Sep.
25

Asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press

And five other ideas I use to interpret campaign coverage this year.

donald-trump-trolled-by-graphics-chyron-aal
On the eve of the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I thought I would write down some of the precepts and maxims I have used to understand press behavior during this long and startling campaign season. If I have done this right, you should be able to test the usefulness of my list in the final six weeks of the U.S. election. (And during coverage of the debates!)

A word on how I came up with this list. I’ve been a close reader and critic of campaign coverage American-style since 1988. That’s eight “cycles,” as people in the industry say. After I started PressThink in 2003, I could write about the gatekeepers without their permission — hurray for blogging! — and so my pace increased during the 2004, 2008, and 2012 elections. This year I have done a little less at my blog (eight pieces since May 2015, plus one for the Washington Post) and put more into the real time conversation on Twitter, which includes most of the people doing campaign coverage, as well as the heaviest users of it.

Over that stretch I have tried to develop my own pressthink in reply to “theirs,” meaning the ideas most campaign journalists have about their work, and the explanations they tend to give when criticized for it. I tried to summarize the first 20 years of this tension in my 2011 lecture: Why Political Coverage is Broken. What I said there is still basic to how I do my criticism, but Donald Trump’s spectacular intervention has raised the stakes and altered the terms of the debate.

Trump is not a normal candidate and can’t be covered like one. Journalists have finally accepted that. Just the other day Dean Baquet, editor of the New York Times, said this about Trump

He’s been hugely challenging. I don’t think we’ve ever had somebody who in my time as a journalist so openly lies, and that was a word that we struggled to actually utter. We’re used to, I think as journalists, we’re used to philosophical debates, like one party thinks we should go to war on Iraq, makes its case—exaggerates its case, we now know. But there are warring philosophies. I’ve never quite seen anything like [Trump], and I think it’s a real challenge for us.

Elections were about warring philosophies. Journalists sat in the press box and brought you the action. Baquet admits: this organizing image no longer organizes much. But even his phrase “hugely challenging” understates it, I think. Here are the major propositions I have been using to understand this unique and perilous moment.

1. Political journalism rests on a picture of politics that journalists and politicos share.

As practiced by the “mainstream media” (the professionals who work at NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, PBS, NPR, the AP, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Reuters, Bloomberg, Politico, Time magazine) political journalism is constructed — it rests entirely — on a mental picture of the American system in which the two major parties are similar actors with, as Baquet put it, “warring philosophies.”

Elections are the big contests that distribute power between them. The day-to-day of politics is a series of minor battles for tactical advantage. The press is part of this picture because it distributes attention, but — in this view of things — it does not participate in politics itself. It reports on battles large and small, questions the power holders, tries to reveal machinations going on behind the scenes and generates public interest in the drama of politics. But it is unaligned with the major players and unaffected by the outcome of the contests it chronicles.

To report successfully on such a system you need sources who trust you inside both parties. You need people in both parties who will return your calls and have drinks with you at the Des Moines Marriott. The simplest way to guarantee that is to look at politics in the same way that people in the party establishments do. The political pros who staff the committees and run the campaigns and consult with the big players are the closest readers of political journalism and closest in outlook to the journalists who consider reporting on politics their profession.

I called this a mental picture, but it’s more than that. It’s a stable framework within which work can be done, coverage can be planned, knowledge can be refined, reputation can be won, careers can be built. The image of two similar parties with warring philosophies that compete for tactical advantage also positions the mainstream press in a comfortable way: between partisan players as chronicler, questioner and referee. Among those most comfortable with that position: media owners and managers hoping to alienate as few people as possible.

In other words: powerful forces keep the mental picture in place.

2. Asymmetry between the parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press.

Now imagine what happens when over time the base of one party, far more than the base of the other, begins to treat the press as a hostile actor, and its own establishment as part of the rot; when it not only opposes but denies the legitimacy — and loyalty to the state — of the other side’s leader; when it prefers conspiracy theory to party-friendly narratives that at least cope with verified fact; when it is scornful of the reality that in a divided system you never get everything you want.

This is the thesis that Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein developed in their 2012 book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. They are think tank scholars with PhDs and Washington insiders who were frequently called on by journalists to explain trends and furnish quotes. They had incentives the same as journalists to stay on conversant terms with politicos in both parties. Mann and Ornstein came to the conclusion that something had changed in the Republican Party. Their summary of it:

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

Four years later, Dan Balz of the Washington Post, probably the most respected figure in the political press, admitted that Mann and Ornstein were onto something. “They were ahead of others in describing the underlying causes of polarization as asymmetrical,” he wrote. Why did it take four years? (In 2012 and 2014 Balz was noncommittal about the thesis.) Two answers: asymmetry fries the circuits of the mainstream press… and Trump.

Because journalists rely so heavily on that mental picture I described, they stick with it as the anomalies build up. Mann and Ornstein had tried to warn Balz and his colleagues about this:

We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

This advice was ignored at the time. But now it cannot be. For Trump is that “insurgent outlier” described by Mann and Ornstein. In his nativism, xenophobia, “identity politics for white people,” and loose talk about nuclear weapons he is the ideologically extreme. Like the deformed party Mann and Ornstein wrote about, he is “scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science,” and dismissive of the legitimacy of his opposition. He makes things up and doesn’t care if they are fact-checked and found to be lies. He whips up hatred of the press almost to the point of encouraging violence.

Hillary Clinton, for all her problems, including a tense and hostile relationship with the press, is a conventional politician running a conventional campaign that observes the norms of American politics.

That’s asymmetry. Asymmetry is in many ways the story of the 2016 campaign. But it fries the circuits of the mainstream press. Resistance to acknowledging this is strong because so much crumbles if symmetry crumbles. It’s not that it can’t be done. It can be:

All politicians bend the truth to fit their purposes, including Hillary Clinton. But Donald J. Trump has unleashed a blizzard of falsehoods, exaggerations and outright lies in the general election, peppering his speeches, interviews and Twitter posts with untruths so frequent that they can seem flighty or random — even compulsive.

But political journalism isn’t wired for this. It’s wired to safely reproduce the image of two comparable parties with different philosophies. As Ezra Klein noted, the fact that so many in the Republican establishment are appalled by their own nominee has made it easier for some journalists “to cover Trump as an alien, dangerous, and dishonest phenomenon.” But this is not a break with the mental picture I described. It’s a kind of permission from the insiders to go after the guy as threat to the system they share with journalists.

No one is more sold on symmetry than the people who produce political coverage at CNN, which sees itself as steering a middle course between Fox and MSNBC. This has led to a bizarre pattern in which CNN’s paid “contributors” like Corey Lewandowksi faithfully represent Trump by airing the same falsehoods the candidate has been using while freelancing some of their own. CNN hosts sometimes have to correct their own people on air and tell them to stop making stuff up— when it’s CNN who is paying them to play Trump in the first place! (See Bryan Curtis in The Ringer for examples.)

3. Campaign coverage had problems akin to the build up of “technical debt.”

This is an analogy I picked up from Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo. (Technical debt is Ward Cunningham’s concept.) Marshall explains it this way:

If we do a project in a rough and ready way, which is often what we can manage under the time and budget constraints we face, we will build up a “debt” we’ll eventually have to pay back. Basically, if we do it fast, we’ll later have to go back and rework or even replace the code to make it robust enough for the long haul, interoperate with other code that runs our site or simply be truly functional as opposed just barely doing what we need it to. There’s no right or wrong answer; it’s simply a management challenge to know when to lean one way or the other. But if you build up too much of this debt the problem can start to grow not in a linear but an exponential fashion, until the system begins to cave in on itself with internal decay, breakdowns of interoperability and emergent failures which grow from both.

Josh thought this had happened with the Republican Party. For example, “a large portion of the GOP is not satisfied with what can realistically be achieved by conventional political means.” trumpbillboardIt should have found a way to put this to its most demanding supporters, but there was always a reason to avoid that massive reckoning. This left it vulnerable to a huckster and fantasist like Trump. Or: “Can Marco ‘Establishment’ Rubio really get traction attacking Trump for having no specific plan to replace Obamacare when Republicans have spent the last five years repeatedly voting to repeal Obamacare without ever specifying a plan to replace it with?” Again: they never got around to it. This left them vulnerable to Trump.

I read Marshall’s analysis and thought: the same thing happened in a different way to political journalists. They should have found a way to deal with “a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality,” but they kept putting it off, even though they knew that something was happening to the Republican Party that wasn’t happening to the Democrats. They should have built asymmetric polarization into their mental model but it was a lot of work and “both sides do it” was too comforting, too attractive.

More debt: They should have done something about the uniformity of approach from cycle to cycle and newsroom to newsroom but it was too easy to keep doing it the way they had always done it. (Two exceptions: they added fact-checking; and influenced by Nate Silver, they got more sophisticated about polling.) They should have lessened their dependence on establishment voices and political professionals but the shared sensibility — which I have called the savvy outlook — was too hard to overcome. They should have admitted that they had become part of the political class, but it required them to retire too many illusions about themselves.

4. Trump’s campaign upends the assumptions required for traditional forms of election-year journalism even to make sense.

I made this argument in the Washington Post in July. Campaign coverage is a contraption that only works if the candidates behave in certain expected ways. Up to now, they always did. But Trump violates many of these expectations. For example:

Imagine a candidate who wants to increase public confusion about where he stands on things so that voters give up on trying to stay informed and instead vote with raw emotion. Under those conditions, does asking “Where do you stand, sir?” serve the goals of journalism, or does it enlist the interviewer in the candidate’s chaotic plan?

Here’s a more granular example. Up to now campaigns for major party nominees tried to make sure that what the campaign was saying (and the campaign manager, the running mate, the chair as titular head…) reflected what the candidate was saying. If the campaign put out a message contradicted by the candidate, that was a problem. Why? Because mixed messaging confuses the voters and makes the campaign look dumb. Therefore an interview with the campaign manager, the running mate, or some other surrogate was a window into the candidate’s thinking. It had journalistic value for that reason.

The Trump campaign breaks this practice. If Donald Trump calls NBC’s Lester Holt a Democrat (in fact he’s a registered Republican) and attacks him as part of an unfair system, Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, is later free to say that Holt is a “respected, brilliant newsman” who will do a great job as moderator of the first debate. An on-the-ball journalist can ask: hey, which is it? But that’s a practice with a premise. The premise is that a presidential campaign wants to put out a consistent message to avoid confusing people, and to deny journalists a “gotcha” moment. What if that premise is false? The rationale for interviewing the campaign manager, the running mate, or some other surrogate collapses. They say one thing, the candidate says something else and the confusion is not considered a problem. It may even be a plus.

Again and again with Trump, journalists find themselves in this position: persisting with familiar practices that don’t really make sense because the premise behind them has collapsed— collapsed for one candidate, but not the other. And remember: asymmetry fries the circuits of the mainstream press.

5. Hillary Clinton would like to avoid the press. Trump is trying to break it.

I will outsource the fact pattern to Erik Wemple, media columnist for the Washington Post, and the background on Clinton to Politico. But I would add that Trump’s threat to the press goes far deeper than his flagrant abuse of journalists and the threatening noises he has made about libel law.

When I say he’s trying to break the press, I mean the entire system that gives honest journalism a role in the republic. Trump is running against such basic notions as:

  • “we need a fact-based debate or there can’t be consent of the governed;”
  • “there’s a public record that cannot just be wiped away;”
  • “a candidate’s position on major issues should be made clear to the voters;”
  • “lying cannot become a universal principle in politics without major damage to our democracy.”

Not only is he running against such fundamentals, the continuity of which is assumed by all forms of campaign coverage, but journalists are the ones who understand best his assault on these basic principles. They’re living it every day. Of course, he’s running against them, too.

A political style that mocks the idea of a common world of facts — and gets traction with that view —  is an attack on the very possibility of honest journalism. Campaign journalists have to find a way to oppose this style without becoming election-season opponents of Trump himself, which is not, I think, their proper role. Nothing in their training or tradition would have prepared them for this moment.

6. A candidate the likes of which we have not seen requires a type of coverage we have never seen.

I agree with the Atlantic’s James Fallows about Trump. “No one like him has gotten this close to the presidency in modern times.” Which is not to say he came out of nowhere, or that there is no precedent for his political style. A long series of developments left the presidential nominating system and the Republican party vulnerable to Trump. A long series of developments, which I tried to summarize here and here, also left political journalism unprepared for the challenge of covering this campaign.

But now we’re here and novelty demands novelty. If journalists are to rise to the occasion in the final six weeks of this campaign, they will have to find a style of coverage as irregular as Trump’s political style. There are powerful forces working against this. But if they don’t try, they are likely to regret it for the rest of their careers.

Jul.
24

Getting granular with NPR’s culture of timidity

NPR would not call it plagiarism when Melania Trump’s speech to the Republican convention took passages from Michelle Obama. But there was a revealing moment when its people defended this policy online.

mt

Hey, readers! This will take some explanation but if you bear with me, I promise: by the time you get to point 9 it will be worth it.

1. On the morning after Melania Trump’s speech, Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott published this note about NPR’s policy. The message: we can’t call it plagiarism unless it’s intentional.

On The Definition Of Plagiarism

Because it’s in the news today, here’s a reminder about how we have defined the word “plagiarism”:

“Taking someone else’s work and intentionally presenting it as if it is your own.”

Note the word “intentionally.”

We can talk about phrases that are “word-for-word” or that “mirror each other.” It’s fine to say there’s a “plagiarism issue” or that the speech last night raised questions about whether some parts were plagiarized. But we don’t know at this time whether anything was done “intentionally.” So don’t declare that there’s been some plagiarism.

2. You can see the NPR policy at work in the many reports it prepared about the Melania Trump speech. They all avoided the word “plagiarized.”

“Melania Trump’s Monday Speech Mirrors Michelle Obama’s…” (Link.) “…language in Melania Trump’s Monday night convention speech that was near-identical to a similar speech Michelle Obama delivered in 2008.” (Link.) “Melania Trump Echoes Michelle Obama.” (Link.)

Even after Trump staffer Meredith McIver took responsibility for using Michelle Obama’s words without credit, NPR would not call it plagiarism. (Link) Why? Because she didn’t mean it.

3. I came across Memmott’s note because I was mentioned on Twitter by an NPR reporter, Sarah McCammon, as she was being taken to task by a user named Shoq, who often comments on media issues. Here is some of that exchange:

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 4.23.48 PM

4. This brought into the discussion my NYU colleague Clay Shirky. He had the following exchange with Sarah McCammon. (Link.)

Shirky: “Sarah, that’s wrong. When professors look for plagiarism, we look for copying without attribution, period.”

McCammon: “I’m aware. My husband is a professor. Different standards for different situations/fields.”

Shirky: “Are you are walking back your ‘technical’ excuse? And saying NPR’s standard is just not to use the word?”

McCammon: “Uh, not an excuse. Not walking anything back. Again, I refer you to our policy. NPR’s guidelines are different than many academic institutions, which understandably may have a lower threshold.”

Remember those words: “lower threshhold.”

5. Shirky’s point can be seen in this passage from NYU’s ethics handbook for journalism students:

Cardinal Sins

Plagiarism: Journalists earn their living with words, and plagiarism — using someone else’s words as if they were your own — is, simply stated, stealing.

Nothing about intent. This is from the Harvard College Writing Program:

In academic writing, it is considered plagiarism to draw any idea or any language from someone else without adequately crediting that source in your paper. It doesn’t matter whether the source is a published author, another student, a Web site without clear authorship, a Web site that sells academic papers, or any other person: Taking credit for anyone else’s work is stealing, and it is unacceptable in all academic situations, whether you do it intentionally or by accident.

My italics. This one is from Oxford University’s guide for students: (My italics.)

Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement. All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under this definition. Plagiarism may be intentional or reckless, or unintentional. Under the regulations for examinations, intentional or reckless plagiarism is a disciplinary offence.

6. These were Sarah McCammon’s main points as she responded to the many people on Twitter who were puzzled by NPR’s refusal to call what Melania Trump did “plagiarism.”

* Our guidelines say it has to be intentional. I have to follow them. (Link.)
* I can’t see into Melania’s mind. I have no way to judge intent. (Link.)
* I present facts and trust listeners to make up their own minds. (Link.)
* What academics say isn’t relevant. My reference point is other journalists. (Link.)

7. Other journalists? Well, the Washington Post had no trouble calling it plagiarism: Why it became almost impossible for the Trumps to insist Melania’s plagiarism was coincidence. Do they have lower standards than NPR? (Another example.) And it wasn’t just headlines: (All bolding by me.)

Memo to all remaining 2016 convention speakers, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat: You are officially on notice. The words you say will be researched by reporters to determine whether they have ever been said before, in the same order in which you are saying them now.

This is the consequence of Melania Trump using plagiarized sections of Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech in an address to the Republican National Convention on Monday. Journalists now have a new game to play when speakers take the stage: “Spot the Source.”

Would the New York Times be one of the news organizations from which Sarah McCammon takes her cues? Nope.

“My name is Meredith McIver and I’m an in-house staff writer at the Trump Organization,” began an extraordinary statement she released Wednesday morning in which she took the blame for the disastrous plagiarism of Michelle Obama in Melania Trump’s prime-time speech Monday at the Republican National Convention.

CNN, maybe? Alas, no: “Donald Trump’s campaign finally moved Wednesday to shut down the distracting controversy over Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech by identifying the writer who worked on the speech.” Los Angles Times: same deal. “The Trump campaign released a statement Wednesday – ‘to whom it may concern’ – ascribing the plagiarized passages in Melania Trump’s convention speech to a scribe working for Donald Trump’s corporate operation.”

8. The point is: if NPR wanted to call a spade a spade it had a clear warrant for doing so— from academic sources, from journalism peers, or via a simple dictionary definition. But NPR doesn’t want to call a plagiarized convention speech a plagiarized convention speech. Why? Because there could be a controversy about it! As indeed there immediately was after Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech. Trump defender Chris Christie rejected that description. So did campaign chair Paul Manafort, who even blamed Hillary Clinton for the controversy.

NPR’s intention in these charged moments is not to describe the world vividly and accurately for listeners, but to escape from acts of judgment that could be criticized in the heat of a campaign. And even though it’s a fairly simple matter to assess what happened here and decide that, yep, the speech was plagiarized — and then report on whodunit — for NPR the relevant factor isn’t the ease of applying a standard definition of plagiarism but how simple it is to avoid getting dragged into a messy fight. And so the guidance went out: “It’s fine to say there’s a ‘plagiarism issue’ or that the speech last night raised questions about whether some parts were plagiarized…”

Alongside the production of news, NPR is worried about reproducing its own innocence in matters of controversy. The code for this is: people can make up their own minds. Which is really saying: NPR can’t think, but we invite you to!

9. Now we come to the most revealing moment in the exchanges I reproduced for you: when Sarah McCammon tells Clay Shirky: NPR’s guidelines are different than many academic institutions, which understandably may have a lower threshold. Fascinating! For it’s really the opposite. NYU, Harvard, Oxford all have a tougher standard than NPR. If you borrow someone’s words without attribution, that’s plagiarism and you have to face the consequences. Under the more relaxed standard that NPR favors, you not only have to borrow someone else’s words without attribution to be committing plagiarism, you also have to show malicious intent. And NPR has to have some reliable way of knowing your intent. This is a lower threshold. Because of it many more people will be able to commit plagiarism without being called out for it by NPR.

And yet reporter Sarah McCammon says NPR has a higher threshold. What does she mean? Well, she’s not an idiot. Her claim makes sense, but only if you understand the culture of timidity at NPR. What her bosses are worried about is making a judgment that could be contested. Before they’re willing to do that, they need a lot of evidence. What they have in mind is not “what’s the right thing to call this?” or “what’s the best descriptor for our listeners?” but “how can we make fewer calls that can be criticized by powerful actors?” and “how can we report on controversies without becoming part of them?”

When those are the starting points, a “lower” threshold means you are willing to make more calls that could be criticized. And academics can tell you: almost every student who plagiarizes says “it was not my intent!” If you’re going to be real about plagiarism, you are going to be criticized, not only by students but by their parents. If you have high standards, you take the heat. If you have low standards, you worry about how much heat you will get. Sarah McCammon had flipped this in her mind, and she was unaware of it. But she was right about one thing: it’s unproductive to rage at her, for she has no choice but to follow NPR guidelines.

10. If “academic institutions have a lower threshold” was the most telling thing she said, this was to me the most interesting:


In a way she’s right. If she calls it plagiarism on air that doesn’t change anything. But that’s because calling things by their right names should not be an issue we have to fight with journalists about. The fact that it is an issue, not only with plagiarism but with more serious descriptors like torture, is a sign of weakness in the culture of journalism, and this is especially so at NPR.

This makes a lot of its listeners sad.

UPDATE, July 26: Steve Buttry wrote about this issue at his blog. He also got Mark Memmott, NPR’s editor for standards and practices, to comment. Here is what Memmott said by way of explanation:

When we wrote our Ethics Handbook in 2012 we included this definition of plagiarism: ‘Taking someone else’s work and intentionally presenting it as if it is your own.’ We realized that wasn’t a strict ‘dictionary definition.’ But we included the word ‘intentionally’ for a very specific reason: to allow us to apply some judgment.

We were thinking about how we would react if a journalist who had never stolen from someone else’s work inadvertently left a line or phrase from another file in his or her copy. Did that person make a serious mistake? Yes. Does that person deserve to be labeled a ‘plagiarist’ and be disciplined or even fired? We wanted some flexibility to make an intelligent decision.

On the morning when I reminded the staff about our definition, the story about Melania Trump’s speech was developing. I was thinking that we should not rush to hold her to a different standard than we would hold ourselves.

You and others have said that no one will ever admit they intended to plagiarize. You may be right. But I would say that a confession isn’t necessary to determine intent. It’s not hard to tell the difference between a slip by someone who’s never been accused or convicted of plagiarism and a story that’s got several “lifts” from different sources. And if someone slips and is later caught again, I think intent has been proven by his actions.

You wrote that we’re guilty of ‘comical gymnastics.’ That’s a good line. I would hope, though, that you would give us some credit for trying to think things through. Have we overthought it? Perhaps. But I would say our intentions are good.

One more thing. Sarah McCammon is a good journalist who was applying the guidance she was given by her editors. If there’s a problem, it’s because of her editors (most notably me), not her.

Jul.
21

To have a prayer of meeting the interpretive challenge posed by the Trump candidacy…

Last week in the Washington Post I said that journalists covering the candidacy of Donald Trump may have to come up with novel responses. Here I elaborate by asking you examine this image:

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 4.20.26 PM

That’s the line-up of interpreters presented by CNN on Tuesday of this week. They all fit under one of three categories: Journalists who cover politics for CNN (Gloria Borger, John King, Nia-Malika Henderson); political operatives who have worked for more traditional candidates (David Axelrod, Van Jones, Ana Navarro); and surrogates whose value to the conversation is that they reliably support Trump (Jeffery Lord, Andy Dean.)

But is that mix good enough? Can those three types — political journalists, operatives, surrogates — bring enough perspective to make sense of the Trump phenomenon?

My answer: No. Not even close.

The journalists are on screen mainly because these are the people CNN has at hand. They’re already being paid, so they have to be used. The operatives are there because, according to the producers, politics is a game and these are people who know how the game is played. The surrogates are there because in order to elude criticism — a massive and undeclared factor in political coverage — CNN needs to present itself as “balanced.” It’s hard to find anyone who from experience knows a lot about politics and also supports Donald Trump, so CNN has to pay people to even the scales.

Notice: all of these reasons are producer-centric. They aren’t responding to user demands, or the demands of the phenomenon itself. Jeffrey Lord is there because CNN needs him on air to feel fair and balanced. His job is to help CNN ward off criticism that it is one-sided or insufficiently Trumpish. This is the same reason Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was hired by CNN. The decision has nothing to do with serving audiences, explaining politics, or telling voters the hard truth about their choices. It’s about avoiding criticism.

In order to have a prayer of meeting the interpretive challenge posed by the candidacy of Donald Trump an executive producer of election coverage at a major network would need to call on different categories than the three we commonly see: journalists, operatives, and surrogates. Here’s a partial list of the “slots” you would need to fill to even come close to a useful and rounded view…

Parody: In many ways, Trump’s is a joke candidacy, a parody of a presidential campaign. The wall that Mexico will pay for is much closer to a goof on the political class than it is to any serious policy proposal. One of the slots on our revised roundtable should therefore go to someone who is attuned to this dimension and can evaluate how well the candidate did in extending his parody to the most sacred rituals in American politics, like the acceptance speech.

Stay shocked. “Many forces will be at work in the coming weeks to normalize Trump,” wrote E.J. Dionne in May. “Please don’t mainstream [him].” Dionne’s plea deserves its own chair, a slot on the televised roundtable for someone whose only job it is to stay shocked, remain alert to the unprecedented, the hard-to-believe, the amazing, the chaotic. This person’s job is exactly what Dionne said: never normalize Trump. Remain awestruck.

‘Dominance politics’ and the imperative of humiliation. “A series of symbols and actions that mark the dominating from the dominated.” Here I am quoting Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, who has pursued this interpretation for months. (Brilliantly, I should add.) There should be someone on the pundit’s roundtable who is paying close attention to the manner in which Trump tries to establish his dominance over all comers and humiliate anyone who would try to contest his superiority. Hearing that person opine on the latest speech, or press conference maneuver would be useful and illuminating.

Narcissism watch. Anyone aware of what “narcissism” really means would also be aware that Trump is a classic and illuminating case. Narcissists are distinguished not by self-love — that is a common misconception — but by a weak sense of identity that needs constant shoring up. It is hard for the narcissist to tell what is self and not self. A pundit alert to the paradoxes of this condition might be able deliver insights that would baffle a campaign operative.

Reality TV. No roundtable attempting to size up Trump is complete without someone who can view his events through the lens of Hollywood values, entertainment priorities, reality television imperatives, the demands of the script— worlds in which Trump has truly excelled. Van Jones cannot do that. Jeffrey Lord cannot do that.

“Identity politics for white people” is a phrase I first heard in this August 2015 essay by Ben Domenech. More recently it was the subject of this report by Nick Confessore: For Whites Sensing Decline, Donald Trump Unleashes Words of Resistance. “Everyone’s sticking together in their groups,” said one of his sources, “so white people have to, too.” Instead of turning to another political consultant with a savvy take on the game of politics, Anderson Cooper should be asking his expert on white resentment to weigh in.

Political correctness. A portion of Trump’s appeal has to do with his open defiance of what is often called “political correctness.” If I were an executive producer of campaign coverage trying to capture the Trump phenomenon, I would dump Gloria Borger (what does she add, really?) and insert a careful student of this form of backlash politics, in which rules about what you “can’t say” are broken and energy is thereby released.

Jun.
29

Facebook backs off on the View from Nowhere

Today Facebook released a document it calls: News Feed Values. It’s a start on beginning to define some editorial priorities.

Even a start — and that’s all this is — is news, though. Because for a long time Facebook wouldn’t even say it had priorities. It would describe you as the editor of News Feed: you, rather than Facebook.

It would say things like: “It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed by what you tell us that you’re interested in.” (2015) Or: “We try to explicitly view ourselves as not editors. We don’t want to have editorial judgment over the content that’s in your feed.” (2014)

Here’s what I said back to Facebook about this habit of theirs:

Facebook has to start recognizing that our questions are real— not error messages. We are not suggesting that it “edits” NewsFeed in the same way that a newspaper editor once edited the front page. It’s a very different way. That’s why we’re asking about it! We are not suggesting that algorithms work in the same way that elites deciding what’s news once operated. It’s a different way. That’s why we’re asking about it! No one is being simple-minded here and demanding that Facebook describe editorial criteria it clearly does not have— like reaching for a nice mix of foreign and domestic news. We get it…

But precisely because we do “get it” — at least at a basic level — we want to know: what are you optimizing for, along with user interest? How do you see your role within a news ecosystem where you are more and more the dominant player? In news, you have power now. It is growing. Help us understand how you intend to use it. What kind of filter will you be? What kind of player… playing for what?

The document released today is not a revelation, but it does say a few interesting things. Here is my summary of News Feed’s editorial philosophy:

Your social graph comes first, not the public world. Informing you is a higher priority than entertaining you. But we think “information” comes in many forms, not just serious news. A good recipe for beer can chicken is information to the person who is looking for it. We don’t exclude points of view we don’t like, or favor the sources we do like. We let the invisible hand of user choice make those decisions. Except: We do try to edit out what people find misleading, sensational, spammy— mere click bait. We do police nudity, hate speech, personal abuse, and violent or overly graphic content. Above all, we design News Feed to keep people on our platform because—

Actually the last part isn’t in there. I added that. To me it’s the obvious thing missing from this attempt to state the values that are built into News Feed. No one should expect Facebook to be a traffic distributor because that is not a priority the company has for its product. Again, this is obvious but as long as they’re trying to clarify what they stand for they should clarify that.

One more thing Facebook says in the value statement it released today: its committed to the personalization of News Feed as a kind of right that users have. “You control your experience.” I will be worth watching how this rights revolution in news display unfolds.

Now that they’re publicly committed to certain values the next thing Facebook needs is a public editor to synthesize complaints and get answers when the company falls short. It also needs to iterate on today’s statement as often as it revises the algorithm for News Feed.

Mar.
18

“Depends on your point of view…” These are weasel words for political journalists.

I often comment on the absurdity of the relentlessly down-the-middle approach cultivated by CNN, PBS, NPR and other “mainstream” news organizations. I don’t trust this style. I think it is practiced in bad faith.

Last night I came upon a new exhibit in my running critique. I will show it to you, and then try to interpret what it means. It happened on a program where he said, she said and “we’ll have to leave it there” are a kind of house style: The Newshour on PBS. (Link.) Let’s set the scene…

* A big story: the poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s water supply— a major public health disaster.
* Latest news: the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing at which Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, and EPA Administrator Gina McCarth, an Obama appointee, both testified.
* Outcome: They were ritualistically denounced and told to resign by members of Congress in the opposing party. (Big surprise, right?)
* Cast of characters in the clip I’m about to show you: Judy Woodruff of the Newshour is host and interviewer. Judy_Woodruff_at_Spotlight_Health_Aspen_Ideas_Festival_2015David Shepardson is a Reuters reporter in the Washington bureau who has been covering the Flint disaster. (Formerly of the Detroit News and a Michigan native.) Marc Edwards is a civil and environmental engineer and professor at Virginia Tech. (“He’s widely credited with helping to expose the Flint water problems. He testified before the same House committee earlier this week.”)

Now watch what happens when Woodruff asks the Reuters reporter: who bears responsibility for the water crisis in Flint? Which individual or agency is most at fault here? (The part I’ve isolated is 2:22.)

Here is what I saw. What did you see? The comment thread is open.

The Reuters journalist defaults on the question he was asked. He cannot name a single agency or person who is responsible. The first thing and the last thing he says is “depends on your point of view.” These are weasel words. In between he manages to isolate the crucial moment — when the state of Michigan failed to add “corrosion control” to water drawn from the Flint River — but he cannot say which official or which part of government is responsible for that lapse. Although he’s on the program for his knowledge of a story he’s been reporting on for months, the question of where responsibility lies seems to flummox and decenter him. He implies that he can’t answer because there actually is no answer, just the clashing points of view.

Republicans in Congress scream at Obama’s EPA person: you failed! Democrats in Congress scream at a Republican governor: you failed! Our reporter on the scene shrugs, as if to say: take your pick, hapless citizens! His actual words: “Splitting up the blame depends on your point of view.”

This is a sentiment that Judy Woodruff, who is running the show, can readily understand. He’s talking her language when he says “depends on your point of view.” That is just the sort of the down-the-middle futility that PBS Newshour traffics in. Does she press him to do better? Does she say, “Our viewers want to know: how can such thing a happen in the United States? You’ve been immersed in the story, can you at least tell us where to look if we’re searching for accountability?” She does not. Instead, she sympathizes with David Shepardson. “It’s impossible to separate it from the politics.” But we’ll try!

For the try she has to turn to the academic on the panel, who then gives a little master class in how to answer the question: who is at fault here? Here are the points Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech makes:

* Governor Snyder failed to listen to the people of Flint when they complained about the water.
* Synder trusted too much in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA.
* He has accepted some blame for these failures, calling the Flint water crisis his Katrina.
* EPA, by contrast, has been evading responsibility for its part in the scandal.
* EPA called the report by its own whistleblower “inconclusive” when it really wasn’t.
* The agency hesitated and doubted itself when it came to enforcing federal law. WTF?
* EPA said it had been “strong-armed” by the state officials as if they had more authority than the Federal government.

Who is responsible? That was the question on the PBS table. If we listen to the journalist on the panel we learn: “it depends on which team you’re on,” and “they’re all playing politics,” and “it’s impossible to separate truth from spin.”

Professor Marc Edwards, more confident in his ability to speak truth to power, cuts through all that crap: There are different levels of failure and layers of responsibility here, he says. Some people are further along than others in admitting fault. Yes, it’s complicated — as real life usually is — but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to assign responsibility. Nor does responsibility lie in one person’s lap or one agency’s hands. Multiple parties are involved. But when people who have some responsibility obfuscate, that’s outrageous. And it has to be called out.

Now I ask you: who’s in the ivory tower here? The journalist or the academic?

I know what you’re thinking, PBS Newshour people. Hey, we’re the ones who booked Marc Edwards on our show and let him run with it. That’s good craft in broadcast journalism! Fair point, Newshour people. All credit to you for having him on. Good move. Full stop.

What interests me here is the losing gambit and musty feel of formulaic, down-the-middle journalism. The misplaced confidence of the correspondent positioning himself between warring parties. The spectacle of a Reuters reporter, steeped in the particulars of the case, defaulting on the basic question of who is responsible. The forfeiture of Fourth Estate duties to other, adjacent professions. The union with gridlock and hopelessness represented in those weasel words: “depends on your point of view.” The failure of nerve when Judy Woodruff lets a professional peer dodge her question— a thing they chortle about and sneer at when politicians do it. The contribution that “not our job” journalists make to unaccountable government, and to public cynicism. The bloodlessness and lack of affect in the journalist commenting on the Flint crisis, in contrast to the academic who is quietly seething.

In December I wrote something on how journalists and their bad habits are implicated in our hyper-polarized politics. (“Tone poem for the ‘leave it there’ press.”) Please excuse me for quoting myself:

Every time you asked each other “what’s the politics of this?” so you could escape the tedium and complexity of public problem-solving. Every time you smiled weakly to say, “depends on who you ask” before launching into a description of public actors who dwell in separate worlds of fact. Every time you described political polarization as symmetrical when it isn’t. Every time you denied that being in the middle was a position so you didn’t have to ask if it was a defensible one.

This has to stop.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

Big thanks to Max Larkin for technical assistance.

Ron Fournier of The Atlantic writes about the same moment and completely ignores the Reuters reporter, as if he wasn’t there. Also:


One of the reasons that journalists default to “depends on your point of view” when asked where responsibility lies is that they are wary of enlistment in partisan politics. And that is a valid concern. But it is false to equate holding people accountable with taking sides. That’s just lazy, formulaic thinking. Here’s a portion of the “About” page for ProPublica, an investigative newsroom in New York that does nothing but accountability journalism. Watch how in defining what they do they carefully distinguish it from joining up with the political circus:

In the best traditions of American journalism in the public service, we seek to stimulate positive change. We uncover unsavory practices in order to stimulate reform. We do this in an entirely non-partisan and non-ideological manner, adhering to the strictest standards of journalistic impartiality. We won’t lobby. We won’t ally with politicians or advocacy groups. We look hard at the critical functions of business and of government, the two biggest centers of power, in areas ranging from product safety to securities fraud, from flaws in our system of criminal justice to practices that undermine fair elections. But we also focus on such institutions as unions, universities, hospitals, foundations and on the media when they constitute the strong exploiting or oppressing the weak, or when they are abusing the public trust.

It’s possible to hold power to account journalistically without “taking sides” in a political dispute. But you have to actually think about the best way to do that for your newsroom. My objection to “depends on your point of view” is that it is thought-less in precisely this way.

This “reporters notebook” item by Lindsey Smith of Michigan Public Radio answers the where does responsibility lie? question very well. And it clearly shows that the journalists involved in reporting on the Flint water crisis had to deliberate — think hard about what they uncovered — to get there, because the answer is complicated. Lindsey Smith writes that in making a 50-minute documentary on “how did this happen?” they came to a conclusion:

By not requiring Flint to treat the river water in a way that would’ve helped keep lead out of the drinking water, MDEQ became the most important focus for the “accountability” portion of this documentary.

Through months of research and lengthy, recorded interviews, my editors and I came to the conclusion that, had the water experts (specifically officials at MDEQ and the engineering firm Flint’s emergency manager hired), done a better job, then who made the decision to go to the Flint River shouldn’t have mattered. If they would’ve required corrosion control treatment, treatment any normal large city in America uses, treatment that the federal government has now made completely clear is absolutely required, the lead problems Flint has faced may not have ever happened.

That’s not to say all the responsibility lies there. Rather: accountability begins there. And that does not depend on your point of view. It flows from actual reporting. (Hat tip, Dustin Dwyer.)

Mar.
10

A few things to keep in mind when you’re angry, frustrated, or bored with campaign coverage.

This began as an email I was going to send to a reporter who asked me for comment on the complaints of Bernie Sanders supporters about unfair treatment. I decided to post it. I do realize it will satisfy no one.

Campaign coverage as usual lacks any higher or deeper purpose beyond chronicling the race and figuring out who is likely to win. This purposelessness is the originating problem, in my view. The alternatives that are typically put forward — captured in two over-used abstractions, “issues” and “policy” — do not stir the juices among campaign journalists or inspire creative effort within their organizations.

Who wants to spend their time chronicling the policy proposals of a candidate who is not going to win anyway? No one. And if the candidate is likely to win, the story of how they did it (and what it takes…) is always more exciting to journalists than policy prescriptions that are unlikely to be adopted because they were crafted to gain votes in a presidential election, to sound right to the right groups of people, not to pass Congress after the election.

As long as the available alternatives are posed this way: chronicling the ups and downs of the race and figuring out who’s likely to win — also known as horse race journalism — on one hand, vs. “issues” and “policy” coverage (dutiful business…) on the other, nothing will really change. We will continue to be stuck in these fruitless debates wherein supporters of the candidates who are not winning in the estimation of journalists cry foul because they get less attention, which then makes it harder for them to win.

Bernie Sanders supporters are currently trapped in this catch-22; it enrages them, but it is not unique to their candidate. These complaints will continue to fall on deaf ears (sorry for the cliché) because journalists receiving them actually believe: “If you wanted your candidate to receive more coverage, you should have backed someone who was more likely to win!” But journalists who think that way won’t say it that way because a.) it sounds mean, uncharitable in the extreme, and b.) somewhere they have a bad conscience about surrendering to their own horse race tendencies.

In one breath they think: Who are these people claiming we should give their candidate more coverage? They should have thought of that before they backed an obvious loser! But in the next breath they think: issues, policy, public problem-solving, material differences among the candidates in what they would do if elected… that’s what the election is supposed to be about. We should cover that.

Reflecting for any length of time on this conflict is too painful for intelligent and self-aware journalists. Cognitive dissonance is the most likely result. Who’s gonna win? is of immediate import to the nation and more interesting to the audience, they believe. But what these candidates would do if elected is more valid journalistically, symbolized by a strange word they use for this part of the problem, “substance.” (As against “process.”) Picking between the two — substance vs. process — is hard. They say they do both, but when it comes to determining the portion of coverage that various candidates “deserve” there are no points for being the most substantial. There could be, maybe there should be, but there isn’t in the system as it stands.

Overlaid on this are, of course, the obvious commercial pressures that vastly favor Trump in this election (the handy term for which is “ratings”) and the ancient tests of newsworthiness: the different, the new, the unexpected, the man that bites dog, the spectacular, the OMG, the bizarre. These also favor Trump, hugely. And he’s winning the Republican primary, so he has the trifecta: ratings, OMG and horse race. Good luck moving the press off that!

Purposelessness is the deeper problem, I have said. But the people who produce campaign coverage don’t agree with me. They think this criticism is weird, tone deaf. They know they pay a lot of attention to the horse race, but they don’t apologize for it, because they truly believe: this is what readers, viewers and listeners prefer. The race is exciting! People want to know who’s likely to win. They don’t want to waste their votes on a loser. They want to be brought inside the process, the circus, the show. The high-minded complain, but consumers love the product. No contest.

What I mean by purposelessness is that the producers and authors of campaign coverage would find it hard to answer this question: what are we trying to accomplish here? What’s the ultimate goal of our coverage in 2016? It’s not to elect a particular candidate. (As Jack Shafer said to his colleagues today: “Your job is neither to stop Trump nor advance him.”) It’s not to make the case for the D’s or the R’s. (That’s the job of the parties.) It’s not to win the ratings or the battle for clicks. (Corporate bosses love that, but it’s not what gets political journalists jazzed.)

They could say, and some of them would say, “to equip people to cast an intelligent vote,” but if that were the purpose then it would be no contest in the other direction: “substance” would win over “process” with regularity. (Again those are not my terms, they are native to the campaign press.) Another possible answer would be: to vet these candidates and make sure they and their proposals meet the presidential test. A worthy goal but it has little to do with “who’s gonna win and how are they doing it?” which is a majority of the coverage.

When you put it all together you realize the purposelessness is intentional, or at least functional, it works just enough for everyone to keep the system as it is. Not to be too cute, but it has a purpose. For another way of saying weak on questions of purpose is “strong on advancing no agenda” and in mainstream journalism that’s good… right?

I guess what I’m saying is this: Campaign journalists have a system for determining who gets the most coverage. They have no system for determining who deserves the most coverage.

The justness of campaign journalism will change only when the people who produce it have enough confidence to declare an agenda that is not ideological or political, that does not tilt the field for this candidate or that party but rather instructs the press in where the spotlight belongs. (Example of what I mean.) Until that day, these abstractions will float around — issues, policy, substance, process — and people will continue to get mad.

Mar.
6

“We temporarily lost our minds.” Some thoughts on SB Nation’s Daniel Holtzclaw debacle.

This is a key moment for Vox Media and its internal culture, which has been one of the company’s strengths. Vox can emerge a better, wiser, tougher company but only if the truthtelling is real— and made public.

holtzclaw

On February 17, SB Nation, the founding site in the Vox Media empire, did something so inexplicable it amounts to an editorial mystery.

For about five hours the editors had up on their site a 12,000 word article weirdly sympathetic to Daniel Holtzclaw, the now-notorious Oklahoma City police officer convicted on 18 counts of rape and sexual assault, crimes he committed while on duty and against the people he was supposed to protect. This was a piece of writing so wrongheaded, noxious and ill-conceived that the editorial director of SB Nation, Spencer Hall, said later that day in a note to readers: “There is no qualification: it was a complete failure.”

A true statement. I cannot put it any better than Deadspin’s Greg Howard did:

The tone of the entire piece is fawning and forgiving; by the end, the terrifying, spectacular spree of rapes exists as little more than an unfortunate occurrence, and a 263-year sentence as an unjustly harsh burden Holtzclaw has to bear. Holtzclaw destroyed 13 women’s lives; “Who Is Daniel Holtzclaw?” told the story of how they destroyed his.

What I mean by a mystery is this: When the editors of a site receive complaints about a work they have published, and after reviewing it quickly find their decision to publish it indefensible, they are telling us, in effect, that they had temporarily lost their minds. They had quit being editors, but when alerted to the vacancy looked upon their AWOL selves with shock and horror. From the outside it’s hard to imagine how that switch happens. Continuing to defend the indefensible, as Newsweek has done with its bitcoin story (still online, unretracted) is a lot less admirable than what Vox did, but somehow easier to understand than “Hey, we temporarily lost our minds…”

In the case of “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” — quickly removed from the internet by SB Nation but still available in a cached version — an internal investigation is underway. It is being conducted by Vox Media’s editorial director, Lockhart Steele. According to Greg Howard’s report, he is being assisted by five women who work for Vox: Recode founder Kara Swisher, Eater executive editor Helen Rosner, Vox.com managing editor Lauren Williams, Katie Nimick of Vox Media human resources, and Miriam Nissly, who works in the company’s legal department.

“A major editorial miscalculation was made, and it’s on us that we figure out why and limit the chances of it happening again,” Steele told the New York Times. The meltdown happened in SB Nation’s “longform” division, which was launched in 2012. It publishes narrative non-fiction that takes months to report. That work has been suspended while the investigation unfolds.

“We’re reviewing all of our processes in light of this failure,” said Spencer Hall in his note to readers shortly after the piece was pulled. “There are a lot of them, and I promise to talk in detail about them publicly while we work through all of them.” Please underline that word “promise.” Greg Howard reports something different: “What the company finds may well remain unknown; we’re told the results of its inquest are unlikely to be made public.” That is not good.

I think this is a key moment for Vox Media and its internal culture, which has been a major strength. A weird thing about these meltdowns is that it’s entirely possible for Vox to come out of this a wiser and stronger company that’s even more attractive to editorial, technical and commercial talent. But that only happens if the investigation is thorough and the truthtelling is real and detailed— and made public.

In a memo to employees obtained by Deadspin, Vox’s vice president of editorial operations, Kevin Lockland, wrote: “You have every right to be angry and disappointed. We are committed to taking appropriate actions to earn back your trust, which we know will take time.” That’s a good sign. But of course it is the trust of readers that is equally a stake in this investigation. And the confidence of future employees, especially women and minority journalists, who may or may not want to join Vox. For as Greg Howard observes:

This story serves as an example of why diversity in the newsroom is so important. It isn’t because diversity is charity, or because giving opportunities to people other than white men is a Christlike thing to do, but because everyone has blind spots, and everyone fucks up.

Exactly.

Diversity = blind spot minimization. Real diversity is an improvement in editorial vision, such that things appear “in their corrected fullness.” (The phrase is Sheldon Wolin’s.) Howard’s reporting on how the meltdown happened reveals that Elena Bergeron, SB Nation’s senior editor — a very experienced journalist and “the only person of color and the only woman among SBNation.com’s top layer of editors” — had seen the disaster coming. She “explicitly and repeatedly drew attention to the story’s flaws in the days leading to its publication— and was, somehow, ignored.” Somehow ignored? That’s part of the mystery. But it has to be explained. If the explanation is kept within house, what does that tell minority journalists who will in the future be recruited by Vox?

I know a few people at Vox. I know how seriously they take minority recruitment. What happened to Elena Bergeron’s voice is now a public issue. It has to be addressed… publicly. This is too obvious to belabor any further.

Departing from what has been reported, I want to add a few thoughts and speculations of my own to the mystery of how “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” got published.

The writer and non-fiction master Gay Talese used to describe for anyone who asked how he would pin the typed pages of his articles to a wall, in order to step back and re-read the draft with binoculars. That’s right: binoculars! Why did he do this? Because it was the only way he could think of to examine his creation at the sentence level and as a completed whole: simultaneously. To perfect what he made, he needed distance from, and intimacy with. He felt he couldn’t sacrifice one for the other. If he planted a bomb on page 2, he wanted to see exactly how it went off on page 22, and assess whether that was the right story arc. I mention this because it is one answer to the mystery of how the Vox editors temporarily lost their minds. They didn’t have any equivalent to Gay Talese’s binoculars. They didn’t know what their creation added up to. They couldn’t see it whole.

There are other ways to get distance on a text you are too intimate with. One of them is so simple, so artless, so obvious that I’m convinced it is under-employed because editorial people — who think of themselves as sophisticated manipulators of text — are embarrassed to use something we might recommend to a sixth grader. Read the work aloud, preferably to an “average” or non-specialist listener. Just vocalizing a problematic text brings the problems with it much closer to the surface. There is no way “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” could have survived being read aloud to a husband, wife, girlfriend or boyfriend. No one who loves you would have let you publish it on the internet.

Which brings me to another point about putting such pieces online. In 2009 I called it “audience atomization overcome.” It means that the internet is extremely efficient at allowing people who draw the same conclusion to locate each other and realize their number. Whereas before the internet people who thought upon reading your piece “well, that’s odd,” or “this is appalling,” or “seriously, Rolling Stone?” had little recourse but to write a letter to the editor or complain to a friend, today if the sentiment is widely shared these readers quickly realize they are not alone, and that their collective disbelief is much stronger than the editors’ belief in what was just published. Audience atomization has been overcome.

The writer and software engineer Paul Ford had this in mind when in the wake of the SB Nation debacle he mused about adding a “Very Concerned!” button to content management systems. “Anyone—designer, intern, editor—could click that button. Once they click, an email goes straight up the chain (to the top of the company) flagging that someone, somewhere is concerned.” But why limit it to the people you employ?

What if you created a special reader’s program of, say, two hundred people who read your publication? Make sure they are as diverse as hell—race, gender identity, sports teams, location, age, education. Recruit them quietly. Pay them something small but meaningful: $100/month to read 10 or so stories each. They’d read them anyway; here, they get money for reading them early and carefully.

This is now your “reader’s council.” Give them unlimited access to drafts of articles and ask for feedback and notes, and give them the same “Very Concerned!” button you gave to your editors. Make it all totally anonymous—no way for the editors to reach them, or know who they are. Now instead of waiting for the Internet to take you to task, a group of strangers can take you to task, quietly, on a regular basis.

This is diversity, of the distributed kind.

Finally, a point about clichés. Here is something Poynter.org published not long ago: 15 political clichés journalists should avoid. Advice like this presents clichés as a glitch in one’s writing, a problem of attentiveness. You can avoid clichés by recognizing them early and steering around them.

I have read “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” four times. It is teeming with clichés. The “nice guy” who no one could believe is a rapist. The father who swears his son could never have done this. The dedicated athlete always found in the weight room, determined to make it to the NFL. (He doesn’t.) But the kinds of clichés that doom the piece are not glitches in the writing. They are way beyond the use of tired phrases that one could avoid. Rather, the author of this work thinks in clichés, superficialities that were fatal to the piece before he ever typed a word. This is not a matter of technique. It cannot be cured by better editing, or reminders from Poynter. It is not a lapse into cliché but a prior condition that should have disqualified him from ever taking on this subject.

I’m not going to even mention the author’s name because this is not about him. The editors are at fault. The writer they chose was completely over-matched by his subject. When it was proposed… a piece asking “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw, really?” …a proper answer would have been: is Joan Didion available?

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

UPDATE, March 9: Glen Stout, the editor of SB Nation longform, who commissioned the piece in question, is fighting back. His lawyer sent a letter to Deadspin demanding a correction, and included exhibits like emails sent and drafts amended. Erik Wemple of the Washington Post tries to sort it out: Ex-SB Nation editor seeks correction/retraction from Deadspin over Daniel Holtzclaw story. Here’s the lawyer’s letter with quite a lot of detail.

Erik Wemple (March 10): Internal review of SB Nation’s Holtzclaw story close to completion.

If you care at all about editorial integrity (or “longform,” narrative journalism) you really should read the doomed text, “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” There is no need for me to repeat the many on-point criticisms that have been made of this article. Instead I will link and highlight:

* L.V. Anderson at Slate, The Worst Parts of SB Nation’s Deleted Story Lionizing a Convicted Rapist. “You may be wondering how many times [the author] directly quotes Holtzclaw’s victims in his 12,000-word piece. The answer: exactly once.”

* Barry Petchesky at Deadspin (a Gawker site): “Basically, this is the local news interviewing the shocked neighbors — ‘He always seemed like such a nice kid’ — over and over again for 12,000 words.”

* Jessica Luther at Fansided (a Sports Illustrated site.)

[The author’s] starting point is as a man who watched Holotzclaw’s entire college career, who sees Holtzclaw as an athlete first, and who imagines Holtzclaw’s story as a tragic arc. The victimized women are simply an anomaly to be explained away in the otherwise successful life of a nice guy who happened to become a convicted rapist. Yet, for plenty of sexual assault survivors, the fact that everyone in their community and friend group believed that the man who raped them was a “good guy” who “would never do such a thing” kept them quiet, made them fearful of coming forward, made them doubt what happened to them, etc.

* A Deadspin commenter who is admirably concise:

Jeez, didn’t you read the story? He was a former football player who once played football but no longer played football, and was well liked by the people who liked him! And those rapes he committed but maybe he didn’t? You weren’t there so who knows?

Crazy as it sounds, that is a good summary of what SB Nation published and then un-published, once the editors came to their senses. That the author never should have been given the assignment you can tell by trying to read his concluding paragraph. It is almost insensible:

Pending an improbable successful appeal, everything he had worked for was now gone, likely never to be recovered, ever again. Recovery, if there is any, appears to be something deserved only by the victims of a man whose belief in his innocence will apparently be, like the way he once pursued his dream of playing in the NFL, unrelenting, despite all evidence to the contrary.

That the author should never have been given the assignment you can also tell from his apology note.

Maybe when the crash site investigation is concluded it will find that the problems began with the dubious proposition that because Holtzclaw’s football career had been under-covered, SB Nation — a sports site — had something vital to add to the story of his crimes and conviction. That the writer had covered Holtzclaw when he was in college may have given the editors a false sense that they were in possession of some kind of exclusive.

“The fact that he was a football player — and a pretty good one, who fell just short of the N.F.L. — seemed to have escaped all other coverage.” These are the words of Glenn Stout, editor of SB Nation’s longform division, in an email to a writer’s group that the New York Times obtained. “I think people will be talking about this one,” he wrote.

But there’s the mystery again. When you read “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” it’s almost impossible to believe that a competent editor read and signed off on it. It’s that bad. But Glenn Stout is a serious journalist, a respected editor. From the comments at Deadspin:

Matt Tullis
MarcabExpat
2/19/16 9:14pm
I’ve written five pieces for SB Nation Longform, and Glenn Stout has been my editor on all five pieces. In all five instances, the editing was exhaustive. Of course, I can only speak for my own experience, but every single story I’ve written for the site, has gone through round after round after round of edits and revisions. And it’s always resulted in the story getting better.

Spencer Hall, editorial director of SB Nation, told Deadspin: “Glenn has worked his last day at SBNation.com.”

I have written often about editorial meltdowns. They interest me:

* “I want it to be 25 years ago!” Newsweek’s blown cover story on bitcoin. (March 10, 2014)

* “Events by which ‘Dr. V’s Magical Putter’ came to be published are now the best argument I have for you on diversity in the newsroom. (Jan. 22, 2014)

* Rolling Stone’s ‘A Rape on Campus.’ Notes and comment on Columbia J-school’s investigation. (April 6, 2015)

Jan.
27

Journalists as ‘hit squad:’ Connecting the dots on Sheldon Adelson, the Review-Journal of Las Vegas and Edward Clarkin in Connecticut

In which I give my opinion — an educated guess — about what I think happened, and call on GateHouse Media executives to level with us.

It’s been more than three weeks since Politico’s Ken Doctor, working off conversations he had with unidentified executives at the company, published this story: After Adelson: Gatehouse moves to repair Las Vegas damage. Since then, nothing has emerged to fill in the baffling unknowns that are so threatening to the company’s reputation. GateHouse Media executives seem to think they can skate on this, that the story will peter out, that we’ll forget what they have left hanging.

Will we? I hope not. That’s why I updated 19 times over six weeks my 11,000-word post on the mysteries surrounding the sale of the Las Vegas Review-Journal from GateHouse Media to the family of billionaire Sheldon Adelson. (Read it if you’re just coming to the story. I promise: the events there will amaze and amuse you.)

This I believe: To be a player in the news industry is to accept a business model that incorporates public trust. Without it, the assets you own aren’t worth as much. GateHouse Media owns 125 daily newspapers in the U.S., and some 500 smaller publications in 450 markets. It still operates the Review-Journal in Las Vegas (circulation around 165,000). By failing to address the very serious questions left hanging by the sale — many of which arise from the Review-Journal’s own reporting — the people who run GateHouse Media are, I believe, playing havoc with its reputation, which could eventually affect the value of the holding company, New Media Investment Group (NYSE: NEWM.)

But even if I am wrong about that: How can readers of the company’s news products who may be aware of the Adelson mess trust in what they are reading every day? How can journalists working for GateHouse have any confidence in company leadership if serious questions of institutional integrity go unaddressed? Why would editorial talent with options elsewhere stay or take a job there? When it’s impossible to trust in what it says about itself, what is a newspaper company worth, really?

Let’s go back to what Ken Doctor reported on Jan. 4. He said Gatehouse executives…

can be accurately described as “horrified” — thankfully and properly — by the many missteps involved in the Adelson sale. Company leadership’s first instinct was to hire a crisis management expert. Now it has come to realize that the problem of Las Vegas could more widely affect the view of the whole company.

Exactly so. Doctor did not mince words when he described what the problems were. They originate in this still-amazing story that appeared on the Review-Journal website Dec. 18: Judge in Adelson lawsuit subject to unusual scrutiny amid Review-Journal sale. (If you have not read it yet, what I have to say in this post won’t make as much sense, so please: click the link.) Doctor writes:

It appears that Adelson, or his people, tried to commandeer R-J investigative resources to “monitor” the performance of local judges who have been thorns in Adelson’s backside. The casino magnate is involved in a civil suit. Among the allegations in that suit: his company is doing business with the Macau gambling mob.

So far, no hard evidence has surfaced of Adelson or his people directing the R-J’s news staff, but the nature, timing and oddness of the coverage (the Times’ two-word take: “ominous coincidence“) ordered from on-high leads to an inescapable conclusion: Even before the legal transfer of the paper had been inked, Adelson, with Gatehouse management help, had trampled traditional journalistic lines and convention, believing he could use journalists as a hit squad.

It appears, then, that someone thought they could use GateHouse journalists as a hit squad. Whether it was the Adelson forces demanding such, or Gatehouse executives trying to impress them, or something else, we don’t know. That’s one of the unanswered questions. Here are ten more:

* Why did the Adelson family overpay for the Review-Journal by almost triple its market value, in Ken Doctor’s estimate? (Doctor studies the economics of the news industry at his site, Newsonomics.)

* Why, starting on Dec. 10, did GateHouse and the Adelson family try to keep the purchaser of the Review-Journal secret by using a newly-incorporated shell company, News + Media Capital Group LLC, which was to be “managed” by a man named Michael Schroeder, an obscure publisher of community newspapers in Connecticut? (Link 1, Link 2.)

* Why did Schroeder tell the journalists at the Review-Journal not to worry about who bought the newspaper and to focus on their jobs instead? (Link.)

* Why in September of 2015 did Schroeder, according to this report in the Huffington Post, offer a Connecticut reporter who used to work for him $5,000 to write a piece about Nevada judicial decisions, and mention Adelson in explaining the gig?

* Why two months later did GateHouse management try to get its investigative team in Sarasota, Florida to dig into “a potentially big story regarding the court system and potential ethics violations” among judges in Nevada? (Link.)

* Why in explaining that event did a GateHouse VP later tell a Review-Journal reporter that “we were engaged to tackle an investigative story in Las Vegas with no knowledge of the prospective new buyer?” Engaged… by whom? (Link.)

* Why after Sarasota begged off on that assignment did GateHouse management turn to the Review-Journal and, over the objections of top editors there, order its journalists to monitor the behavior of three Nevada judges? These included District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez, the same judge “whose current caseload includes Jacobs v. Sands, a long-running wrongful termination lawsuit filed against Adelson and his company, Las Vegas Sands Corp., by Steven Jacobs, who ran Sands’ operations in Macau.” (Link.)

* What happened to the 15,000 words of notes and diaries that the reporters in Las Vegas compiled in completing the judges assignment, since according to the Review-Journal none of it was ever published? Where did it all go? (Link.)

* Why did Michael Schroeder publish in his tiny Connecticut newspapers a bizarre, rambling and apparently plagiarized article on business courts that criticized Nevada judge Elizabeth Gonzalez, and why did he put a fake name (Edward Clarkin) on it?

* And finally: what relationship to each other do these events bear? There are too many common elements and common players for the dots not to connect somehow. So how do they connect?

That is the question I turn to now. In this portion of my post, I am deliberately engaging in speculation (based on what’s already been published) and offering you my opinion about what went down— again, based on what has already been reported. Just to be crystal clear about it: I am not saying I know what transpired. Rather, in the absence of any decent explanation from GateHouse executives or Michael Schroeder I believe we are entitled to hypothesize and fill in the gaps with explanations that are at least plausible.

Working with limited knowledge — because the people who know won’t talk — I may well guess wrong on some points. My remedy for this: whenever possible link to what has been reported in the press or publicly stated by key players and let readers devise explanations alternative to the ones I have offered. Don’t buy my hypotheses? Come up with your own! That’s what comment sections are for.

Before I begin with my hypotheses I have to point out: there are five men who know. Together they can shed light on all the questions I have listed as open. These five are Michael Schroeder, publisher and editor of the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press in Connecticut; Jason Taylor, publisher of the Review-Journal in Las Vegas; David Arkin, Senior Vice President of Content and Product Development, GateHouse Media; Kirk Davis, Chief Executive Officer, GateHouse Media; and Michael E. Reed, Chief Executive Officer, New Media Investment Group, holding company for GateHouse. These are the men who are trying to skate off the stage without telling us what happened. I don’t believe they should get away with that. Do you?

Hypotheses: My best guess at what happened.

1.) Strategic overpayment

My hypothesis: The Adelson family overpaid for the Review-Journal by a substantial amount because there was more to the deal than just the purchase of a publishing asset. GateHouse would be expected to keep the Adelson family’s ownership stake a secret, and cooperate in the judges project. The sellers got a fantastic price for the newspaper and what is probably a lucrative agreement to operate the property, which GateHouse identified as a promising new business model.

Fact: Citing sources close to the transaction, the Review-Journal reported Dec. 15 that Adelson had been one of several bidders for the newspaper when Stephens Media was selling it and other holdings. He did not succeed in that round.

Fact: When Michael Schroeder was introduced to the Review-Journal newsroom in early December, he said the new owners had been looking to buy the Review-Journal from GateHouse “for six to eight months.” (Link.)

GateHouse closed on its purchase of the paper in March 2015. By April-May-June it was already in talks to sell it to the Adelson family. That’s fast. My guess: after losing out in the bidding with Stephens, the Adelson forces developed an understanding of some kind with GateHouse officials that would later come into play via the shell company, the secrecy surrounding the sale, and the investigation of Nevada judges.

Fact: Stephens Media LLC, which sold the R-J to GateHouse, is a private company. It can sell to whomever it wants, and reject an offer if it doesn’t like the buyer, or the terms. GateHouse is part of a public company, New Media Investment Group. It cannot easily dismiss an offer for one of its properties that is far above the going rate. (This may help explain why the Adelson family didn’t purchase the property directly from Stephens. Certainly it could have outbid GateHouse.)

Fact: Using circulation figures as a proxy for asset value, Ken Doctor estimated that at the time of the March 2015 sale to GateHouse, the Review-Journal and smaller publications in Nevada that were part of the deal were worth about $52 million. He comments:

Nine months later, though, the R-J, and its associated holdings, have been bought for $140 million, or almost triple the likely March value. It is worth noting that in 2015, daily newspaper financial performance only worsened across the board, down in mid- to higher-single digits for many mid-sized or larger dailies, such as the R-J. Financially, then, its value may have declined.

In announcing the sale that was completed on Dec. 10, New Media said its gain on the transaction would be “an estimated 69%.” That’s not the number that would astound the ever-struggling newspaper industry: “New Media completed the sale of the Review-Journal and related publications to News + Media Capital Group LLC for $140 million, or 7.0x LTM pro-forma As Adjusted EBITDA.”

We haven’t seen 7X multiples (a price based on annual earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) among midsize and larger dailies since before the recession. Today’s average multiple – and the one paid by newly acquisitive companies like New Media Investments – runs 3-4X. That’s what financial buyers have paid in recent years. Strategic buyers may pay a little more, as Jeff Bezos did for the Washington Post, but few have paid the kind of money just disbursed for the financially struggling Review-Journal.

Seven times earnings (EBITDA) when industry standard is 3-4? Must be a reason for that. My guess: GateHouse was expected to do things newspaper companies normally do not do.

2.) Bias anyone can see.

My hypothesis: I believe the Adelson forces had convinced themselves that the judge in the wrongful termination suit filed against Las Vegas Sands Corporation and Sheldon Adelson was biased against them in the extreme. They thought the evidence for this was so clear, so obvious that most fair-minded people would come to that conclusion once the facts were properly set forth. They further believed that skeptical news coverage asking the right questions about the troublesome judge (right from their point-of-view) and digging into the pertinent facts (pertinent from their point of view) would simultaneously help in getting Elizabeth Gonzalez disqualified and meet professional standards for fair and objective news coverage, an appealing two-fer.

And so the understanding they came to with GateHouse officials was, in their minds, really nothing more than tipping off a professional news organization to a great story. However, they were aware that some people wouldn’t see it that way, so steps had to be taken to conceal the Adelson stake in the Review-Journal and its self-interest in critical news coverage of the judge. I think Michael Schroeder and GateHouse both cooperated in this as part of some understanding they had with the Adelson forces, which could have been tacit or explicit. Maybe it wasn’t “you do this, we’ll do that” but just an agreement to check out a promising story… and if there’s something there you can be sure our journalists will want to run with it.

Fact: The New York Times reported this on Jan. 2:

On Nov. 4, with Mr. Adelson already in talks to buy The Review-Journal, the Nevada Supreme Court rejected a request from Sands China to have Judge Gonzalez removed from overseeing the lawsuit. The company said that rulings and comments made by Judge Gonzalez in court reflected a bias against Mr. Adelson and Sands.

My italics. They tried to get her tossed from the case for being biased against them. But their initial attempt did not succeed.

Fact: Two days after that ruling, GateHouse management ordered the Review-Journal newsroom to begin “monitoring” three Nevada judges, one of which was Elizabeth Gonzalez. “The monitoring effort began in Las Vegas on Nov. 6 with a call from a top GateHouse Media executive to Review-Journal Publisher Jason Taylor,” the newspaper reported.

Fact: On Jan. 12 of this year, the Review-Journal reported this about the attorney for Adelson’s son-in-law skirmishing with the judge in the wrongful termination suit:

At Tuesday’s hearing, Kozlov argued that Gonzalez should recuse herself from ruling on matters related to news articles about her. The judge told Kozlov to file a motion if he thinks she should refrain from ruling on an issue.

Fact: On Jan. 19 of this year, the Review-Journal reported:

Las Vegas Sands Corp. is making a new attempt to remove District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez from a wrongful termination case that has received widespread publicity.

The company cited “recent intensified media coverage of the lawsuit” as one of the “new grounds” for requesting the judge’s disqualification.

Notice how Sands Corp. is trying to disqualify Gonzalez by pointing to news coverage that turns her into a figure of controversy, then questioning whether she can remain impartial.

3.) Schroeder screws up.

My hypothesis: Michael Schroeder tried to fulfill his part of the deal but slipped up three times, and therefore was ousted. Schroeder, I believe, was supposed to serve as front man for the purchase of the Review-Journal, allowing the Adelson forces to conceal their interest in the property indefinitely. He was also supposed to help arrange for critical coverage of Judge Gonzalez in a way that could not be traced back to Las Vegas Sands Corp. or the Adelson family. At all these tasks he failed.

Fact: In September, according to investigative journalist Peter H. Stone, Schroeder offered $5,000 to freelance reporter Scott Whipple, who used to work for his Connecticut papers. It was an unusual assignment:

Schroeder called it a “project” looking at Nevada judges who were handling business cases and mentioned Adelson’s name. To get him up to speed, Whipple recalled, Schroeder gave him a 40-page dossier comprising court documents and some newspaper clips.

After mulling the idea for a few days, Whipple decided to pass since the assignment didn’t mesh with his reporting experience and sounded unorthodox.

Schroeder’s first mistake: by outlining the Nevada judges assignment to a freelancer, by mentioning Adelson’s name in connection with it but failing to persuade Whipple to take the job, he created a source who had critical information and suspicions that not everything was kosher with the project.

Fact: On Dec. 10 the Review-Journal reported this:

Schroeder said News + Media does not own his newspapers or any other publications. When asked, he would not disclose the company’s investors.

“They want you to focus on your jobs … don’t worry about who they are,” Schroeder said.

This was Schroeder’s second mistake: Telling journalists who are trained to be curious and aggressive “don’t worry about who they are.” This practically invites them to dig into it, which is exactly what the Review-Journal reporters did. Within a week they were revealing the Adelson family hand. That was not supposed to happen. (After journalists revealed who the real buyers were, the Adelson family said it had always intended to disclose its stake but didn’t want to distract from a Republican presidential debate to be held in Las Vegas Dec. 15. But if that was really the case all they had to do was delay the announcement until Dec. 16. They had kept the deal secret for 6-8 months; what’s one more week?)

Fact: On Dec. 1, Schroeder had published in one of his Connecticut newspapers a bizarre and badly botched article on business courts, part of which attempted to raise doubts about Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez of Nevada.

Schroeder’s third mistake: he had loaded this article with red flags for curious journalists, from the phony name, ‘Edward Clarkin,’ to the illogic of reporting on Nevada judges for readers in Connecticut, to passages lifted from elsewhere and people quoted who could not recall being interviewed. As Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith wrote, “To call the story ham-handed does a disservice to ham.”

When scrutinized, this article greatly increased interest in the story among journalists around the country. Eventually, Schroeder had to apologize for it. And he became such an embarrassment to everyone involved that he was dropped from his role as “manager” of the Review-Journal, a kind of owner’s rep.

But none of that explains why he published the ‘Edward Clarkin’ article and took such risks. My guess: as part of the deal that made him “manager,” he had promised the Adelson forces that he would help produce news coverage critical of Judge Gonzalez. He struck out with freelancer Scott Whipple. Then GateHouse struck out with its Sarasota team. The Review-Journal journalists ordered to “monitor” the judges pushed back with such ferocity that nothing was published there, either. The ‘Edward Clarkin’ article was an act of desperation and bore the signs of that.

4. GateHouse strains to cooperate.

My hypothesis: Top GateHouse officials agreed to things they could not explain to their own people, which prevented them from executing on their end. Like Michael Schroeder they tried to arrange for critical coverage of Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez in a way that could not be traced back to the Adelson empire. But it didn’t work because they couldn’t get the journalists in their employ excited about the investigation, or even to see what the point of it was. Like Schroeder they grew increasingly desperate. After the sale to the Adelson family was revealed, reporters from the Review-Journal and the rest of the press started asking difficult questions. GateHouse executives froze. Because they had no answers that would pass scrutiny, they started to say bizarre things.

Fact: As the Review-Journal reported in its blockbuster story Dec. 18, in early November, David Arkin, GateHouse Media’s Senior Vice President of Content and Product Development, tried to interest Bill Church, executive editor of the GateHouse-owned Sarasota Herald-Tribune, in what was described as a “big story regarding the court system and potential ethics violations.” The potential story was said to involve “campaign finances and how judges were ruling on certain cases.”

After talking to his staff, Church told Arkin they could not immediately help.

“Given what I knew at the time, I said no, we just didn’t have the resources, and there were too many questions that still needed to get resolved,” Church said.

One major concern, Church said, was why the Sarasota newspaper would be asked to help when GateHouse also owned the Review-Journal, a larger newspaper in Las Vegas.

Note that neither GateHouse nor Bill Church in Sarasota told the Review-Journal newsroom about this event.

Fact: Shortly after the failed attempt to entice Sarasota, GateHouse officials turned to the Review Journal newsroom: (Link.)

…three reporters at the newspaper received an unusual assignment passed down from the newspaper’s corporate management: Drop everything and spend two weeks monitoring all activity of three Clark County judges.

The reason for the assignment and its unprecedented nature was never explained.

One of the three judges observed was District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez, whose current caseload includes Jacobs v. Sands, a long-running wrongful termination lawsuit filed against Adelson and his company…

Fact: Journalists at the Review-Journal had the assignment forced on them: (Link.)

An internal memo outlining the court initiative notes that each reporter was to “observe how engaged the judge is in the case, whether they’re prepared or not, if they favor one lawyer over another, whether they’re over- or under-worked — even whether they show up for work on time, or not.”

The memo, authored by Review-Journal Deputy Editor James G. Wright, notes the initiative was undertaken without explanation from GateHouse and over the objection of the newspaper’s management, and there was no expectation that anything would be published.

Fact: When Review-Journal reporter Eric Hartley tried to ask Senior VP David Arkin about the Sarasota contact and any connection between the judges assignment and the Adelson empire, Arkin refused to be interviewed and instead sent a prepared statement, saying the company had been:

engaged to tackle an investigative story in Las Vegas with no knowledge of the prospective new buyer. Because Las Vegas was relatively new to the company, we decided to approach our newsroom in Sarasota, Florida, a team that is known for tackling big investigative journalism… On the face of the situation, we had what appeared to be a great story we were capable of investigating, and I wanted our team to show its talent. From my point of view, it was nothing more. (Link.)

Fact: As questions mounted over GateHouse’s behavior, David Arkin refused to explain to his own company’s reporter what this “great story” was all about. Eric Hartley, who now works for the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk (not a GateHouse property), told me via email:

I emailed David Arkin seven times between Dec. 19 and 25 asking him to call me to address all the questions not answered in his emailed statement, including who “engaged” him to “tackle” the Las Vegas story and what that story was supposed to be. I also repeatedly texted and called him asking for those answers. Aside from that Dec. 18 emailed statement, he never responded.

Fact: David Arkin’s bosses were even less helpful. From the Review-Journal’s Dec. 18 story:

Whether there was a link between the GateHouse-ordered court monitoring assignment, the critical article in New Britain and the sale of the R-J to the Adelson family remains unclear.

Michael Reed, CEO of New Media Investment Corp., the parent company of GateHouse Media, declined to comment when asked whether Adelson was involved in the court monitoring directive. He said the effort was part of a “multistate, multinewsroom” investigative effort initiated by GateHouse, but said he did not know who started it or how it was approved.

“I don’t know why you’re trying to create a story where there isn’t one,” Reed told an RJ reporter on Wednesday. “I would be focusing on the positive, not the negative.”

(My italics.) Notice how the company’s top guy did know about a “multistate, multinewsroom” investigation, but did not know where it came from, or who authorized it. And he declined all comment on whether Adelson was involved. Mark Fabiani, the fixer hired by the Adelsons to handle the national press attention that has come to this story, has twice declined to answer that question when the New York Times put it to him. (Like, Arkin he wouldn’t even call the reporter back.) What does that tell you?

It tells me that truthful answers are too toxic, and deceptive ones stand a risk of being exposed by other parties. But again, that’s my opinion, not something I know for certain. One more thing: Arkin claimed GateHouse had “no knowledge of the prospective new buyer” in November of 2015. But Michael Schroeder told the Review-Journal newsroom the deal had been in the works since the spring of 2015! Arkin’s statement would be appear to be dead on arrival. To me these are signs of desperation.

What happens if we put all my hypotheses together? We get an educated guess — which is only my opinion — of what went down here.

The Adelson family overpaid by double or triple because there was more to the deal than the transfer of publishing assets. The shell company and Michael Schroeder were supposed to provide an extra layer of insulation.

Properly steered, skeptical journalists asking the right questions about the troublesome judge would simultaneously help in getting Elizabeth Gonzalez disqualified and meet professional standards for honest, hard-hitting news coverage. This made the arrangement seem almost… innocent.

In their minds the Adelson forces were simply alerting a newspaper company to a great story. But they also knew that some people, biased against billionaires, would not see it that way. So steps had to be taken to obscure the Adelson empire’s stake in the Review-Journal and its keen interest in critical news coverage of the judge.

Michael Schroeder and GateHouse agreed to take those steps. The understanding they had with the purchasers could have been tacit, explicit or some winking combination of both. Or maybe they all deceived each other. But Schroeder bungled his assignments, and GateHouse couldn’t deliver on critical coverage of Judge Gonzalez without provoking an open revolt from its journalists. The infamous ‘Edward Clarkin’ article was an act of desperation. Schroeder’s clownish appearance in the R-J newsroom became an invitation to skeptical journalists: start digging!

The sale to the Adelson family was not supposed to become public when it did. Journalists in Vegas weren’t supposed to connect the dots between the dubious story tip in Sarasota, the monitor-these-judges assignment forced on the Review-Journal mysterymanand some bizarre article on business courts published in a tiny Connecticut newspaper. But that connection was made — journalism! — and reporters started asking uncomfortable questions. “Who is Edward Clarkin?” added an element of mystery, a pop culture (parking garage) trope that greatly increased interest in the story.

At the top of the company panic set in. Because they had no answers that would pass scrutiny, participants began to say things that made no sense. Or they stopped talking altogether.

How did the judges assignment get started? Who authorized it? Mike Reed, the company’s top executive, claimed not to know. In this he sounds radically incurious. When asked whether Adelson was involved at all, Reed flatly refused to answer. That’s damning. Mark Fabiani, the fixer hired by the Adelsons to handle national press attention, twice declined to answer the same question. That’ll fix it!

My guess: truthful replies were too damaging, further deception too risky. This is why nothing has happened since Ken Doctor wrote on Jan. 4 that “the company owes its readers, its own journalists and the wider public a series of explanations.”

Five men know. One of them, the hapless Michael Schroeder, has already apologized to his readers without really explaining anything. I doubt we will get much more out of him. Sheldon Adelson won’t even admit that he owns the Review-Journal, which is comical because his fixer puts him in the same category as Jeff Bezos and John Henry, two billionaires who do admit that they own newspapers. So I don’t think we’re going to get much from Adelson, either.

It is the reputation of GateHouse Media and the people who run New Media Investment Group that is truly on the line here. In my view Jason Taylor, David Arkin, Kirk Davis, and Michael Reed have reached a moment of truth in their careers. It is time for them to do what Ken Doctor said they must do: “publish a public accounting of the December mess.” And if they want to correct my informed guesswork — for that is what I have offered in this post — all the better.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

My thanks to Joseph M. Finnerty of Barclay Damon for his assistance in the preparation of this post and to John Robinson of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill for his comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.

UPDATE, Jan. 28. The noose tightens. News from Las Vegas. Jason Taylor, publisher of the Review-Journal, is out. (He’s one of the five men who know, as I put it.) Taylor was replaced today by Craig Moon, former publisher of USA Today, who left that job 2009. At the R-J Thursday morning there was an all-hands meeting where Moon was introduced. According to what I learned from GateHouse employees and this AP report, Jason Taylor will stay with GateHouse in an executive capacity overseeing Western properties. New publisher Craig Moon will not be a GateHouse person, as Jason Taylor was, but an employee in the House of Adelson.

“It wasn’t immediately clear what prompted the change in leadership,” the New York Times wrote.

This development changes the executive picture, and indicates tightening control over the Review-Journal by the Adelson forces. Meanwhile, at the centralized print production center in Austin, GateHouse employees were told by Senior VP David Arkin that as of March 1 they will no longer be composing the pages of the Review-Journal. So the “divorce” between GateHouse and the Adelsons is being finalized. Also, from sources in the Review-Journal newsroom: the disclosure statement that used to run on page 3 of the print edition and the home page of the digital edition is no more, on orders of the new publisher:

disclosure
It seems like the noose is tightening in the Review-Journal newsroom. Another indication of that: I’m told that at the all-hands meeting in Las Vegas to introduce the new publisher, no one even asked about the events of December and whether lingering questions around the judges investigation would ever be addressed. On the surface all is sunny however: This passage ran in the Review-Journal:

Moon said Sheldon Adelson asks insightful questions about newspapers. Adelson owns Israel Hayom, an Israeli newspaper.

“Sheldon is pretty articulate about things about newspapers, like: ‘So do you think the presses are being optimized?'” Moon said.

Moon said the owner puts the newspaper in a solid position for the future.

“I really do want to make this a world-class media business — the best it can possibly be,” he said. “We’ve got a great owner. We’ve got the commitment of a great owner. We’re not a public company having to sit and talk about how our earnings were the for the last quarter, and I think we’re going to be able to do some really big things here.”

UPDATE: Jan. 29: Things are coming into focus now. The Review-Journal reports that Sheldon Adelson is trying to lure the NFL’s Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas by proposing to build an expensive new stadium, which is what it takes:

Casino giant Las Vegas Sands Corp. will lead a consortium of investors planning to build a $1 billion domed stadium on 42 acres near the University of Nevada, Las Vegas that would house the school’s football team — and possibly a National Football League franchise.

There are all kinds of ways that owning the largest newspaper in Nevada could be useful in trying to get a project like that done. For example, this from a Las Vegas Sands Corp spokesman: “Abboud said Las Vegas Sands may seek legislative approval for diversion of hotel room tax revenues that now support the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to the project.” Adelson needs lots of people and public bodies to go along with his scheme if the stadium plan is to work. When you factor that in, owning the Review-Journal makes more sense.

That is exactly the theme of this column by Jon Ralston, the most prominent journalist in the state: Adelson begins to play with his new toy. It’s about aiding Adelson’s campaign for a new stadium through orchestrated coverage in the Review-Journal.

Columbia Journalism Review: Review-Journal backtracks on ownership disclosure.

John Robinson, former editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, NC, reflects on the form that I used for this post, and says journalists should do this kind of thing more often. State what is known, what remains unknown, “show your work,” and try to connect the dots.

In the deep background to this story: Daily Beast, July 6, 2015: Why Did ‘Frontline’ Kill Lowell Bergman’s Gambling Documentary? “Recriminations and accusations are flying after the PBS series shelved veteran reporter Lowell Bergman’s documentary about the gambling industry in Macau.”

From a successful writer of thrillers, formerly with the CIA:


Coda: Events since I published this post show the path that participants in the fiasco are taking to avoid responsibility for everything I wrote about. Soon the Adelson empire and GateHouse Media will be divorced from each other. No more operating agreements, no more entanglement. The Adelsons can say, “The investigation of the judges? That was Schroeder, that was GateHouse. We had nothing to do with it.” GateHouse can say: “We have nothing to do with the Las Vegas newspaper any longer. We’re moving on.” By going their separate ways, they allow culpability and unanswered questions to drop into the abyss between them. The journalists in Las Vegas are now wholly under the control of Adelson and the new publisher who was announced Jan 28. The journalists at GateHouse will feel no duty to expose the goings-on at a former property. Most likely, we will never find out what happened, unless the national press makes a continuing and big deal out of it. But with no new information to report, the chances of that happening are thin. So in all probability, the attempted misuse of journalists as a ‘hit squad’ will go unexplained and unexposed. That’s frustrating. If David Carr were still alive, I would be sending this note to him. Instead, I am publishing it. But I do not have much hope that it will make a difference. Chances are no one will pay. It appears they got away with it.

UPDATE, May 22, 2016. I’m taking my show to Vegas! This week I will be speaking in Las Vegas about Sheldon Adelson’s stealth takeover of the major newspaper in the state, the Review Journal, and the journalistic and civic issues that are raised by that event.

I tracked the story closely in November, December and January at my site, PressThink, and on social media. mysterymanI wrote almost 15,000 words about it because amazing things kept happening (like when the editor of the Review-Journal, Mike Hengel, found out that he took a buyout when it was reported without his knowledge in his own newspaper.)

Despite my own efforts and the national attention the story received, many of the most basic questions about the episode remained unanswered. And, of course, the national press has moved on. More disturbing, most of the journalists at the Review-Journal who had done the courageous work of uncovering the Adelson scheme have left the newsroom. This was frustrating. So I decided to bring the unanswered questions directly to Vegas, to see if I can interest the community that is most directly affected.

My talk is Thursday, May 26 at 6 pm in the Greenspun Hall Auditorium at University of Nevada Las Vegas. It is sponsored by the Las Vegas Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies at UNLV. The title is: Twenty Unanswered Questions about Adelson’s Purchase of the Review-Journal: Reflections on a civic disaster by a outsider to Las Vegas.

In addition to that talk I will be doing a radio interview on Nevada Public Radio that will air during morning drive time May 27. That evening I will taping Ralson Live, Jon Ralston’s public affairs show on Nevada PBS that airs live in Reno at 5 pm and on tape in Las Vegas at 7 pm. And there are a couple of other interviews on the schedule, as well.

If you live in Las Vegas or know someone who does, please share this link with people who might be interested: http://goo.gl/gWwV8t

Here’s the news release about my talk May 26:

My January 27th post. Journalists as ‘hit squad:’ Connecting the dots on Sheldon Adelson, the Review-Journal of Las Vegas and Edward Clarkin in Connecticut.

My earlier post, which is like a timeline or diary of events as they unfolded: The Adelson forces buy a newspaper, journalists fight back: a journal of my updates on this story.

Dec.
30

The Adelson forces buy a newspaper, journalists fight back: a journal of my updates on this story

The family of billionaire Sheldon Adelson bought the most widely-read newspaper in Nevada, the Review-Journal. They then tried to conceal this act. These are my posts, as I’ve followed and tried to make sense of the story. In order from Dec. 11. New items added to the bottom.

mysteryman
It started with a Facebook post, and just kept going. If you read them in order you will be caught up with all the important plot twists. I also tried to include the key links as the story metastasized. Got a correction or addition? Please put it in the comments. Thanks.

December 11 at 4:53pm
Last night something strange came across my screen. I think it qualifies as a mystery. The news: the Las Vegas Review-Journal, largest newspaper in the state, was sold to… well, that’s the odd part. The buyer was described as a Delaware company backed by “undisclosed financial backers with expertise in the media industry.”

Undisclosed? Weird.

The name of the company purchasing the newspaper, News + Media Capital Group LLC — about which no one knows anything — is similar to the name of the company selling the newspaper, New Media Investment Group. So similar that it seems chosen to induce confusion.
(See story here, press release here.)

All this is highly unusual. Who would buy a major newspaper and not want anyone to know? What would be the possible reasons? Last night on Twitter I asked the Review-Journal: Will your newsroom be investigating the mystery of who owns you?


Today I got my answer. I received an email from a reporter at the Review-Journal, asking if I wanted to comment on “the ethics of a newspaper trying to operate without knowing who owns it.” Among the intriguing facts the reporter relayed to me: the price was $28 million more than the sale price when the same newspaper was sold in March 2015. But the newspaper’s financial fortunes had only worsened since then, a key fact.

Why is this important? Because a publicly-traded company like New Media Investment Group (holding company for Gatehouse Media) cannot legally diss an offer like that. Or let’s say: no wise corporate lawyer would advise it.

Yes! I did want to comment. Here is what I told the reporter:

It’s possible [this] has happened before but nothing comes to mind that would be comparable. As I said last night on Twitter: “Will the Review-Journal be investigating the mystery of who owns it?” and this “takes news from anonymous sources to a whole new level.”

One of the first thoughts I had was: Nevada is an early primary state. The Review-Journal is the largest newspaper in the state. Was it sold to a player in that event, or people who want to be players? That slightly conspiratorial thought may be way off base. Of course there is no way to know as long as the ownership remains hidden. That’s the point.

The simple fact that we don’t know who the owners are, that it was not announced when the transaction was announced— this in itself breeds suspicion. Because why the secrecy if it’s a normal transaction? What kind of newspaper owner doesn’t want anyone to know? Ego buyers have the opposite incentive: they want everyone to know.

Journalists already have problems with generating enough trust to operate. This just adds to it.

So now you get to see what kind of story comes out of this. I will post the link if the report ever appears. (It did.) Clearly, the journalists at the Review-Journal are as perplexed by this mystery buyer as I am.

December 12 at 11:46am
The incredible story of a major newspaper in an early primary state that now has a mystery owner continues. The publisher is refusing to tell the staff who bought the paper. The journalists are writing articles expressing their own helplessness. And no one knows what is going on, except the people who refuse to talk for reasons they refuse to reveal.

Yesterday I gave you the background in my first post. The gist: The Las Vegas Review Journal was sold this week for a weirdly inflated price to a company whose backers remained “undisclosed.” It’s the largest newspaper in the state. Nevada is an early primary state: fourth-in-the-nation. After I talked about the strangeness of this transaction on Twitter, a reporter there contacted me for a story he was doing about it. That story is now out. It includes this astounding passage:

News + Media manager Michael Schroeder has declined to disclose the company’s investors, as has Las Vegas Review-Journal Publisher Jason Taylor.

In discussions with employees, Taylor has said only that News + Media has multiple owner/investors, that some are from Las Vegas, and that in face-to-face meetings he has been assured that the group will not meddle in the newspaper’s editorial content.

Amazing… Boss, who owns us? ‘I am not going to tell you. Just go about your business. You don’t need to know.’

Here is the quote they used from me:

The timing of the transaction might also raise a question about the new owners’ possible political motivations.

“One of the first thoughts I had was: Nevada is an early primary state. The Review-Journal is the largest newspaper in the state. Was it sold to a player in that event, or people who want to be players?,” asked media critic and New York University professor Jay Rosen. “That slightly conspiratorial thought may be way off base. Of course, there is no way to know as long as the ownership remains hidden. That’s the point.”

On Twitter Saturday, The Review-Journal’s state capital reporter, Sean Whaley, wrote:


Anyone who can shed light on the mystery is welcome to try.

UPDATE: It gets better: The journalists at the Review Journal are clearly in a power struggle over how this will be reported on. “The publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal removed quotes from a Thursday night article about the newspaper’s sale that questioned its new owner’s decision to remain anonymous, according to a newsroom source.” This is the part that was taken out:

Schroeder said News + Media does not own his newspapers or any other publications. When asked, he would not disclose the company’s investors.

“They want you to focus on your jobs … don’t worry about who they are,” Schroeder said.

Review-Journal Editor Michael Hengel noted the lack of disclosure.

“The questions that were not answered Thursday are 1) Who is behind the new company, and 2) What are their expectations?” Hengel said.

Focus on your jobs. Don’t worry about who they are. Wow.

UPDATE, DEC. 13. Today on CNN’s Reliable Sources Jon Ralston, an extremely well-connected reporter in Nevada, speculated that one possibility was Sheldon Adelson, who is known to have an interest in buying a newspaper in the US, said Ralston. Adelson— billionaire, Republican mega-donor, pro-Israel extremist — already owns one paper in Israel. Ralston also said (on Twitter) “The RJ’s owners will have to reveal themselves eventually. Too much pressure. Ridiculous for them to think they can be invisible.”

December 16 at 4:06pm
Fortune magazine, citing multiple sources but not saying who they are, reports that Sheldon Adelson is, in fact, the mystery owner of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Sheldon_Adelson_crop Yes, Sheldon Adelson Bought The Las Vegas Review-Journal.

5:20 pm. Obviously, the Review-Journal has been digging too. They may have been close to naming Adelson and may be annoyed that Fortune went with anonymous sources. Pressure to go public grows for new Review-Journal owners.

8:46 pm Games: “‘I have no personal interest’ in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson said Tuesday night, in his first public comments about the mysterious sale of Nevada’s biggest newspaper.” CNN: Sheldon Adelson responds to speculation he bought Las Vegas paper.

10:54 pm. It’s starting to come out now. Review-Journal: Adelson son-in-law orchestrated family’s purchase of Las Vegas Review-Journal

December 17 at 11:01am
Last night was a good night for the journalism tribe. The journalists at the Las Vegas Review-Journal did their jobs, and found out who bought the paper. Their colleagues around the country were watching and cheered them on. Killer quote: “No matter who owns the Review-Journal, they don’t own us.” See: How the Las Vegas Review-Journal broke news about its own sale.

This is an important addition to the story. The Adelson camp overpaid by almost 3X for the Review-Journal, says industry analyst Ken Doctor.

UPDATE: After the revelation by others, the Adelson family published a statement in the print edition of the Review-Journal. The key parts read:

It was always our intention to publicly announce our ownership of the R-J.

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.

Our motivation for purchasing the R-J is simple. We believe in this community and want to help make Las Vegas an even greater place to live. We believe deeply that a strong and effective daily newspaper plays a critical role in keeping our state apprised of the important news and issues we face on a daily basis.

The management team from New Media, which is currently running the R-J, will continue to oversee the operations of the publication. The family wants a journalism product that is second-to-none and will continue to invest in the paper to achieve this goal.

See: Ending Mystery, Adelson Family Says It Bought The ‘Las Vegas Review-Journal’

December 18 at 5:53pm
Incredible developments today in the ‘Sheldon Adelson buys a newspaper’ story, as the journalists at the newspaper he bought keep reporting on him— and themselves. In today’s episode they tell of a team of reporters suddenly and inexplicably ordered to stop what they were doing and instead monitor and scrutinize the work of three judges.

“One of the three judges observed was District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez, whose current caseload includes Jacobs v. Sands, a long-running wrongful termination lawsuit filed against Adelson and his company, Las Vegas Sands Corp., by Steven Jacobs, who ran Sands’ operations in Macau.

“The case has attracted global media attention because of Jacobs’ contention in court filings that he was fired for trying to break the company’s links to Chinese organized crime triads, and allegations that Adelson turned a blind eye to prostitution and other illegal activities in his resorts there.”

The reporters did as they were told, but no story ever appeared. However a story did appear in an obscure Connecticut newspaper, owned by the same guy who served as the cutout figure (I believe that is the correct term) in the corporate filings surrounding the mystery sale: Michael Schroeder. (Link.) They write:

On Nov. 30, the New Britain Herald, a tiny Connecticut newspaper not affiliated with GateHouse, published an article critical of the performance of courts that specialize in business disputes. It singled out Judge Gonzalez with scathing criticism of her “inconsistent and even contradictory” handling of the Adelson case and another lawsuit involving Wynn Resorts Ltd…

The Adelson and Wynn cases were the only specific examples cited at length in the story. Two other judges were mentioned, but the critique of Gonzalez’s courtroom proceedings consumed more than a quarter of the 1,900-word article.

The article’s author was identified as Edward Clarkin, whose byline is found only one other time in the archives of the Connecticut newspaper, on a review of a Polish restaurant.

Attempts to locate Clarkin have been unsuccessful.

It goes on from there. See: Judge in Adelson lawsuit subject to unusual scrutiny amid Review-Journal sale.

December 20 at 2:48pm
“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. How can you be sure? One way is to look at how we covered the secrecy surrounding the newspaper’s sale. We dug in. We refused to stand down. We will fight for your trust. Every. Single. Day. Even if our former owners and current operators don’t want us to.”

The journalists at the Review-Journal will not quit. That quote is from a front page editorial headlined: “We will continue to fight for your trust every day.”

Incredible. They are on their way to a Pulitzer Prize in public service, but that’s the least of it. They said to themselves: It won’t be worth working here if we don’t do this, so we may as well do this. Everyone in? And by making that decision they created tremendous power for themselves. Fight on, R-J.

See: EDITORIAL: Review-Journal will fight to keep your trust every day.

December 22 at 10:06pm
Huge news in the running story of zillionaire Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of the largest newspaper in the state of Nevada, the Review-Journal. Tonight came word that the editor has resigned. This is an ominous sign. I thought it would be the publisher. That the editor is gone is worse.

“Mike Hengel, who’s been with the Review-Journal since 2010, according to his LinkedIn profile, stunned his staff Tuesday evening when he informed them he has accepted a buyout offer. A source who was present at the meeting told POLITICO that Hengel said he didn’t believe he’d last long under the new ownership and therefore decided to consider a severance option. He told employees that the new ownership arrangement ‘had the makings of an adversarial relationship,’ according to the source.” See: Review-Journal editor steps down amid ‘makings of an adversarial relationship’

Because the Adelson forces seem ready to exert control over the Review-Journal and silence dissent, now is a good time for me to say what I heard. A team of investigative reporters similar to the Spotlight team at the BostonGlobe was to be hired at Review Journal. (It was announced here, Nov. 19.) But I was told that the journalists in the Review Journal newsroom did not know who is doing the hiring for this investigative team.

I do not know more than that, and it’s possible that this will turn out to be a minor or meaningless fact. Or there may be an innocent explanation. But since the hammer seems to be coming down, I felt I should tell you what I know. If my information is incorrect or misleading I will let you know.

UPDATE: A message from the new owners about the future of the Las Vegas Review-Journal This statement was released after news broke about Mike Hengel resigning. Key parts:

…we pledge to publish a newspaper that is fair, unbiased and accurate. We decided to buy the Review-Journal to help create a better newspaper — a forward thinking newspaper that is worthy of our Las Vegas community. This journalism will be supported by new investments in services such as enhanced fact checking and a Reader Advocate or Ombudsperson to respond to reader concerns.

Third, we regard ourselves as stewards of this essential community institution, and we promise that the Review-Journal will serve the people of Las Vegas for many years to come. In particular, we will deepen the newspaper’s involvement with the community and invest what is necessary to ensure that the R-J is reporting news in the ways our community expects.

These are the three principles that will guide our ownership of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. How will this all work over the coming weeks and months? The professionals at New Media, who are now managing the R-J as well as running more than 125 other daily newspapers nationwide, will continue to oversee all operations. Mike Hengel, the paper’s current editor, accepted a voluntary buyout offer from the R-J’s prior owners, an offer that was also made to other qualified employees.

December 23 at 5:14pm
Another amazing turn in the ‘Sheldon buys himself a newspaper’ story that I have been following for you. In this episode we discover that the top editor, who resigned yesterday, learned that he took a buyout from an editorial in his own newspaper announcing that he… took a buyout! Before that he didn’t know. I mean, why not just place on his desk a severed horse’s head? The story is in the LA Times, which considers Vegas sort of in its backyard. See: Vegas newspaper stands up to its newly unveiled owner, casino giant Sheldon Adelson.

UPDATE: The Hartford Courant picks up the portion of the story that unfolded in its backyard. Mystery Surrounds Newspaper’s Relationship To Las Vegas Casino Mogul Sheldon Adelson’s Legal Fight. The Courant reporter reveals that several people quoted in the mystery article that appeared in the Bristol Press about judges in Las Vegas never talked to the author, Edward Clarkin. Clarkin himself cannot be found, as the Review Journal revealed earlier. Even the editors of the Bristol press don’t know who he is, the Courant reported:

Jim Smith, who served as executive editor of the Herald and the Bristol Press at the time Clarkin’s first byline appeared, said he also can’t shed light on Clarkin’s identity, or how the business-court story came to be, or why the New Britain Herald was so interested in Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez. Smith said he recently reached out to Schroeder, who simply replied: “Stay tuned.”

“It’s a mystery,” Smith said. “It’s a fascinating mystery. It really is.”

UPDATE: ‎Christine Stuart pretty much solved one of the elements of the mystery. mysterymanThe author whom no one could find, Edward Clarkin, is probably the “cutout” figure in the original purchase of the Review-Journal, Michael Schroeder of Connecticut, an agent for the Adelson forces. Either that or Schroeder created the pen name that he assigned to another writer. As Stuart‎ of CT News Junkie reports on Facebook: “Michael Schroeder’s middle name: Edward. Mother’s maiden: Clarkin.” See: How A Connecticut Journalist Broke A Key Part Of The Bizarre Las Vegas Newspaper Story (Dec. 29)

December 24 at 12:37pm
In today’s episode of ‘Sheldon buys a newspaper, journalists fight back’ we have a man of principle, Steve Majerus-Collins, who quits in disgust because the owner of the newspaper he works for in Connecticut is in league with Adelson and doing the billionaire’s bidding while deceiving the press and his own employees about it. From his moving letter:

I have no idea how my wife and I will get by. We have two kids in college, two collies, a mortgage and dreams of travel and adventure that now look more distant than ever.

“But here’s what I know: I can’t teach young people how to be ethical, upstanding reporters while working for a man like Michael Schroeder. I can’t take his money. I can’t do his bidding. I have to stand up for what is right even if the cost is so daunting that at this moment it scares the hell out of me.

A flurry of other action on this story today:

The Review-Journal hired a political fixer and crisis management dude who worked for Clinton and Gore among other clients: Mark Fabiani.

This piece appeared on Sheldon Adelson’s newspaper in Israel and how it’s run.

And Michael Schroder, the Adelson flunkie and cutout figure who tried to keep the billionaire’s ownership secret (while telling the Review-Journal staff not to worry about who owns them) would not confirm his mother’s maiden name to journalists from the newspaper he “manages.” That’s right.

December 25 at 7:00pm
In today’s episode of the Adelson newspaper follies we learn that Sheldon’s flunky and cutout figure Michael Schroeder — described by an employee who quit yesterday (Steve Majerus-Collins) as “guilty of journalistic misconduct of epic proportions” in that he “used the pages of my newspaper, secretly, to further the political agenda of his master out in Las Vegas” — has purchased another paper to add to his toy collection.

The tiny Block Island Times will now belong to Schroeder personally. The comic touch was provided by the statement that the sellers issued.

“We are confident that the new owner, Michael Schroeder, has the vision, resources and experience to take the helm,” the statement said. “We are pleased that his wife, Janet, will also play a role in the day-to-day management. They offer decades of business experience. Most importantly, they exhibit in their employment and volunteer work, a commitment to the community and its betterment.”

I might have added, “he would make an excellent bag man.” (Definition of the term bag man here.)

December 26 at 5:25pm
For today’s episode of the Adelson newspaper follies we bring in a guest commenter, Josh Marshall, editor of Talking Points Memo, who wrote about the whole sad story yesterday. Says Josh:

“I have an obvious interest in journalism and the journalistic profession. p8kice8zq6szrqrmqxagPerhaps not much less obviously I have a taste for scandals that are not merely outrageous but are baroque in their complexity and rise above mere bad acts to reach the more sublime human qualities like impulsiveness, greed that goes beyond mere greed, hasty efforts to cover up wrongdoing which take on a level of comedy that could never emerge from conscious design. Here is where we are getting to the level of scandal as art. And this is why Michael Schroeder is really the star of this whole show for my money.”

I agree. Schroeder the cutout turns the interest dial up to 11. Read Josh’s entire piece:

And I have to add: I have the same taste for the baroque element in a running scandal. In fact, I learned the iterative technique I have been using in this series of posts from… Josh Marshall, during the US Attorneys Scandal in 2007, for which he won the George K. Polk Award. I remember how he would always have something to read each day. If there was no new information he would use the opportunity to reflect and summarize. Very effective means of engagement.

UPDATE: Reporter Who Resigned Over Adelson Subterfuge Gets $5,000 Award.

December 27 at 11:50am
Our series — Adelson tries to corrupt the press, journalists fight back — continues today with a piece by Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith. Like Josh Marshall yesterday, Smith focuses on the hilarious and disturbing figure of Michael Schroeder, the Adelson flunky who told the Review-Journal newsroom just to do their jobs and not worry about who bought their newspaper for 3 times market value. Smith writes:

“Schroeder’s journalistic puppetry in preparing an inaccurate story about business courts meant primarily to smear District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez, who happens to preside over a bruising ongoing litigation involving Adelson, sends a disturbing message to the staff and readers alike. The story, published in Schroeder’s New Britain newspaper, raises serious questions: Not about Gonzalez’s competence, but about Schroeder’s veracity.

“Under the byline ‘Edward Clarkin,’ almost certainly a Schroeder alter ego, the piece contains an inaccurate appraisal of the judge and sections that appear to have been lifted without proper attribution, or created from whole cloth. The Hartford Courant reported the article contained ‘several passages that are nearly identical to work that previously appeared in other publications.’

“Ill-conceived, poorly executed. Nice job, Hemingway. To call the story ham-handed does a disservice to ham.”

There have been several indications that journalists around the country continue to dig into this story. I’m waiting for someone to start asking questions and getting answers about Gatehouse Media’s role in this spectacle. This is a company that apparently sent investigative teams after Adelson’s target before the billionaire’s purchase of any assets. What’s up with that?

December 28 at 12:14pm
Two items for today’s update in the ‘Adelson buys a newspaper, journalists fight back’ story. First, I am going to be on the radio talking about it. Remember radio?

Today at 1:00 pm EST I will be on the Colin McEnroe Show on WNPR, public radio in Connecticut, along with Steve Majerus-Collins, who on Christmas eve quit his job as a reporter for the Bristol Press, owned by Adelson flunky and cutout figure Michael Schroeder. 19433947493_74395e4f4e_zQuit on principle, I should add.

“I have learned with horror that my boss shoveled a story into my newspaper – a terrible, plagiarized piece of garbage about the court system – and then stuck his own fake byline on it,” he wrote. “I admit I never saw the piece until recently, but when I did, I knew it had Mr. Schroeder’s fingerprints all over it. Yet when enterprising reporters asked my boss about it, he claimed to know nothing or told them he had no comment.”

I don’t know what Colin McEnroe has in mind for this discussion but it should be interesting to hear from Steve. Here’s the preview, with an audio link so you can listen to a recording of the show.

UPDATE: One thing new I learned from the show. Steve Collins said that Michael Schroeder had a backer when he bought the Bristol Press. He didn’t make the purchase with his own money. The host asked him: who? Steve didn’t know and said no one in the newsroom knew. This detail, which I had missed, was reported Dec. 15 by the Review Journal.

The other item I have for you comes from the New York Times article today about the whole sad story, which more or less repeats what others have reported. But there was one part so deliciously absurd that I cannot let it escape without comment.

You see, the Adelson forces earlier decided that they were losing control of the story. So they hired a semi-famous fixer and crisis management expert to handle national press interest, which keeps growing. His name is Mark Fabiani. He’s worked for the Clintons, Al Gore, and the owner of the San Diego Chargers, among others. No doubt he’s earning hundreds of thousands of dollars for this gig. So here’s what the Times reported:

“To deal with the fallout from its Review-Journal purchase, the Adelsons have hired Mark Fabiani, a crisis communications specialist who worked in the Clinton White House and for the cyclist Lance Armstrong. Mr. Fabiani did not respond to inquiries about whether the issue of Nevada judges came up during sales talks.”

Did you catch that? He did not respond! To the freakin’ New York Times! That’s crisis management? The clever application of Mark Fabiani’s “no comment” skills? I bet it cost Adelson 15 grand just for that. Heck, I could do it for a lot less— say, $10,000 for every phone call unreturned. I have three phones (home, cell, office) from which I could ignore reporters’ calls, so I think I am more than qualified to do what Fabiani does.

Surreal.

Dec. 29 at 4:21pm
In today’s episode of ‘the Adelson forces buy a newspaper,’ we learn that the Nevada Gaming authorities, state regulators for the gambling industry, are keeping a close eye on the purchase of the Review-Journal. We also learn that Sheldon Adelson himself denies owning any portion of the newspaper or even wanting to. It was his children’s idea, he says. All this in the latest report from the Review-Journal itself.

“We are watching all of these developments very closely,” a state official said. “Of course, it’s incumbent upon all gaming license holders to avoid actions that go against the morals, good order and general welfare of the people of the state of Nevada, and to avoid doing anything that reflects or tends to reflect discredit on the state.

“I’m sure Mr. Adelson and his team are doing their utmost to do that.”

Me too!

Speaking of morals, Adelson told the Macau Daily Times that “his children” bought the Review-Journal and he has “no financial interest” in the newspaper.

“I don’t have anything to do with it,” Adelson said. “My money that the children have with which to buy the newspaper is their inheritance. I don’t want to spend money on a newspaper.”

Meanwhile, in yesterday’s radio discussion on WNPR in Connecticut, James Wright, deputy editor of the Review-Journal, said “we’re not sure who’s in charge.” Things happen — including changes made in stories after they leave the newsroom — “at whose behest we don’t know,” said Wright.

“Strings gets pulled but at this point we are often unaware whether it’s something that Gatehouse wants to do, whether it’s something the Adelson family wants to do, or whether its somebody within this daisy chain of ownership and managers who may be taking it upon themselves to overreact to something that they think someone wants to do.” That’s pretty chilling. (Listen here.)

It’s clear to me that Gatehouse Media has to be the focus of some serious inquiry by fellow journalists now. The company is becoming an engine of opacity in this story and since it is a news company that is both a curiosity, and a problem.

Dec. 30 at 10:29am
Today’s update in the ‘Adelson forces buy a newspaper’ story focuses on a player that has gotten too little attention: GateHouse Media, a resurrected chain of newspapers (it went bankrupt in 2013) that used to own the Review-Journal. Bear with me as I explain:

On December 10th the announcement was made that GateHouse had sold the Las Vegas Review Journal to a shell company called News + Media Capital Group LLC. It then cooperated in concealing the true nature of this transaction from public scrutiny. (First dark cloud.)
storm-84905_960_720GateHouse was retained by the Adelson family to continue to operate the newspaper, but since then strange things have happened to various articles the Review-Journal newsroom has prepared about the sale and suspicious circumstances surrounding it. The work of the journalists in Las Vegas gets changed before it is published, but no one in the newsroom knows why, or how, or by whom. As deputy editor James Wright said Monday on WNPR’s Colin McEnroe show:

“Strings gets pulled but at this point we are often unaware whether it’s something that Gatehouse wants to do, whether it’s something the Adelson family wants to do, or whether its somebody within this daisy chain of ownership and managers who may be taking it upon themselves…” (Second dark cloud.)

This is why I have called GateHouse an engine of opacity in this story, which is troublesome for a newspaper company that counts 125 dailies among its holdings. Yesterday, a journalist who once worked for a GateHouse publication, Kris Olson, posted this on my Facebook page. I thought it pretty compelling so I am highlighting his words:

I could go on at length about this subject, but as a former and future Gatehouse employee (Gatehouse has an agreement to buy the paper I currently work for in the new year), I should probably hold my fire to some degree. But I do hope Gatehouse realizes the impact of being an ‘engine of opacity,’ as you aptly put it, has on the morale of the journalists it employs. Go to gatehousenewsroom.com, and you’ll see a lot of high-minded talk about ethics in and among discussion of the company’s editorial strategy. But you can’t just talk the talk. You have to walk the walk. After all, the whole reason someone hired a lot of us, I presume, is that we have well-honed B.S. detectors (as the Review-Journal staff and others have proven time and again over the past couple of weeks). Those of us who have stuck with the profession through no pay raises, unpaid furloughs, reduced staffs, etc., etc., really need to at least cling to the idea that our bosses, on some level, get it. That they don’t wear the black hats. Steve Collins was left with no other choice but to conclude that his boss indeed didn’t get it, and indeed wears a black hat. I’ll echo many others who have lauded his brave, principled decision. As of now, I feel like Gatehouse employees are sort of in limbo. I’m not 100-percent convinced that they are in Collins’ position, but I’m not 100-percent convinced that they aren’t. But I do feel pretty strongly that Gatehouse can’t just hope this will blow over. They hired us for our long memories, too. (Third dark cloud.)

Gatehouse Media is the one who ordered R-J journalists to investigate three Nevada judges, one of whom turned out to be the presiding judge in a lawsuit against Sheldon Adelson’s company. When asked about it by reporters, Michael Reed, CEO of New Media Investment Corp., the parent company of GateHouse Media, declined all comment on whether Adelson was involved. That was a real confidence builder!

Reed said the effort was part of a “multistate, multinewsroom” investigative effort initiated by GateHouse. Really? What was this project all about? Reed said he did not know who started it or who approved it. Weird. Big investigative efforts are launched but nobody at this company knows why, or who gave the order.

“I don’t know why you’re trying to create a story where there isn’t one,” Reed told an R-J reporter. “I would be focusing on the positive, not the negative.” An incredible —and threatening — statement for a news company executive to make to a journalist pursuing a legitimate story. (Fourth dark cloud.)

Then there’s this from GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis when the sale was announced:

The Review-Journal and other Nevada newspapers are the first outlets GateHouse will manage for a company other than New Media Investment.

“We look at this as a possible new business model,” said Davis, who told Review-Journal employees he hoped the management agreement would be long-term.

Uh… really? A new business model? You mean there are other billionaires out there who want to pay three times market value for one of GateHouse’s newspapers, and then hire the company back to run them? Does that sound remotely plausible? (Fifth dark cloud.)

I hope you see what I mean by an engine of opacity. Its time for GateHouse to come under national scrutiny for its role in this lurid, comic and credibility-crushing affair.

Jan. 3 at 8:08pm
A new article appeared yesterday in the New York Times under the headline: ‘Sheldon Adelson’s Purchase of Las Vegas Paper Seen as a Power Play.’ No kidding! Several things in it I found noteworthy:

1. New policy: “The paper’s publisher, Jason Taylor, now requires reporters and editors to get written permission before any article regarding The Review-Journal or Mr. Adelson’s purchase of it is published.”

We don’t know why this is. We don’t know who is insisting on it. We do know that the R-J newsroom has been aggressive in covering this story, and that sometimes things get changed in articles prepared by the journalists there. No one knows where the interference is coming from.

“Must get written permission” sounds like an attempt to clamp down on the Review-Journal’s drive to break news about the Adelson back story. That makes investigative work by other newsrooms even more important, but it’s likely that the out-of-town press will get bored and moved on.

2. The comments of the Las Vegas mayor, who was interviewed for the story. “When you have all the marbles, you can make the calls,” said Carolyn Goodman, the mayor of Las Vegas, about billionaire Sheldon Adelson. “And he has all the marbles.”

Remarkable statement, since it essentially admits that money talks, and the political system listens and obeys. While this is not shocking news — no, I am not surprised by it — it is a little weird for the person at the top of the political system to confess to such helplessness. About Adelson’s purchase of the newspaper the mayor said: “I’m very excited he’s done it.” Excited? Really? That’s odd.

3. “He’s done it,” the mayor said. Notice the “he” there? The mayor assumes that the purchaser is Sheldon Adelson himself. The same assumption is made by Mark Fabiani, described in the Times article as “a crisis management expert and a spokesman for Mr. Adelson.” Fabiani compared Adelson to other billionaire purchasers of newspapers: Jeff Bezos (Washington Post) and John Henry (Boston Globe.)

Why does this matter? Because Adelson himself denies that he is the purchaser. He says he doesn’t even want to own a newspaper. “I don’t have anything to do with it,” Adelson told the Macau Daily Times. “My money that the children have with which to buy the newspaper is their inheritance. I don’t want to spend money on a newspaper.” So, Fabiani is in effect making a liar out of his client. In the New York Times! Nice job, Mr. Crisis Manager. Smooth.

4. Weirdly, the Times article says nothing — not a word — about the bizarre article that appeared in the Bristol (Connecticut) Press criticizing the behavior of Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez of Nevada, after journalists at the Review-Journal were told to investigate her. I’m not sure what to make of this. The Bristol Press is run by Michael Schroeder, the cutout who fronted for Adelson in the mystery purchase, back when he was trying to conceal it.

5. By far the most mysterious and significant events in this entire story involve another player not mentioned in the Times article: GateHouse Media, which sold the R-J to Adelson for a hugely inflated price. The events are mentioned, but not GateHouse itself. Here is how the Times article begins:

“Two days after Sheldon Adelson’s lawyers lost in their attempts to have a judge removed from a contentious lawsuit that threatens his gambling empire, a call went out to the publisher of this city’s most prominent newspaper.

“Almost immediately, journalists were summoned to a meeting with the publisher and the general counsel and told they must monitor the courtroom actions of the judge and two others in the city. When the journalists protested, they were told that it was an instruction from above and that there was no choice in the matter.”

We still don’t know who gave that order, or why. No one has been able to shed light on this “instruction from above.” But the Times reports that it “came in the first week of November, as negotiations on the sale were drawing to a close.” This is where journalistic effort should be focused now: on what GateHouse media thought it was doing by ordering that investigation. See my comments here.

6. I don’t know what to make of it, but I need to mention an anonymous comment received at this site by someone who claims to know some of the major players in this case. “Adelson has used this tactic before when he asked Jacobs to secretly spy on Macau government officials,” this person writes.

Steve Jacobs is the former executive for Adelson’s company in Macau who is involved in the wrongful termination lawsuit being heard by Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez. In his court filings he refers to “Adelson’s direction to me to have investigative reports prepared on Macau government officials as well as certain junket representatives reputed to have ties to Chinese gangs known as triads.” The whole comment is worth reading, though as I said I don’t know how much trust to put into it.

January 4 at 11:45pm
As I told you it must, attention has finally turned to GateHouse Media, the company that sold the Las Vegas Review-Journal to Sheldon Adelson for a wildly inflated price. Also the company that ordered journalists at the R-J to investigate a local judge presiding over a sensitive lawsuit against Adelson’s business empire. Also the company that becomes tongue-tied and non-communicative in the extreme when anyone asks about that investigation. Also the company that says it doesn’t know how it happened, or who ordered it, or why, or gives non-sensical answers to those questions. What we do know is that the orders to investigate the judge came during the negotiations that led to the sale of the newspaper to Sheldon Adelson.

Now on to what happened today.

First, the Review-Journal reported that Michael Schroeder of Connecticut, the bumbling cutout figure who was named “manager” of the newspaper when the sale to Adelson was first announced, will have no role from here on. To observe that Schroeder has zero credibility in the news business would not be fair, because the actual figure is less than that. He appears to be a plagiarist as well as a toady for Adelson, and he has been unwilling to assume any responsibility for his idiotic actions, or even acknowledge that they were his.

These include placing into his tiny newspaper in Connecticut a highly suspicious article attacking the Las Vegas judge whom Gatehouse mysterymanhad forced its journalists to investigate, using a phony byline to do it, and when found out acting like he knew nothing about it or can’t comment when he was almost certainly the author and agent of these acts.

“I didn’t want any tie between that scandal and this newspaper,” said the publisher of the Review-Journal, Jason Taylor. “I didn’t want anyone to think that (Schroeder) would be attached in any way to our newsroom. I don’t want our peers in journalism or members of the public to feel like our journalism has been compromised.”

Hold it right there, Mr. Taylor. Just… stop. In fact there is a tie between Schroder’s fakery and the Review-Journal because the company that employs you to be the chief executive of the Review Journal, GateHouse Media, forced your journalists to investigate that judge, the same judge Schroeder attacked in his bizarre Dec. 1 article. You’re saying you know nothing about this? The orders “from above” must have come through you. And every time you are asked about it you have nothing to say.

Which gets to another thing that happened today. Ken Doctor, a former newspaper journalist who has become a well-sourced writer on the media business and analyst of the newspaper industry’s faltering economics, came out with a column in which he says that GateHouse executives realize they’re in deep trouble. Doctor writes:

“Executives at [Gatehouse] can be accurately described as ‘horrified’ — thankfully and properly — by the many missteps involved in the Adelson sale. Company leadership’s first instinct was to hire a crisis management expert. Now it has come to realize that the problem of Las Vegas could more widely affect the view of whole company. The company must now assert its editorial principles overall, GateHouse management has come to believe.”

On Twitter I told Ken that I had seen no signs of this realization, so he must be referencing confidential conversations he had with GateHouse leadership. He said he was, and that the evidence of this new attitude would be what the company does in the days and weeks ahead. I suppose getting rid of the pathetic Schroeder could be a sign but he was never a GateHouse person. He worked for the shell company Adelson created to obscure his purchase.

As Doctor wrote: “It appears that Adelson, or his people, tried to commandeer R-J investigative resources to ‘monitor’ the performance of local judges who have been thorns in Adelson’s backside.” That’s a big deal. “Even before the legal transfer of the paper had been inked, Adelson, with GateHouse management help, had trampled traditional journalistic lines and convention, believing he could use journalists as a hit squad.”

I would go further: There appears to have been a quid pro quo. Adelson would overpay for the property, adding handsomely to GateHouse’s bottom line and making the executives look like investment wizards. In return, GateHouse would assemble its hit squad and go after the judge for Adelson.

Ken Doctor’s prescription: “GateHouse must move quickly to appoint a respected editor, known for journalistic integrity. Further it owes the wider community — in Las Vegas and nationally — a set of basic principles, putting in public writing the commonsense standards of fairness that drive, though unevenly, American daily journalism. Finally, it should publish a public accounting of the December mess.”

Would an editor with integrity take that job? I have doubts about that.

A third thing happened today: GateHouse sent an editor from one of its other papers, the Providence Journal, to Las Vegas to try to work out with the staff at the Review-Journal some principles for how to report on the Adelson family and issues Adelson is involved in. The Providence editor, Dave Butler, met with the newsroom. It did not go well.

An editor for the R-J, Stephanie Grimes, live tweeted the meeting. Peter Sterne, a reporter for Capital New York, collected her tweets and summarized the meeting as follows: “The Providence Journal executive editor tells Review-Journal editors that they don’t need to cover their new owner so aggressively. The editors are skeptical.”

Butler, of course, claimed that this was not his intent and not what he said.

UPDATE: Michael Schroeder apologized to readers of the Bristol Press today. But like the upstanding character that he is… he did not put it online. I reproduced it here. Tomorrow’s update will include my commentary on this text.

Finally: if you’re coming to the story for the first time, just go to the top of this post and read from there. If you have a First Amendment heart you will be amazed— and depressed.

January 6 at 11:20am
In today’s episode of ‘Adelson buys a newspaper, journalists fight back’ we deconstruct a note to readers published yesterday by Michael Schroeder in the Bristol Press. It was presented as an apology and mea culpa. But it is neither of those things. Schroeder only pretends to take responsibility. His apology is fake. Not the “I’m sorry if you were offended” kind of fake that we’re so used to seeing on the internet. More the “if I admit what I did I would have to resign and disappear in disgrace but I’m not strong enough to face that right now and besides there’s no one to make me…” kind of fake. Is there a word for that? I guess denial will have to do, but that might be giving him too much credit.

If you don’t know who Michael Schroeder is, or how he figures in Sheldon Adelson’s covert purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, or why he was banished from that newsroom this week, or why he needed to apologize to readers of a small Connecticut newspaper for which he serves as editor and publisher, go read this (it’s an amazing story) and come back.

Schroder’s apology fails before it starts for a simple reason: it’s not on the internet, only in print. When you truly want to apologize for something you published, one of your concerns is how to reach the people who were reached by the thing you should not have said. The fraudulent and nearly unreadable article Schroder published on business courts — so he could slip in an attack on a Nevada judge presiding over a law suit against Adelson’s business empire — can still be found on the internet. His apology cannot. When people search on his name it won’t come up. But when reporters call him to ask questions (because many are left unanswered) he can say he dealt with the issue and is moving on. That’s the kind of man he is.

Before you can apologize for what you did you have to describe it. Otherwise how does anyone know you realize what you did? At this basic human task, understood by middle schoolers across the globe, Schroeder fails completely. A few examples among many I could cite:

* Several people quoted in the article were contacted by Hartford Courant reporter Matthew Kauffman about their quotes. They said they never talked to “Edward Clarkin” whose name appears on the story, and they certainly never talked to Schroeder. Journalistically speaking, that’s fraud. What does ‘note to our readers’ say about this practice? Nothing.

* One of the people contacted by Kauffman said he was not even an expert in the subject he was quoted upon:

Arwood said he doesn’t know where that quote came from. “I saw this come through our clips and do not recall ever being interviewed and have no understanding of the issues and Michigan does not even have this type of [business-court] system,” Arwood said.

Fraud x stupid = Schroeder. What does ‘note to our readers’ say about it? Nothing.

* In addition to fake quotes (a firing offense if you’re not the boss) Schroeder appears to have plagiarized from a law review article and the Huffington Post. What does he say about it? Passive voice! “Pieces of the article were taken from related Internet sites and were not credited.” Really? By whom? “Our policy is always to credit the news organization [we take stuff from]… This was not done with this story.” Right. Bad things were done, but no one did them.

* One of the comic elements of this story is the use of a fake name, Edward Clarkin. That’s how Schroeder got caught; no one could find this person. Plus, Edward is his middle name and Clarkin his mother’s maiden name, so again: multiply fraud by stupid and you get Michael Schroeder. What does ‘note to our readers’ say about it? Here Schroeder reaches beyond the silent and the stupid to the sublime, for this is his explanation:

It was a combination of writing and reporting from multiple sources, with anonymity promised, in this case inappropriately. That’s why a pseudonym — “Edward Clarkin,” which had been used before — was used in this instance.

Appreciate what he’s saying here: because “Edward Clarkin” promised his sources anonymity he had to remain anonymous! Uh… that’s not how it works. That’s the opposite of how it works. If your sources remain anonymous we have to know who you are, because we can’t get in touch with them. Anyway, Schroeder can’t even admit that he is Edward Clarkin, or tell us who Edward Clarkin really is. A fake name “was used.” By whom? He knows, but he won’t say.

* The fraudulent article claims that experts were consulted. It uses weasel words like “many say.” It notes that lawyers in Las Vegas didn’t want to go on the record. But it doesn’t actually quote a confidential source. Yet the people it does quote say they never talked to any reporter from the publication in which they are quoted. In normal practice when journalists use confidential sources, readers get the quotes but they don’t know who these people are. In Schroeder’s way, readers know who they are, and the sources don’t know they were quoted! Innovation, of a kind. Alas, the invention will be short lived. Schroder says simply: “We have eliminated this practice.”

* On Dec. 23 Schroeder was asked about some of the problems I have listed here. His reply then: “We stand by our story, and invite anyone who believes we published something in error to call our attention to it.” Why did he say that two weeks ago if now he’s saying that the story failed to measure up “to the high degree of journalism to which we are dedicated?” What crumbled in his stone wall? The note to readers doesn’t say.

* By far the most important thing Schroeder could have done in this note is explain the nature of his relationship to Sheldon Adelson, how his name ended up on incorporation papers for the shell company created when the Adelson family purchased the Review-Journal in Las Vegas, what the connection was between this fraudulent article he’s apologizing for and the agreement he struck with Adelson, and finally: why does a small community newspaper in Connecticut have such interest in the rulings and courtroom behavior of Nevada 8th District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez? What did Schroeder as editor hope to achieve by publishing this crap?

These are the mysteries that have brought press attention to Michael Schroeder. About these central questions his note to readers has nothing to say. Here’s what it does say:

A part of the story involved a matter concerning the buyer of the Las Vegas Review Journal. There should have been a tag line indicating that I have a business relationship with that person.

That person? Don’t utter his name because then people might actually begin to understand what is going on here. Schroeder concludes by saying he takes “full responsibility” for “these failures” but I hope you see by now: that is a pathetic lie.

Here’s the Review-Journal’s coverage of the Schroeder mea culpa, in which I am quoted. It has some additional information on what’s missing from the note.

Here’s a report on GateHouse Media’s attempt to come to some agreement with the Review-Journal newsroom over rules for reporting on Adelson. They actually made progress on some reasonable guidelines.

Here’s an appreciation of Steve Collins and Jackie Majerus by Nat and Nick Hentoff. Both quit working for Schroeder when they realized what an unprincipled man he was.

Here’s a more genuine apology from the billionaire owner of the Boston Globe, John Henry, for massive problems the Globe has been having with print delivery.

Finally: Mark Fabiani, the crisis management expert who was hired to handle press interest in the Review-Journal mess, has compared Sheldon Adelson to John Henry. The point being that billionaires can be good owners for struggling newspapers. But I don’t think much of that comparison, since Henry is out there apologizing for major screw-ups and Adelson can’t even admit that he owns the Review-Journal. His children bought it, he says. He has nothing to do with it, he says. Conclusion: He and Michael Schroeder deserve each other.

January 11 at 12:35 pm
Some juicy new details have emerged in the story of bumbling cutout figure and Adelson flunky Michael Schroeder, editor and publisher of the New Britain Herald and The Bristol Press in Connecticut. They involve the fraudulent and ill-fated article with the byline of a fictional character, Edward Clarkin, which he published on November 30. The article criticized Nevada judge Elizabeth Gonzalez, who presides over a sensitive court case in which Sheldon Adelson’s casino empire — the source of his wealth — is being sued.

Two days before that article appeared, Adelson’s lawyers had failed in their attempt to have the judge disqualified for bias. As I wrote in my previous update, Michael Schroeder recently apologized for that article without really explaining how it came to be— or even mentioning Adelson’s name. But now we know a bit more, thanks to investigative reporter Peter H. Stone’s account in the Huffington Post.

Stone has found out that Schroeder tried to get a former reporter for his Connecticut paper to take on the hit piece about the Nevada judge and offered him a lot of money to do it:

“Three months before a mysterious article popped up in an obscure Connecticut newspaper criticizing a judge overseeing a lawsuit against Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson and his casino empire, freelance reporter Scott Whipple received a lucrative proposal from his old boss.

“Meeting at the small paper’s New Britain offices, publisher and editor Michael Schroeder offered Whipple $5,000 to write a piece about Nevada judicial decisions.

“This was unusual, to say the least. Whipple, a veteran business reporter who had recently retired, had accepted some freelancing projects from his former employer, but Schroeder had never offered him a sum that large before. And the assignment seemed completely unrelated to the usual issues covered by the New Britain Herald and its sister paper, The Bristol Press.”

Whipple turned it down because it smelled funny. Adelson’s name was mentioned in the offer, he said. (A key fact.) We still have no clear idea how the project began or why the ‘Edward Clarkin’ article ran. But some things we do know:

At least three times journalists were asked to take on this assignment and thought it smelled bad. The first was around September 1, when the project was dangled before Scott Whipple by Schroder, according to Stone’s report. Two months later GateHouse Media, the previous owners, tried to get their investigative team in Florida to look into Nevada judges. Bill Church, top editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, said he got a call in early November about “a potentially big story regarding the court system and potential ethics violations,” as he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The call came from David Arkin, GateHouse’s vice president of content and audience. Church resisted the assignment, in part because GateHouse owned the Las Vegas newspaper. Why were they asking a Florida team to take on an investigation of Nevada judges if the company had its own journalists in Nevada? GateHouse stood down from that request. What the editor in Sarasota did not know is that his company was then negotiating with the Adelson family to buy the Review-Journal through a shell company called News + Media Capital Group LLC, with Michael Schroeder of Connecticut as front man.

The third time the project smelled bad to journalists began November 6 when GateHouse ordered the Review-Journal reporters to drop what they were doing and “monitor” three Las Vegas judges. “The initiative was undertaken without explanation from GateHouse and over the objection of the newspaper’s management, and there was no expectation that anything would be published,” the Review-Journal later reported.

An interesting detail in that report: GateHouse, the article said, did not specify that Gonzalez had to be one of the judges. “She was selected at the RJ — though not within the newsroom — because she specializes in business lawsuits and is handling unrelated high-profile cases involving Adelson and fellow casino mogul Steve Wynn.” My italics. That phrase, “though not within the newsroom,” probably means the publisher or the newspaper’s attorney specified Gonzalez. The Review-Journal reporters are letting us know: we didn’t do this! It came from above.

Another thing we know is that every time someone in a position of responsibility is asked about the origins of the Nevada judges project they either clam up or start saying strange things. Some examples:

* “Why would a local paper in New Britain devote so much space to dissecting the rulings of a county judge 2,288 miles away? And who is the mysterious ‘Edward Clarkin’ whose name appears as the author of the Herald story? Those questions have been swirling for days in journalistic circles, but they will not be answered by Schroeder. “I have no comment on our newsgathering, story selection or writers, as always,” Schroeder said in an email.” (Hartford Courant, Dec . 23)

* This paragraph in Stone’s story is a gem because it is so in character for Schroeder: “In three phone interviews in recent weeks, Schroeder declined to answer well over a dozen queries, including questions about the genesis of the story and whether he knew Edward Clarkin. Asked if he valued openness and transparency in the media, he replied, ‘Absolutely.”

* “To deal with the fallout from its Review-Journal purchase, the Adelsons have hired Mark Fabiani, a crisis communications specialist who worked in the Clinton White House and for the cyclist Lance Armstrong. Mr. Fabiani did not respond to inquiries about whether the issue of Nevada judges came up during sales talks.” (New York Times, Dec. 27.)

* “For a week, Mr. Fabiani repeatedly declined to respond to questions about whether Las Vegas judges were discussed during sales talks. But he said in a written statement that The Review-Journal had reported on business cases before Mr. Adelson was involved, and the newspaper did not publish any articles based on the journalists’ monitoring of the judges.” (New York Times, Jan. 2) When the best thing you can say about the assignment is “Hey: we didn’t publish anything!” that… signifies.

* Only once, as far as I can tell, did the people who know let their guard down and try to explain the Nevada judges assignment. This is from the Review-Journal, Dec. 19:

Reached by telephone Friday, Arkin said he was getting on a plane and would have to call back. Hours later, Arkin emailed a prepared statement defending the company’s request for the Sarasota paper’s help as well as GateHouse Media’s newsroom ethics to Hengel, Wright and reporter Eric Hartley.

GateHouse was “engaged to tackle an investigative story in Las Vegas with no knowledge of the prospective new buyer. Because Las Vegas was relatively new to the company, we decided to approach our newsroom in Sarasota, Florida, a team that is known for tackling big investigative journalism,” the statement reads in part.

“On the face of the situation, we had what appeared to be a great story we were capable of investigating, and I wanted our team to show its talent. From my point of view, it was nothing more.”

Here’s the big tell in that: GateHouse was engaged to investigate this story? By whom? That suggests Gatehouse is acting at the behest of a third-party, like when a law firm is engaged by a client to handle a messy legal dispute. But GateHouse is owner-publisher-commander of its investigative teams. It doesn’t loan them out to others, right? We were engaged to tackle this big investigative story and we wanted our people to shine— doesn’t that almost give the game away?

This is probably why “no comment” and “would not return calls” is all anyone has had to say since then. Also if this was such a great story what happened to it? Why didn’t the company’s own talent see it that way?

Look: Michael Schroeder knows why he offered freelancer Scott Whipple $5,000 to write a piece about Nevada judicial decisions. He just won’t say. David Arkin, GateHouse’s vice president of content and audience, knows why he asked the editor in Sarasota to take on an assignment in Nevada. He knows who “engaged” the company for that purpose. He just won’t say. Unless he’s completely incompetent, Kirk Davis, CEO of Gatehouse Media, knows what this is all about. He just won’t say. Fixer Mark Fabiani knows that he’s not supposed to go there at all, probably because this is a situation that cannot be fixed, or even fudged.

January 26 at 2:00pm
I didn’t know anyone was asking Michael Schroeder to teach journalism. He’s the cutout figure in the stealth sale of the Las Vegas Review Journal, the publisher of a bungled hit job on Nevada judge Elizabeth Gonzalez in his small Connecticut newspapers, and the keeper of secrets about his dealings with billionaire Sheldon Adelson. (Including ‘who is Edward Clarkin?’) But he’s not teaching journalism any more.

Last night I learned from the Facebook page of Steve Collins, who used to work for Schroeder but quit in disgust, that last month Schroeder had resigned from his slot as a part-time instructor at Central Connecticut State University’s journalism program. Today I talked to the student who broke the news in the school newspaper, Christopher Marinelli, and several other people involved in these events.

Schroeder was supposed to teach an editing course and help supervise CCSU journalism students on a reporting trip to Cuba later this term. Marinelli had been following closely the story of the Adelson empire, Michael Schroeder and ‘Edward Clarkin,’ the fake name Schroeder put on this botched and almost certainly plagiarized article, published Nov. 30 in the New Britain Herald.

Marinelli, a 20 year-old journalism and linguistics major from Plainville, Connecticut, had worked at the Bristol Press, one of Schroder’s newspapers, as a summer intern and part-time writer. On Dec. 23 he told his editor he could no longer work at the paper, as Steve Collins reports.

Chris Marinelli didn’t think Schroeder should be teaching editing at CCSU without coming clean about Edward Clarkin and several other things, so he wrote an email on Dec. 23 to the head of the journalism department “expressing concern toward Schroeder teaching this spring.” He got the other editors of the student newspaper, the Recorder, to sign it.

According to Vivian Martin, chair of the journalism department, the situation with Schroeder “was monitored and discussed with others within the university as the story mounted.” Martin told me she called a meeting with faculty, students and Schroeder on December 30, which is during the break between semesters. Because it’s a personnel matter she could not go into much detail. “We can’t just fire [someone] based on newspaper stories,” she said. (This is true: university administrators are told to step very carefully around personnel decisions.)

According to Marinelli, the students were vocal and united. They wanted him to apologize publicly for his behavior and accept that he had made serious mistakes. He refused. “We felt that the standards of journalism had been violated by the plagiarism and fabrication of detail and quotes,” Marinelli told me. They also wanted Schroeder to say once and for all who ‘Edward Clarkin’ was. “Because we did not find a common ground of him giving us any clarity, we did not want him to teach at Central.” Marinelli said the original intent of the letter was not to get anyone fired. They just wanted a public apology and a fuller explanation.

Instead, Schroeder resigned a few hours after the December 30 meeting.

“Hats off to the student editors who challenged Mike,” said Jim Smith, who was there. He has worked for Schroeder and in a long career edited other newspapers in Connecticut. (He agreed to teach the spring semester course Schroeder was going to teach.) Smith told me that Schroeder was challenged at the meeting to come clean about all the major questions that people following the story have: not only ‘who is Edward Clarkin?’ but the nature of Schroeder’s relationship to Sheldon Adelson and why the disputed article was published at all.

“The students were extremely upset about this huge breach of trust for an publisher and editor,” he said. “They didn’t want him to take the teaching position and sully the reputation of the school they were graduating from.” He added that in his view Schroeder made a mistake with the Edward Clarkin article, but he has also done a lot of good for journalism in central Connecticut. “The Bristol Press and the New Britain Herald wouldn’t exist today without Mike,” Smith said. “He saved two newspapers.”

Six days after the meeting at Central Connecticut State, Schroeder put into print a kind of a mea culpa. His “note to readers” does not — in my view — take any real responsibility for his actions or explain what his motivations were. (My analysis is here.) But it was better than nothing.

Many people watching this story have assumed that ‘Edward Clarkin’ is in fact Schroeder. And there is no doubt that he is author of the act. He admitted as much in his note to readers. But he told the Connecticut State students that the author of the article was a freelance writer, a person he would not identify. Schroeder said he edited the piece, and of course directed that it be published, which is what I mean by author of the act.

Here he may be telling the truth. We know Schroder tried to get another freelancer to take on the assignment. He has reason not to name the original author, because reporters would no doubt contact that person in an attempt to learn more about Schroeder’s machinations. He can say he’s trying to save the freelancer from the glare of publicity while protecting his own backside.

So it was smart of the Connecticut State students to demand clarity on Edward Clarkin. It was an inspired act by Chris Marinelli to organize the student editors to express their concerns. And it’s good for CCSU that Vivian Martin intervened, because it led to the right outcome. After all, the Review-Journal in Las Vegas recently called Schroeder the “disgraced Connecticut newspaper owner associated with casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.” That’s not someone you want on your faculty.

January 27 at 8:00pm

I have published a new post on all this that I worked very hard on. It lays out my hypothesis for what happened. The new post is called: Journalists as ‘hit squad:’ Connecting the dots on Sheldon Adelson, the Review-Journal of Las Vegas and Edward Clarkin in Connecticut. Please read it. In a coda the end, I draw this depressing conclusion:

Most likely, we will never find out what happened, unless the national press makes a continuing and big deal out of it. But with no new information to report, the chances of that happening are thin. So in all probability, the attempted misuse of journalists as a ‘hit squad’ will go unexplained and unexposed. That’s frustrating. If David Carr were still alive, I would be sending this note to him. Instead, I am publishing it. But I do not have much hope that it will make a difference. Chances are no one will pay. It appears they got away with it.

January 28 at 6:10pm.
News from Las Vegas: Jason Taylor, publisher of the Review-Journal, is out. (He’s one of the five men who know, as I put it here.) Taylor was replaced today by Craig Moon, former publisher of USA Today, who left that job 2009. There was an all-hands meeting where Moon was introduced. According to what I learned from GateHouse employees and this AP report, Jason Taylor will stay with GateHouse in an executive capacity overseeing Western properties. New publisher Craig Moon will not be a GateHouse person, as Jason Taylor was, but an employee in the House of Adelson.

“It wasn’t immediately clear what prompted the change in leadership,” the New York Times wrote.

This development changes the executive picture, and indicates tightening control over the Review-Journal by the Adelson forces. Meanwhile, at the centralized print production center in Austin, GateHouse employees were told by Senior VP David Arkin that as of March 1 they will no longer be composing the pages of the Review-Journal. So the “divorce” between GateHouse and the Adelsons is being finalized. Also, from sources in the Review-Journal newsroom: the disclosure statement that used to run on page 3 of the print edition and the home page of the digital edition is no more, on orders of the new publisher:

disclosure
It seems like the noose is tightening in the Review-Journal newsroom. Another indication of that: I’m told that at the all-hands meeting in Las Vegas to introduce the new publisher, no one even asked about the events of December and whether lingering questions around the judges investigation would ever be addressed. On the surface all is sunny however: This passage ran in the Review-Journal:

Moon said Sheldon Adelson asks insightful questions about newspapers. Adelson owns Israel Hayom, an Israeli newspaper.

“Sheldon is pretty articulate about things about newspapers, like: ‘So do you think the presses are being optimized?'” Moon said.

Moon said the owner puts the newspaper in a solid position for the future.

“I really do want to make this a world-class media business — the best it can possibly be,” he said. “We’ve got a great owner. We’ve got the commitment of a great owner. We’re not a public company having to sit and talk about how our earnings were the for the last quarter, and I think we’re going to be able to do some really big things here.”

UPDATE: Jan. 29: Things are coming into clearer focus now. The Review-Journal reports that Sheldon Adelson is trying to lure the NFL’s Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas by proposing to build an expensive new stadium, which is what it takes:

Casino giant Las Vegas Sands Corp. will lead a consortium of investors planning to build a $1 billion domed stadium on 42 acres near the University of Nevada, Las Vegas that would house the school’s football team — and possibly a National Football League franchise.

There are all kinds of ways that owning the largest newspaper in Nevada could be useful in trying to get a project like that done. For example, this from a Las Vegas Sands Corp spokesman: “Abboud said Las Vegas Sands may seek legislative approval for diversion of hotel room tax revenues that now support the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to the project.” Adelson needs lots of people and public bodies to go along with his scheme if the stadium plan is to work. When you factor that in, owning the Review-Journal makes more sense.

That is exactly the theme of this column by Jon Ralston, the most prominent journalist in the state: Adelson begins to play with his new toy. It’s about aiding Adelson’s campaign for a new stadium through orchestrated coverage in the Review-Journal.

Also see Columbia Journalism Review: Review-Journal backtracks on ownership disclosure.

February 4 6:32pm.
Something without precedent in my experience — and in the memory of several media reporters I consulted — happened today. The CEO of a major newspaper company accused “disgruntled reporters” in one of that company’s newsrooms of telling “untruths” in their reporting. In a word, he said they were liars. Yes. You read that right. Unbelievable as it sounds (because what could be more damaging to a publicly-traded company than an admission like that?) this actually happened today.

As you might expect, the explanation is complicated. So bear with me…

In this post, I described in detail how GateHouse Media executives had failed to explain why they asked two different newsrooms inside their company (one in Sarasota, Florida, the other in Las Vegas) to investigate Nevada state judges. The question mattered because one of the Nevada judges who was “monitored” by GateHouse journalists, Elizabeth Gonzalez, presides over a sensitive and potentially damaging civil suit involving Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is the billionaire owner of Las Vegas Sands Corp, a major donor to Republican causes, and in December 2015 the stealth purchaser of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, largest newspaper in the state, which he bought from GateHouse Media for a price estimated at two to three times what the property was worth in strict market terms.

Why did Adelson, shrewd businessman that he is, overpay so dramatically for the Review-Journal? On the surface it appeared that in return for an inflated price for the R-J, GateHouse had agreed to use its newsroom resources to put a judge troublesome to Adelson under journalistic surveillance.

After these circumstances became known, the company failed to explain where the order to investigate the judge came from, what the logic of that assignment was, or how it originated. In published accounts, reporters at the Review-Journal in Vegas said they had been ordered to investigate the judge by GateHouse Media officials. When they asked for an explanation (what is this story about?) they received none— just orders to do as they were told. So they did what they were told. They “monitored” the judges for a week and submitted their notes to higher-ups, still confused about what they were doing and why.

Today Ken Doctor of Politico reported on an interview he secured with the man who is ultimately in charge: Mike Reed, CEO of the holding company for GateHouse Media. Reed told Doctor there had been on “ongoing” investigation of Nevada judges, into which the monitoring of judge Elizabeth Gonzalez naturally fit. The journalists at the Review-Journal deny this. They say they didn’t understand why they were being told by higher-ups at GateHouse to scrutinize the judges, including Gonzalez. They were simply ordered to do it, so they complied.

CEO Mike Reed disagrees with that. “There was no specific mandate that would say, ‘You do it or you are fired.’” But the assignment was agreed to and understood by the Las Vegas newsroom, he says.

Then this incredible passage appears in Ken Doctor’s account:

Reed contends, contrary to what journalists in the R-J newsroom have said both publicly and confidentially to me, that there was an “ongoing investigation” of the Las Vegas judiciary.

“I’m on the record in the New York Times saying the investigation was ongoing.”

I told Reed I had talked to a number of journalists at the R-J, who all said the one-week judge review had ended in November.

“A lot of media people have been spun by untruths spun in that newsroom…. Like many things that came out of disgruntled reporters in Las Vegas, there were many untruths.”

There it is. Boss of a major newspaper company, publicly traded, says that “disgruntled” reporters who used to be part of his company are spinning, lying, publicly spouting untruths. That is amazing. It is roughly equivalent to the CEO of a major auto company like Volkswagen calling its own engineers liars. Think about what that means for the firm’s reputation. If it’s true it’s hugely damaging. If it’s false it’s even more damaging.

My conclusion: Mike Reed, CEO of New Media Investment Group, holding company for GateHouse Media, had no idea what he was up to when he publicly denounced the Review-Journal newsroom as liars. He was out of control, out of his depth, unaware of the consequences of what he was saying. Today we saw a public meltdown at the top of the company that owns or controls more news sites than any other in the United States.

February 8 at 11:15pm
Many strange things have happened since I have been following the story of Sheldon Adelson’s stealth purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get stranger. They can. And the other day they did.

On Feb. 4, this item appeared in the Review-Journal. The headline on it reads: “Motion filed in Jacobs lawsuit against Las Vegas Sands Corp.” I can’t call it an article. I can’t call it a story. It doesn’t resemble newspaper journalism of any known variety. It’s more like an entry in a ship’s log or a notation a doctor might make on a patient’s chart. It tells us that a motion was filed in a legal case, but nothing about why, or what this means. No background, no context, no attempt to make clear to readers why they should care. But: the document itself is embedded with the brief description, as if some sort of box were being checked. Posted! It’s an act of publishing from which no concern for an actual reading public can be detected. It’s just plain weird.

Because I have been following this story, I can supply the context the Review-Journal declined to provide for “motion filed in Jacobs lawsuit against Las Vegas Sands Corp.” The context is this Jan. 12 story: “Figure in Review-Journal sale becomes an issue in Las Vegas Sands lawsuit.” It explains that in a long-running and potentially consequential civil suit filed by Steven C. Jacobs — a former executive in Sheldon Adelson’s casino company, Las Vegas Sands Corp, “who alleges he was wrongfully terminated for trying to distance Sands from illegal activities in the Chinese gaming city” — another key figure in this complicated story, Michael Schroeder, came up during the questioning of Adelson’s son-in-law, Patrick Dumont. Schroeder was the front man, the person whose name was on the papers, in the secret purchase of the Review-Journal by the Adelson family, a transaction that Patrick Dumont handled, according to the R-J. Schroeder was also responsible for publishing an article in his Connecticut newspapers that attacked the judge in the Jacobs lawsuit, Elizabeth Gonzalez. The attorney for Jacobs wanted to ask Dumont about his communications with Schroeder. Dumont’s attorney instructed him not to answer. The attorney for Jacobs said you can’t do that.

This is what the “motion filed in Jacobs lawsuit against Las Vegas Sands Corp” was about. It’s actually a response to a “transfer of issue” motion filed by Dumont’s attorney, who is trying to take a ruling away from Judge Gonzalez by claiming she’s the subject of news coverage so she can’t rule. But as you can tell from the preceding paragraph, the whole thing is pretty complicated. By simply posting the brief and giving a perfunctory description that is useless to all but the most already-informed readers, the Review-Journal was engaged in… well, I don’t know how to describe it. As I said, it doesn’t conform to any known model of newspaper journalism. It’s not conflict reporting but conflicted reporting.

To understand what might be going on here, it helps to consult Ken Doctor’s latest report on the Adelson takeover, which ran in Politico on Thursday, Feb. 4: Sheldon Adelson tightens grip on Review-Journal. “After a brief spell of normalcy seemed to return to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, all bets are now off,” Doctor wrote. “A new publisher has appeared overnight at the paper, a new editor will be installed as soon as Friday, and, sources tell me, stories involving new owner Sheldon Adelson are being reviewed, changed or killed almost daily.”

In that context — a state of high tension between a newsroom trying to report stories about Adelson and higher-ups willing to spike stories to avoid antagonizing the billionaire — the posting of a legal brief without background, narrative, or any attempt at explanation makes a little more sense. The bosses can say they didn’t suppress the news. They can also guarantee that almost no one read it. (Jon Ralston’s comment: “This is a newspaper? No, it is not.”)

Finally, I have no explanation for this entirely too-credulous account that ran in USA Today. It reports on the new editor of the Review-Journal, J. Keith Moyer, who is confident that Adelson would never, ever interfere in the news product:

There are rampant fears inside and outside the newsroom that Adelson, a major player in Nevada who paid an eye-popping $140 million for the paper, will improperly meddle in its news coverage.

But Moyer, who had been following the controversy from the safe confines of Minneapolis, tells me the Adelson family “has assured me it will never inject itself in the news-gathering process.” He says Sheldon Adelson “told me directly he would be staying out of the newsroom.”

Moyer says he would never have taken the job without such guarantees. “I believe them,” he says.

I wish the author, Rem Rieder (former editor of American Journalism Review) had asked the new editor about “Motion filed in Jacobs lawsuit against Las Vegas Sands Corp,” published four days earlier. It would have been instructive to hear his explanation. Or his reaction to this bizarre fact. Everyone else — including his own people — says he does, but Adelson says he does not own the Review Journal in Vegas or Israel Hayom in Israel. What a guy!

March 5 at 8:10 pm
In January I published a long speculative post attempting to connect the dots surrounding Sheldon Adelson’s stealth purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. This week, a key point in my guesswork was confirmed by a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Allow me to explain.

In my earlier post, I speculated that GateHouse Media sold the Review-Journal to the Adelson family for an inflated price because the sellers were giving up more than the property. They were also supposed to keep the identity of the buyers secret indefinitely, and use their newsroom resources to investigate the judge in a wrongful termination suit against Adelson and his company, Las Vegas Sands Corp.

Here’s the way I put it at the time: “My hypothesis: The Adelson family overpaid for the Review-Journal by a substantial amount because there was more to the deal than just the purchase of a publishing asset. GateHouse would be expected to keep the Adelson family’s ownership stake a secret, and cooperate in the judges project. The sellers got a fantastic price for the newspaper and what is probably a lucrative agreement to operate the property.”

On March 4, Alex Weprin, deputy editor of Politico Media, reported this story: Las Vegas newspaper sellers agreed to keep buyers a secret ‘indefinitely’. How does he know? Because a copy of the purchase agreement was attached to a SEC filing by the shell company that the Adelsons set up to handle the transaction and conceal their hand.

Here’s the actual language:

From and indefinitely after the Closing Date, except as required by applicable Law, the Seller will, and will cause its Affiliates to, hold, and will cause its and their respective Representatives to hold, in strict confidence any and all information, whether written or oral, concerning the business activities and affairs of the Purchaser, its Affiliates or its Representatives, as well as information (including their identity) concerning the direct or indirect owners, shareholders, members, principals, partners or beneficiaries of the Purchaser…” Etc, etc.

Why does this matter? Well, besides lending weight to my overall hypothesis, it matters because think about what this means. When a mega-donor to the Republican party and heavyweight in Nevada politics purchases the major newspaper in the state a few months before the Nevada primary in a presidential election year, that’s a news story. Not just news, big news. National news, even. And yet a major newspaper company, GateHouse, signed a legal document in which it agreed to do everything it could to keep this news secret. In return for this and and other considerations GateHouse received a payment for the newspaper far in excess of market value. If that’s not corruption, it’s something very close.

According to Ken Doctor, who has also been reporting on this story, GateHouse will hold a meeting of all the company’s editors in Chicago in April. Let’s hope the editors are interested in knowing how leadership signed off on an agreement to suppress the news of Adelson’s purchase, especially since it is now confirmed right there in black and white, on a form filed with the government.

April 3 at 3:58pm
An extraordinary admission by GateHouse Media, the company that sold the Las Vegas Review-Journal to Sheldon Adelson in a stealth purchase. The company has essentially said that it had no idea what it was doing when it agreed to whatever it agreed to.

That’s my conclusion, but I will tell you what happened and you can draw your own. The CEO of GateHouse Media, Kirk Davis, gave a talk in Columbus, Ohio to a business group. Here are the relevant passages from a report in a local business publication:

“GateHouse Media was out of its element when it made an unusual sale and arrangement of its Las Vegas newspaper to a billionaire casino mogul, its CEO says…

“GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis said the company doesn’t typically flip its holdings so quickly. But the then-unnamed interested party ‘made an extraordinary offer – extraordinary offer,’ Davis said Wednesday at a Columbus Metropolitan Club event featuring the Dispatch’s new management team.

“’It was highly unusual,’ Davis said of the transaction. ‘I think many of us were a little out of our element figuring different aspects of that transaction out.”

Yeah, no kidding. Out of your element as in:

* Completely unprepared for what would happen when the transaction was announced;
* Ham-handed and possibly corrupt in carrying out Adelson’s expectations for what he would get in return for that extraordinary offer (an investigation by GateHouse journalists of a Nevada judge handling a sensitive lawsuit against Adelson);
* Clueless about to handle the national media attention that came to the story, even though GateHouse is a media company;
* Incompetent and deceitful in leveling with its own people about the deal, including its own reporters and editors.

One line in the Columbus report indicates how out of its depth the company was. The report says:

The Las Vegas paper’s staff quickly figured out that Adelson, a Republican party kingmaker and billionaire who made his money in casinos, was the mysterious buyer. (Davis offered the journalists’ kudos for their digging.)

Oh, really? Kudos for their digging! Unbelievable. Lets review the bidding: First, GateHouse conspires with Adelson to suppress very big news in Nevada and national politics: the billionaire’s purchase of the Review-Journal. Then it brings a bumbling amateur, Michael Schroeder, into the newsroom to tell the staff not to worry its pretty little heads about who the buyer was. Then it tries to stonewall the R-J reporters as they ignore Schroeder and investigate the sale anyway. Then it says “nice job, guys” when the reporters succeed, even though the company’s journalistic reputation is by now in the toilet.

So yeah, “a little out of our element” is probably accurate. I might even go with something stronger. Eye roll.

April 10 at 1:20pm
I have a fascination with institutional train wrecks, fantastic feats of denial, and people in the public eye who simply can’t admit they’re wrong, even though everyone sees it. In that latter category a spectacular recent performer is Michael Schroeder, the bumbling cutout figure and Sheldon Adelson flunkie who used his Connecticut newspapers to do the billionaire’s bidding… but can’t admit it!

For connoisseurs the fun thing about Schroeder is that he screws up his courage and goes out there to explain and apologize, and then at the crucial moment cannot complete the act. He knows he should, because people are saying bad things about him for sound reasons. The trouble is he still believes hotly in his own innocence, but he also knows cooly that the evidence of his guilt is public, obvious and widely distributed. This is fun to watch— for connoisseurs of denial. Fun in a sad and pathetic way, of course.

It happened again recently. Schroeder bought another newspaper a few months ago: the tiny Block Island Times in Rhode Island. When the deal was announced he made all the august noises one makes about the sacred duty of a free press and being a responsible steward of a community asset. Then the people who live there started hearing about this man who had bought their newspaper. Some of them looked him up. Like everyone who knows the story of his dealings with Sheldon Adelson, they had serious questions about the integrity of a man who could misuse his newspapers that way. Some of them even came to the office to say to him face-to-face: WTF, man?

Schroeder tried the thing one tries: “That’s old news.” “I dealt with that.” But he also knows he didn’t! So after getting these questions for a few months he decides to clear the salty air in Block Island with a solemn letter to readers, which you can read here:

Now for fans of the phony apology genre, one of the famous lines in the history of the form is “mistakes were made.” If there is any phrase that has pedigree as an instant marker for fake regret it’s that one. It’s even better than “I’m sorry if you were offended,” because its cultural trail is longer. (See: ‘Mistakes Were Made’ Is The King Of Non-Apologies.) So widely known is this that you’d think a writer using “mistakes were made” would have to be doing so with air quotes.

But as I said Schroeder is a top performer in this category. Watch the responsible actor drop out of his prose, as if the conflict between feeling totally innocent and knowing you’re publicly guilty could be solved grammatically!

Mistakes were made in the reporting of those pieces. Sections of articles were taken from other stories without proper attribution. Business relationships were not disclosed. Instead of a byline, a pseudonym was used.

Spectacularly passive stuff. Mistakes were made, but no one made them.

Schroeder does apologize to Block Island readers — “I personally apologize to you, our readers, for the concern caused by this story” — but he doesn’t address those concerns by explaining in any way why he ran a fake, plagiarized, wholly deceptive article on business courts focusing on a Nevada judge when he’s the publisher of a community newspaper in Connecticut. Which is what people want to know. Which is why they went to his office and said: WTF, man? Which is why he’s publishing this letter at all.

See what I mean? He screws up his courage and goes out there to apologize, and then at the crucial moment turns and runs off the stage, muttering “yeah, okay, so some mistakes got made… what business is it of yours?” Notice too that he’s sorry he caused readers concern, but not for what he did for Adelson.

But then Schroeder, sensing how absurd his own weakness is, goes further and runs some Letters to the Editor from readers who know he hasn’t come clean, as a way to make up for the fact that (again) he hasn’t come clean. Spectacular! You can read those here: They’re quite good.

* * *

To catch up with this story from the beginning, start here and keep reading.

Photo credit: ‘Mystery man without car,’ Jana-Sophie Lauer, Creative Commons License.

Dec.
21

“Influential news outlets have set aside traditional notions of balance…”

Something happened in journalism two weeks ago that I want to examine before we all forget about it and election season rolls on.

On December 8, Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed and before that a political reporter, wrote a memo to his staff that he made public. This is a screenshot of the memo:

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 7.24.12 PM
The same day, NBC Nightly News broadcast what could only be called an editorial or “column” by Tom Brokaw, Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 1.49.52 PMalthough it was not described that way by NBC. Lester Holt simply tossed to Brokaw, the face of the brand for 22 years as lead anchor at NBC, for what Holt called “reflections” and “some perspective” on Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. (Watch.)

“Trump’s statement, even in a season of extremes, is a dangerous proposal that overrides history, the law and the foundation of America itself,” Brokaw said, speaking directly into the camera. “In my lifetime alone, we have been witness to the consequences of paranoia overriding reason.”

As CNN’s Dylan Byers reported on Dec. 10:

With Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, several of the nation’s most esteemed journalists and influential news outlets have set aside traditional notions of balance and given themselves license to label the Republican front-runner a liar, a demagogue, a racist and worse… news organizations are abandoning concerns about impartiality and evenhandedness and stating what they believe are objective truths about the Republican’s most popular presidential candidate.

“What Trump is doing is wildly outside American traditions and values, and that’s what we’re covering and responding to and I think you see that across major media outlets,” Smith told CNN. “I’ve never seen a candidate base his campaign on vilifying a minority group. So it would be misleading to characterize it any other way.”

What happened here?

On one level it’s simple: Trump went too far. As David Folkenflik of NPR put it on Dec. 11, Trump has been making pronouncements and taking positions “that are increasingly alien to mainstream American thought.” His proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. was denounced by leading Republicans (including Paul Ryan, speaker of the House) as well as Democrats, so journalists could feel comfortable joining in the condemnations. End of story.

But this tells us something about what Byers called “traditional notions of balance.” They are only partly about lending fairness and a sense of proportion to news reports. As journalism scholars have been observing since the 1970s, the practices that are variously known as “objectivity,” or in political coverage “neutrality” — or, as Folkenflik put it, the “non-ideological” approach — as well as workplace rules against expressing an opinion on social media… these practices have purposes beyond rendering the world in an accurate and truthful way.

Ben Smith in his memo referenced “the need not to needlessly undermine the work of reporters on the beat.” What is he talking about there? Well, reporters covering the presidential campaigns need certain things from those campaigns: information, interviews, phone calls returned, a minimal level of cooperation. If a stray comment on social media from a Buzzfeed staffer on a wholly different beat persuades the communications staff for a presidential campaign that Buzzfeed is “against” their candidate, that would amount to “needlessly undermining” the political reporter who has to deal day-to-day with those people. The reporter can protest: hey, I have always been fair with you. But the candidate’s people can answer: your publication is biased, look at this comment on social media. What does the reporter say then?

It may sound trivial but it’s exactly this, what people “can say” — for which there is no effective reply — that accounts for a lot of the rules and procedures that journalists associate with “credibility,” a term with no precise meaning that has outsized importance in their internal deliberations, and their automatic thinking.

Vulnerable to criticism

The way scholars of journalism look at these events is different. In 1972 sociologist Gaye Tuchman published her (justly) famous article, “Objectivity as strategic ritual.” In it she analyzed the behavior of journalists, whom she called newsmen, working within hierarchies that had to reproduce a report on the state of the world every 24 hours. Whereas a sociologist could take six months to study a situation, assemble the data, and draft a report, the journalist had to complete this act in a single day, often under enormous pressure.

Inevitably mistakes happen. The most serious of these could lead to a libel suit, which in turn could threaten the entire enterprise. There were editors charged with removing mistakes, and checking up on reporters in the field, but they too were human, and also under pressure. On top of that, the product that these “newsmen” made — news — was destined for wide distribution, including people who knew a lot more about the story than the reporter ever could.

A situation like this was made for second guessing. The city editor second guessed the beat reporter. The managing editor second guessed the city editor. The informed reader second guessed the editors. (And the ignorant reader too!)

Improvised, imperfect, incomplete, telling of events that are still in motion, but then broadcast widely, the daily news report was vulnerable to criticism on a hundred and one counts. This vulnerability had to be managed somehow, the risks of it systematically reduced. In Tuchman’s eyes, that’s what “objectivity” in newsrooms was: a way of coping with the criticism that was sure to descend on a product that was hastily made.

The people who made it needed some kind of protection against charges that would inevitably come their way: that they didn’t know what they were talking about, that they were unqualified to say what was true, that they misunderstood. And today of course we would add: that they are biased, “against us,” part of an opposing camp. Tuchman in 1972 wrote:

The newsmen cope with these dangers by emphasizing “objectivity,” arguing that dangers can be minimized if newsmen follow strategies of newswork they identify with “objective stories.” They assume that, if every reporter gathers and structures “facts” in a detached, unbiased, impersonal manner, deadlines will be met and libel suits avoided.

Probably the best example of a “strategic ritual” that meets the journalist’s vulnerability to criticism and provides a veneer of objectivity is the use of quotation to say: Hey, I’m not saying this is true, but it is definitely a fact that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said today when he met with reporters….

Bring it on

Which brings us back to Trump and his “plan” to ban Muslims who are not already citizens from entering the United States. The ritual would say: report what Trump said, report what his critics said in reply, let people draw their own conclusions. And many news organizations did exactly that. But others made a different call: Objectively speaking, Trump is a racist and if you work for us you are free to say that. (Buzzfeed) Objectively speaking, this is a dangerous proposal that goes against what America is about. (NBC News) They didn’t think they were vulnerable to criticism for calling him out. Or they didn’t care. Of course there is a big difference between those two.

Trying to protect yourself against criticism, against what people “can say…” is perhaps understandable — Gaye Tuchman understood it exceptionally well in 1972 — but that does not make it legitimate.

A different approach would be to accept with equanimity: Yes, as journalists charged with reporting things that are complex and still in motion we are uniquely vulnerable to criticism. Bring it on! Protection will come from being specialists in verification who are allergic to any party line. Accountability journalism blows “balance” out of the water. Intellectual honesty is far more important than a ritualized objectivity. Recover your voice and people will have reason to listen. But journalists must listen also, and stand ready to correct.

During that odd interval, December 8-11 of 2015, we caught a small glimpse of a different press. To let it fade would be an error in pressthink that I cannot in good conscience allow my readers to make.