Sunday, October 14, 2007

Something to Consider When Booking a Vegas Room

John L. Smith is probably the finest working writer in Las Vegas and, as it happens, also a terrifically nice person. He occupies the bottom strip of the Review-Journal's Nevada section a few times a week and we'd all be better off if he could do so even more often. He's a lifelong Las Vegan -- yes, there are a couple of those -- with terrific sources and a storehouse of good will built up over decades of storytelling, a wonderful and rare blend of hard-hitting expose and tear-inducing human drama.

And none of that is able to protect him from the misery he's going through now. John filed for bankruptcy protection last week, forced into the move not by the crushing financial burden of his young daughter's three-year battle against cancer but by what amounts to an incredibly frivilous libel lawsuit filed against him by billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

John made some mistakes about Adelson in his 2005 book on Vegas titans, "Sharks in the Desert." Adelson was upset by suggestions that he might have some connection to organized crime and sued both Smith and his publisher, Barricade Books. Smith acknowledges the mistakes and inserted an errata sheet in copies of the books. He also apologized for the mistakes in his Review-Journal column.

That would seem like a reasonable -- heck, possibly excessive -- attempt to fix the problem. Except that the lawsuit wasn't withdrawn. The various and sundry debates of both sides in this mess can be read about in this news story from Friday and also in this superb column by editor Thomas Mitchell. As Mitchell notes, it doesn't matter if any journalism law professor can point out flaws in Adelson's case, the facts that Smith made several good-faith efforts to correct the record and that Adelson can't point to any damage suffered from the book. None of that matters because Adelson has expensive lawyers who must know the flaws of the case but figure they can bleed Smith into submission or, in this case, financial purgatory. And we thought Republicans were opposed to abusing the legal system in this manner!

Of course, it's all made the worse because Smith is enduring a private horror that would prompt most kindhearted people to back off, his only child's hellish battle against cancer. In fact, it is this battle and John's willingness to share it with his readers that has prompted my own partner, Miles, to pledge to grow out his hair and donate it to a charity that makes wigs for people balded by disease and its treatments.

Adelson's lawyer offered a $200,000 trust for Smith's daughter's treatment even as the two were in litigation. Smith could accept that, but it would mean he'd also be giving up his ability to objectively cover one of the most significant business interests in the city. That may be a tough one for non-journalists to get their heads around, but it's a principled stand and one that I, frankly, am not entirely sure I'd have to honor to take in the face of such a personal crisis.

I'll happily believe Adelson made this offer out of real empathy and may not understand the journalistic bind it would create for Smith. And I don't deny that Adelson has the right to be upset if Smith wrote something inaccurate that could taint his image.

But assuming that the entire matter boils down to Adelson wanting to protect his good name, it's confusing that Adelson would want all of his fine philanthropic work to be overshadowed by his lack of benevolence toward Smith in just letting the thing go. Which would seem to be the worse image problem, a widely disproved connection to organized crime many decades ago that few would even have known about were it not for this lawsuit or the fast-traveling -- and true -- news that an unfathomably wealthy man is forcing a working-class father with a sick child into bankruptcy?

Smith, meanwhile, continues to conduct himself with his standard good taste. Today's column doesn't mention the lawsuit directly even though, if you know about it, you can read between the lines. Rather, it happens to be three years this week since Amelia was first diagnosed, so he uses it to remind himself and us of his daughter's sweetness and bravery. They're now in one of many limbos, a month away from yet another pronouncement about the child's survival.

Read it now, with tissues.

4 comments:

tina in cincy said...

Wow. That's terrible. I love the Venetian, but I don't think I can give that man my money anymore. I knew he was a tough cookie, but this is petty and cruel, not at all what his religion teaches.

dan kane said...

what a jerk. nicely said, steve.

LinFromNJ said...

That's horrible. I never stay there and now I'm glad I don't.

Ray said...

Ever since I read in your book, Gay Vegas, about the anti-gay policies of the Venetian, and how in bed Adelson is with the right-wing, I have refused to give that place a dime of my money. It's Wynn and MGM for us all the way. Until we treat the enemy as enemies, the way they treat us, there's no chance of victory.