John L. Smith is the finest writer in the Las Vegas media 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, such a creature does exist—with terrific sources and a storehouse of goodwill built up over decades of excellence and integrity. John’s the rare journalist capable of providing both hard-hitting exposé and tear-inducing human drama, and I analyze many of his pieces to see what I might learn and apply to my own craft.
And none of his many attributes can protect him from the misery he suffers now. John filed for bankruptcy protection last week, forced into the move not by the crushing financial burden of his 11-year-old daughter’s three-year battle against cancer but by what amounts to a questionable libel lawsuit filed against him by Las Vegas Sands mega-billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
Evidently, John made some mistakes about Adelson in his 2005 book on Vegas titans, Sharks in the Desert. Adelson was understandably angered by suggestions in the book that he might have some connection to organized crime, so he sued both Smith and his publisher, Barricade Books. The owner of Barricade has since died, and the company is a fundless irrelevancy, but the real aim here has always been to punish the author.
John acknowledged the mistakes and inserted an errata sheet in copies of the books. He also offered to publish an apology and correction in his Review-Journal column. That would seem like a reasonable—heck, possibly excessive—attempt to fix the problem. You can’t unring a bell, but this was a pretty weak clang in the first place, and John’s column is the largest platform available from which he could self-flagellate.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. The lawsuit wasn’t withdrawn. The Adelson camp says they offered various ways out for John; John says each of those offers came with an insistence that he tell a court he had evil intent in the first place. This not being so, John says, he couldn’t do it.
There’s more back-and-forth, but it’s not terribly important because, as R-J editor Thomas Mitchell outlined last Sunday, any journalism-law professor can drive a Mack truck through the holes in Adelson’s case. There are, in particular, two monstrous ones: John made good-faith efforts to correct the record, and Adelson, a public figure for the purposes of libel law, can’t point to any material damage suffered from the book’s mistakes.
Adelson’s legal counsel must know this, but they also know that the cost of getting John to trial will punish him enough even if they lose in court. They rightly figure they can bleed John into submission or, at the very least, financial purgatory.
Of course, all of this is made worse because Smith is enduring a private horror that would prompt most people to back off, his only child’s hellish battle against cancer.
Adelson’s lawyer offered a $200,000 trust for John’s daughter’s treatment even as the two were in litigation. It’s unclear what one has to do with the other, but in an R-J story it’s noted by Adelson’s reps to show the magnate is not unfeeling and indifferent to the Smith family’s suffering.
Okay. I’ll buy that. I’m happy to believe that Adelson, an admirable philanthropist whose wife is a pioneering physician, made this offer out of real empathy and that perhaps he doesn’t understand the journalistic bind it would create for John. You see, John’s acceptance of the trust would mean he’d also give up his ability to objectively cover one of the most significant business and political interests in Nevada. 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 the honor to take in the face of such a personal crisis.
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 and restore his good name, it’s confusing that he would want all of his good works to be overshadowed by his lack of benevolence toward John in this matter.
Which would seem to be the worse image problem, a loudly 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 the working-class father of a sick child into bankruptcy?
John’s Sunday’s column didn’t mention the lawsuit directly even though, if you know about it, you can read between the lines. Rather, he found himself facing bankruptcy three years to the week since Amelia was first diagnosed, so he used her fight to remind us—and himself—of his daughter’s inspiring sweetness and bravery. They’re now in one of many limbos, a month away from yet another pronouncement about the child’s survival.
And so, even if it is about as likely to happen as Oscar Goodman’s brothel district, this is the appeal to Adelson: Let it go. Everyone knows the book was wrong, and John has apologized, so the only thing left to gain is vengeance.
Let it go. Be a mensch. Because to do so costs you nothing. Not to do so, however, is costing a struggling young family everything.