Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Reconsidering that Adelson-New Yorker Piece

When I alerted you folks to the 12,000-word piece in the New Yorker by Sheldon Adelson yesterday, I was going a little bit on hype and a little bit on my initial reading of the beginning of it. Connie Bruck, the writer, has a tremendous reputation and fellow journalist friends of mine were calling and emailing to say, "You gotta check this out."

OK. So I did. I just spent as long as it took -- two Diet Cokes and a bottle of water, less one understandable potty break -- reading all of it. And I came away underwhelmed.

Unlike my issues with Christina Binkley's ridiculous treatment of Adelson and subsequent lame excuses for same in her "Winner Takes All" book, Bruck does an excellent job of giving us a comprehensive lay of the land in Adelsonville. We see him in all his various incarnations, get the basic thumbnail of his life from Boston cabdriver's son to up-and-down entrepreneur to wildly successful Comdex founder to Vegas innovator and rascal to Macau-made billionaire. Along the way, the recurring theme of his interest in all things Jewish and Israeli are detailed.


Yes, it's a long piece. Yes, it reads very well. Yes, there are some parts that Adelson might object to, although nothing that seems likely to spawn a lawsuit. But there is actually very, very little that's new in here to anyone with a working knowledge of the Vegas universe. And on that front, I suspect, the New Yorker audience is learning all of this for the first time. So that's fine. But I take back the description from my prior post that this is "fearless" journalism.

The vast majority of Bruck's sources appear to be other news reports and legal documents, accessible to anyone who wanted to take the time to collect and reduce it. The most interesting bits that seem to come from her reportage -- two incidents relating to Adelson's alleged interactions with President Bush -- are unsourced and denied or unrecalled by just about everyone involved. And to someone who's fascinated by Vegas, as you who read this blog by definition are, there's not a single word about Adelson's feud with the OTHER Jewish billionaire Vegas visionary, Steve Wynn. If Binkley missed the Adelson angles in her de facto biography of Wynn, Bruck seriously misses the extent to which Steve Wynn has had an influence on Sheldon Adelson. Even the extent of their Jewishness is a significant piece of that rivalry which, I would think would've been of interest to Bruck.

So, here's the thing: Is it a surprise to anyone that Adelson can be ruthless, selfish, demanding and ambitious, occasionally stepping over the line of what some might think is ethical? That he gets sued a lot and likes to sue, in both directions sometimes with merit and sometimes seemingly out of spite? That he's an overwhelming, controversial figure in the American Jewish and Israeli world? That he aspires to be even wealthier?

The only part of the piece that really made me think in a new way about him was the fascinating passages about his drug-addicted sons from his first marriage. I knew nothing of this, and it struck me as utterly tragic. And his response, to establish drug-treatment facilities and try to set them up with money to carry them through their lives only to be accused by these messed-up ingrates of defrauding them, seemed to suggest a psychodrama at play that I never considered before. I've only ever seen Adelson with his clearly devoted second wife, Miriam, who is a drug-addiction specialist to boot. Her daughter, in fact, is being groomed for a future role in the company and Adelson's sons seem like cute, precocious kids of privilege. Who knows what sort of a father he was, true, but is it weird if I feel some sympathy for him for what he must've gone through with his first boys, one of whom died of an overdose in 2005?

What's kind of amazing is that for all that effort and travel, Bruck turns up no specific new complaints about Adelson's behavior that could be actionable or controversial. What I mean is, I know of at least two more lawsuits related to Adelson's Macau adventures that are on the horizon. That's what's next with him. And yet there's no indication, even in all those words about how Adelson got into China, that his legal headaches have hardly ended with the recent judgment against him. Neither does Bruck ever discuss what he's planning to do next in the gaming and business worlds.

I also left Bruck's piece with a related question that I didn't expect Bruck to answer but that I am quite curious about: Why hasn't Adelson built anything in Israel? The piece says he's wanted to do an Israeli casino and hasn't been able to, but why not a fancy hotel and convention facility? He's such a booster; where's his investment beyond charities? And if he is so all-powerful over there, how come he hasn't gotten to do the casino? Bruck never really addresses this.

There was one bit in this piece that I hadn't heard before that scared the crap out of me, the notion that Adelson might be hot to buy the Las Vegas Review-Journal. It's speculative at best and based largely on his efforts to build a pro-Adelson media base in Israel. The R-J folks tell Bruck they've never fielded an offer, though. But he could so easily do it, and what a disaster that would be for the city. It's not that he'd turn the paper into a right-wing house organ -- to some extent it already is -- but that this town is just too much of a one-trick pony to have one of those pony's chief jockeys also guarding the stables.

Finally, Bruck is very good at retelling anecdotes that have appeared in other media. That is, in fact, most of the 12,000 words she delivers. But this one passage in particular made me laugh out out:

At a formal dinner attended by more than a hundred senior officials of various Israeli and Jewish organizations, guests were offered the opportunity to tell Peres what they considered the biggest challenge facing the Jewish people. Adelson, according to
Ha’aretz, declared, “I think Jews should have lots of sex. That is the solution to our demographic problem.”

You can take the boy out of Vegas...


Carlos said...

as usual, a nice, even-handed perspective on media. THIS is fearless journalism...

Anonymous said...

Help us non journalists gain some perspective, please. How big is 12,000 words in USA Today terms? How much bigger is that than the front page feature story that takes up most of the second page? Jeff in OKC


Sure, Jeff. 12,000 words is about as long as you're going to find in anything in American journalism today. A jumping cover story for USA Today might be 1500-1800 words. One of those huge New York Times pieces might be 3000-5000 words. A really long Vanity Fair article might be 5000-7000 words. There are very few publications that would print anything that long: New Yorker and Harper's are the only two that spring to mind. Maybe National Geographic. When I put Bruck's work into a Word document to count the words, it filled 32 pages. Hope that helps.