blank.gif (51 bytes) Soft Money and
Cozy Relations

Are Some Nevada Media Moguls Crossing the Line?
by Pat Hickey

arry asks his friend Jim to give money to his other friends so Harry's other friends can attack John who is not Harry's friend. Jim says yes and gives the money to Harry's friends so they can buy ads on Jim's television stations to attack John who is not Harry's friend.

A conflict of interest? No. Just the First Amendment at work in the latter part of the 20th century.

Freedom of the press sits correctly atop the pedestal of America’s most cherished civic sacraments. As one of the core First Amendment freedoms, its implicit powers are indispensable for the success of our representative democracy. So sacred is press freedom in American political tradition that members of the press have been invited as practical equals to the table of America’s legislative, executive and judicial estates.

There is one caveat, though, for the Fourth Estate. For the media and the press to play the role of gatekeeper, scorekeeper and watchdog over our elected governments, it requires one all-important ingredient: public trust. Citizens must trust that their interests are being served and not the self-interests of the media and the press. University of Missouri Professor of Journalism John C. Merrill has written that public trust means that the media are believed and relied upon by the public, and that they are the necessary vox populi or "voice of the people" in much of the public discourse in the nation.

Will Rogers once said a good newspaper was "a nation talking to itself." The problem today is that many suspect the media is communicating with us for its own interests rather than ours. And to a growing number of Americans, media’s motives appear more personal than public, more self-serving than altruistic, and certainly more profit-driven than anything else.

Such trends make it harder for the public to keep trusting.

Home-Grown Media Mogul

im Rogers is a Silver State success story. A 1956 graduate of Las Vegas High School, Rogers went on to earn his law degree from the University of Arizona. In 1971 he founded Valley Broadcasting Company which subsequently won FCC approval to operate KVBC-TV, Channel 3, the NBC affiliate in Las Vegas.

Like Steve Wynn in gaming with the Golden Nugget, Rogers parlayed his flagship enterprise into a media model and power base for an emerging Western broadcasting empire.

Rogers started Sunbelt Communications Company, which owns and operates NBC affiliate television stations in Las Vegas, Reno and Elko. Rogers, who owns 95 percent of Sunbelt stock, also owns affiliates in Yuma, Arizona; El Centro, California; Helena, Montana; Pocatello-Idaho Falls, Idaho; Jackson, Wyoming; and the Fox affiliate in Twin Falls, Idaho. Rogers is also Chairman of the Board of Nevada First Bank.

Estimated to have a net worth of over $300 million, Rogers has never been accused of being stingy with his money. He has been more than generous to those people and institutions of which he’s fond.

Rogers recently pledged $28.5 million to the new William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Not long before, he gave the largest gift ever to any American law school, $50 million to his alma mater, the University of Arizona.

Speaking at his gift-giving ceremony at UNLV on November 4, Rogers said of his charitable motives, "After you make what you need for your family, you’re just holding the rest for the public."

Such philanthropic largesse cannot but be commended.

But it’s Rogers’ partisan generosity that has raised eyebrows—as well as serious questions about the ethics involved—when he gave $200,000 of media money directly to a political party.

During the just-completed ‘98 campaign season, Rogers was asked by U.S. Senator Harry Reid to "give a substantial amount of money to the Democratic Party." Rogers responded positively and told television viewers on October 15, during a broadcast editorial on KVBC-TV in Las Vegas and KRNV-TV in Reno, that he told his friend, "Harry, I’m not only going to give you what you asked for, I’m going to give you twice the amount ...." Rogers’ on-air editorial also found its way conveniently into Reid’s print ad titled "Integrity."

What About Separation of
Government and the Press?

he First Amendment’s establishment clause recognized the potential harm a state-run church or a church-run state could cause. Democratically challenged countries usually favor a state-controlled media, a blatant conflict of interest guaranteed to protect those who hold the reigns of governmental power.

The prededent of Rogers giving a large sum of campaign money from Sunbelt Communications Co. raises a question: was a line crossed in the presumed wall of separation between politics and the press?

Rogers defends his right to give his full editorial endorsements (along with his company’s cash). He told Nevada Journal, "I have a right to support whoever I want. I only owe the public an explanation of where my biases are."

But could his actions be setting a precedent for other even wealthier media interests to exert their influence on a political arena already tainted by the color of green? Suppose Ted Turner had given his $1 billion dollars of Turner Broadcasting money to the Republican Party instead of to the UN?

Granted, there may have been nothing illegal about Reid’s asking for money from Rogers to give his party to produce television ads attacking Reid’s recent Senate opponent John Ensign. But if mere perceptions of impropriety are enough to routinely condemn politicians by the press, how is it that a powerful media player gets off so easy?

Power of the Media

verette E. Dennis of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University says media people are reluctant to brag about it, but they are acutely aware of their power. "Theirs is the only institution that really gets no policing; it falls back on the Constitution when occasional darts begin to come close. In protecting its power, every mass medium paints its critics as uninformed cranks who would repeal the First Amendment and censor the press," said Dennis.

Richard Harwood, columnist for the Washington Post, says "Newspapers and other media enterprises have acquired considerable wealth, influence and perhaps real power in this century." Former U.S. News and World Report editor James Fallows agrees. "Prominent journalists have tremendous power, and therefore their sources of money are relevant. Yet analysts who are so clear-eyed in seeing the conflict of interest in Newt Gingrich’s book deal or Hillary Clinton’s cattle trades claim they see no reason, none at all, why their own finances might be of public interest."

A 1981 edition of the Annual Review of Psychology was published without much fanfare in media circles. In typically understated academic tones, researchers Donald Roberts and Christine Bachen wrote, "The past decade... has witnessed a revival of the view that the mass media exert powerful influences on the way people perceive, think about, and ultimately act in their world."

Everyone knows corporations spend millions of dollars annually on media advertising because it works.

When Rogers was asked if he thought local producers of his various news programs might feel pressured to take a cue from his very public political positions, he said, "No I don’t think so, because I don’t dictate policy in the newsroom."

But when campaign reform advocate Paul Brown, Southern Nevada Coordinator of the Progressive Leadership Alliance, was asked about the influences high-profile bosses have on those who work for them he said, "Employees often look to see who their boss supports politically."

Jim Rogers is certainly up front about his political leanings. But he isn’t the only Nevadan with titanic media and business holdings who puts his company’s money where his political heart is.

The Art of Power and Access

he Las Vegas Sun is only one of numerous businesses owned by the Greenspun family. In addition to the Sun, the Greenspuns own American Nevada Corp., the master developer of the Green Valley community in Henderson, a portion of Prime Cable and the Hospitality Network (cable in hotel rooms), several other Las Vegas publications, NextLink Nevada, a telecommunications business, and numerous other Southern Nevada commercial interests.

Brian Greenspun is the current editor of the Sun. Greenspun attended the Georgetown School of Law with Bill Clinton and has been a supporter of both the president and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) ever since. Federal Election Committee (FEC) records show Greenspun companies and family members have given thousands of dollars to Democrats across the country. Greenspun, a registered Republican, hosted a 1996 reception for Clinton at his Henderson home catered by Spago and which netted $350,000 for the DNC.

In a recent essay in the New Republic titled "Clincest," Jacob Weisberg writes "about the increasingly cozy relationships between press, law, academia and government that now mark the Clinton era." And in a post-election Washington Post article by media critic Howard Kurtz titled "A Questionable Q-and-A," Greenspun is attacked for authoring a "Las Vegas Sun interview with President Clinton five days before the Nevada Democrat [Harry Reid] won reelection." Kurtz concluded his commentary questioning the ethics of Greenspun’s use of his editor’s position. "Still, a newspaper’s top executive interviewing a president he has financially supported on behalf of a senator he has endorsed would seem to set a new standard," said Kurtz.

The Sun editor says he hasn’t "kept track" of the money he’s given Clinton or the DNC. Bill Clinton apparently has. The President and Hillary reciprocated the Greenspun Vegas-style hospitality by inviting them to stay in a cozy little place in the White House known as the Lincoln Bedroom. The Washington Post has reported that since 1992 Greenspun, his mother, Barbara (the paper’s publisher), and other releatives have donated $11,000 to Clinton’s campaigns, at least $198,000 to the DNC and $6,000 to Reid.

The Sun’s chief rival, The Las Vegas Review-Journal, has taken generally pro-Republican stands in most of its political endorsements. But a search of FEC records reveals no direct political contributions given by either the paper’s publisher or editor to any candidates or political parties.

Maybe it’s another one of the media myths being demolished before our eyes like a worn-out casino on the Strip, but isn’t it the proper role of the press to make politicians feel uncomfortable instead of being pampered and paid for at editors’ private residences? How can the role of watchdog be played by the press if its owners become veritable lap dogs of the politicians they should be scrutinizing?

The media plays a sacred role in American democracy. Media owners have every right to hold and promote their partisan political views. If they are to uphold the hallowed public trust society affords them, they would be wise to heed the words of legendary filmmaker Frank Capra: "Only the morally courageous are worthy of speaking to their fellow men for two hours in the dark. And only the artistically incorrupt will earn and keep the people’s trust." NJ

 Pat Hickey is editor of Nevada Journal.

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