Top, from left: Glenn Cook, James DeHaven, Eric Hartley Bottom, from left: Jennifer Robison, John Smith, Howard Stutz, Jim Wright
John L. Smith
James G. Wright
Seven current and former members of the Las Vegas Review-Journal staff are the recipients of the 2015 James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism for their coverage of the newspaper’s sale to the family of billionaire casino executive Sheldon Adelson. Glenn Cook, James DeHaven, Eric Hartley, Jennifer Robison, John L. Smith, Howard Stutz and James G. Wright received the honor.
“This award was created to honor courage in journalism – moral, physical, ethical, financial or political,” said Medill alumnus and co-judge Dick Stolley. “Because of the violent world we have to cover, journalists displaying physical courage have often been the winners, and justifiably so. This year is different. The staff of this newspaper displayed great courage in its coverage of a dramatic change in management in order to keep the public informed of news critical to their community. They risked their livelihood, careers and reputations in insisting on the kind of courageous journalism our medal was invented to celebrate. We are proud of them and of our choice.”
The announcement in December 2015 that the newspaper had been sold to a new and unnamed holding company, News + Media Capital Group LLC, sparked instant controversy, said Managing Editor Glenn Cook, who nominated the staff for Medill’s award.
“Everyone knew immediately that the anonymous purchase of a major daily American newspaper was unprecedented, and that secret ownership of the Review-Journal created an immediate ethical and credibility crisis not just for the newspaper, but for everyone employed by it,” Cook said. “How could reporters disclose potential conflicts of interest if they didn’t know who they worked for? How could readers trust them?”
Review-Journal staff quickly learned that reporting on their new owners would be difficult because, under the deal, GateHouse had been retained to operate the newspaper. Without telling the newsroom, someone at the GateHouse Media Design Center in Austin, Texas, ordered the Review-Journal’s presses stopped so quotes from News + Media Capital Group LLC Manager Michael Schroeder and then-Editor Mike Hengel could be removed from a story announcing the sale.
Reporters James DeHaven, Howard Stutz and Jennifer Robison, led by Deputy Editor James G. Wright, worked their sources until the shell company started to crack. An editorial by Cook (who at the time was the Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer) compared the lack of transparency in local teacher contract talks to his own paper’s lack of openness. Finally, on Dec. 16, the R-J was ready to report that Adelson’s son-in-law was behind the purchase. The scoop was ready to publish online at 2:30 p.m. but it languished, awaiting clearance from management. At 7:25 p.m., Hengel ordered the story posted.
What followed was an admission, after a previous denial, by new owner Adelson that while he was behind the purchase with his son-in-law, he had no plans to involve himself in the management of the newspaper.
But revealing the newspaper’s new ownership was “merely one milestone in the bizarre and still-unraveling story,” according to Cook.
The month prior to the sale, GateHouse Media moved three Review-Journal reporters off their beats to monitor three judges, including Clark County District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez, whose caseload included lawsuits against Adelson and his casino company, Las Vegas Sands Corp. GateHouse executives made the assignment as they were negotiating the sale of the Review-Journal to Adelson’s family. No reason for the assignment was given, according to Cook, and the reporters’ efforts resulted in a diary of court proceedings but no content for the paper. Meanwhile, just before the sale announcement, Schroeder’s small newspaper in New Britain, Conn., inexplicably had published an article by “Edward Clarkin” that savaged Gonzalez.
The puzzle pieces snapped together. Wright’s team, joined by reporter Eric Hartley, linked the R-J sale and the reporters’ courtroom monitoring, but the story languished for two days. Gatehouse relented after other media heard about the quashed article, allowing publication on Dec. 18. Those developments led to a front-page editorial by Cook vowing the newspaper would disclose all potential conflicts of interest.
“You can be assured that if the Adelsons attempt to skew coverage, by ordering some stories covered and others killed or watered down, the Review-Journal's editors and reporters will fight it,” the editorial read. “We will fight for your trust. Every. Single. Day. Even if our former owners and current operators don't want us to.”
Columnist John L. Smith produced another piece describing his own experience with Adelson, who years before had sued Smith for libel, unsuccessfully, as Smith’s daughter was battling brain cancer. Smith followed with a blistering column questioning the new owners’ wisdom in associating with Schroeder. A short time later, Schroeder was dumped by the Adelsons as the shell company’s manager.
On Dec. 22, Editor Michael Hengel was told his request for early retirement had been granted. Hengel had not applied for early retirement.
By May 16, 2016, six of the seven journalists involved in the coverage had left the newspaper or announced plans to resign.
"Receiving the James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism is humbling recognition for the Review-Journal's coverage of the newspaper's sale last year. Unlike the award's namesake and many previous recipients, Review-Journal writers and editors never worked under life-threatening or remotely dangerous conditions," Cook said. "At the time, we didn't consider our work to be especially courageous. Rather, we were determined to defend the credibility of the institution we worked for.
We knew our readers and our community needed to know the identity of the owners of Nevada's largest newspaper to properly judge for themselves whether our coverage was compromised by conflicts of interest. We knew we needed to know who we worked for. We simply wanted to do the right thing. Whatever courage was required to tell that story, at the potential risk of our jobs, pales in comparison to the courage displayed daily by countless war and foreign correspondents. Nonetheless, we are incredibly honored to receive this award and thank the Medill School of Journalism for the honor."
About the James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism
The medal is given to the individual or team of journalists, working for a U.S.-based media outlet, who best displayed moral, physical, ethical, financial or political courage in the pursuit of a story or series of stories. The staff of the Las Vegas Review-Journal was the unanimous choice among the judges.
The selection committee included Medill Board of Advisers members Ellen Soeteber (BSJ72), former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Richard Stolley (BSJ52, MSJ53), former senior editorial adviser for Time Inc., as well as Medill Professor Donna Leff.
The 2014 award was given to Canadian journalist Kathy Gannon, Associated Press Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan for her reporting in the Middle East.
Award recipient bios:
Glenn Cook is the Las Vegas Review-Journal's managing editor. He previously served as interim editor in the aftermath of the newspaper's sale. Cook has worked for the newspaper for nearly 20 years, including more than 11 years as an editorial page writer and member of its editorial board. He won first place for editorial writing in the 2012 Best of the West contest, and placed third for both editorial writing and general interest column writing in the 2015 Best of the West contest. He previously worked for The Arizona Daily Star. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism and creative writing from the University of Arizona and a master's degree in communication studies from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
James DeHaven reported from both Las Vegas and North Las Vegas city halls during his nearly three years at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He is a two-time winner of investigative reporting awards from the Nevada Press Association. A graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno, he now covers Montana state government for the Helena Independent Record.
Eric Hartley joined the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2014 after working as a reporter and columnist for The Capital of Annapolis, Maryland, and as a reporter at the Los Angeles Daily News and the Orange County Register. A graduate of the University of Maryland, he is now a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk.
Jennifer Robison worked a business journalist in Las Vegas for more than 15 years before she accepted a position with Pacific Gas & Electric in the Bay area in May. She started at the Review-Journal in 2005. She won first place in explanatory journalism in the 2009 Best of the West contest, and the Nevada Press Association named her its 2014 Journalist of the Year for her coverage of the launch of the state's health insurance exchange. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Kansas.
John L. Smith was a columnist for the Review-Journal for three decades before he left the newspaper in April. He won first place in general interest column writing in the 2013 Best of the West contest, and was a Nevada Writers Hall of Fame Silver Pen Award recipient in 2010, among many other honors. A native Nevadan, he's the author of more than a dozen books.
Howard Stutz covered the casino gaming industry for the Review-Journal as a reporter and columnist for more than a decade. A graduate of San Diego State University, Stutz has worked for more than three decades in journalism and communications in Southern Nevada. He now works for the Las Vegas office of the law firm Greenberg Traurig.
James G. Wright is deputy editor for metropolitan and business news for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Before joining the Review-Journal in 2010, Wright was editor of the Twin Falls, Idaho, Times-News, and held editing positions at the Albany Times Union, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Colorado Springs Gazette and the San Diego Tribune. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Idaho and a master's degree in public administration from the University of Colorado at Denver. He is leaving the newspaper this summer for a 2016-17 Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan.