ trust.
Having a casino magnate and the state’s biggest political contributors control Nevada’s largest media outlet is an ethical challenge. But every newspaper company in the country has conflicts of interest. The Washington Post is owned by Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. The Boston Globe is owned by Boston Red Sox owner John Henry. Two of the Review-Journal’s previous owners, Stephens Media and Donrey Media, presented their own conflicts. Conflicts of interest can be properly, credibly handled by full disclosure and the absence of editorial interference by ownership.
In another, writer John L. Smith—who was sued and driven into bankruptcy by Adelson over a few lines in a book he’d published, but eventually prevailed in court—points out that Adelson is in the process of suing yet another reporter for an unflattering description of him in an article. He calls on Adelson to show that he “now has a more enlightened view of press freedom” by dropping the suit.
Where’s the firewall between ownership and the newsroom? Given Adelson’s reputation as a micromanager, it had better be made of asbestos. The purchase of the Review-Journal signals a tectonic shift in the political landscape of Las Vegas and Nevada and has the potential to reverberate all the way to the White House.
Hopefully the paper and the billionaire can successfully navigate the straits of ethics and conflicts of interest in months to come.