FOR 63 YEARS, the Las Vegas Sun has tempered the right-wing/libertarian streak of Western politics and media with a dose of liberalism. The paper’s founder, Hank Greenspun, went after red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy, was the target of President Richard Nixon’s illegal covert-operations gang, illegally smuggled weapons into the nascent state of Israel and often welcomed government oversight of the economy and business (as the paper still does today).
The Sun could be accused of bringing a liberal, East Coast perspective to the West, a region that was still dominated into the 1970s and beyond with the kind of conservative leadership that is still familiar in Nevada’s rural counties. In 1964, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, an extremist for liberty and right-wing values, won the Republican presidential nomination with solid support from the West. Former California Gov. Ronald Reagan would do it again, more successfully, 16 years later.
Before there was the Solid South, first for conservative Democrats and today for (very) conservative Republicans, there was a solid west for Republicans. That’s changed, along with the media landscape that helped foster those conservative western elected officials, but the Sun stood out for decades, especially in contrast to its neighbor in print, even after Barbara Greenspun took over the helm of the paper after husband Hank’s death in 1989.
Full disclosure: I worked for the Sun from 1999 to 2007, and have enormous respect for the editors, managers and fellow reporters with whom I worked. After I left, Alexandra Berzon, a much better writer than I am, helped the Sun garner a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for stories on the horrendous safety conditions that led to unnecessary worker injuries and deaths in Nevada.
That series illustrates what the Sun fundamentally contributed to the community narrative: Whereas the RJ’s writing and editing often cleaved to an anti-government narrative that lent itself, most recently, to a great series on the misuse and excessive use of force by local law enforcement, when it came to scrutinizing big business and its excesses, Las Vegans depended on the Sun.
That’s not to say that the RJ reporting staff was censored or pressured to lay off the business community, but it was clear that the competitors brought fundamentally different perspectives to play in the day-to-day reporting that was clearest in the centerpiece series that the papers shopped for news-industry awards. Both papers deserved and won awards, but the Sun, to this day, is the only one with the biggest — the Pulitzer for Community Service.
The days of the Sun or any other daily print product challenging the RJ (which is owned, as is CityLife, by Arkansas-based Stephens Media) may be coming to an end. The RJ has offered the four heirs of the Greenspun legacy a buyout proposal; only Brian Greenspun, the sibling with the most direct involvement in the paper (he’s editor and publisher), voted to reject the offer.
Last week he filed a suit against the RJ, which has included the Sun as an insert since 2008, arguing that the buyout amounted to an antitrust violation. (On Tuesday federal judge granted Brian Greenspun a temporary restraining order this week that puts a hold on the buyout going forward, but legal experts cited by the Review-Journal believe that the deal will ultimately go forward.)
The existing joint operating agreement ensures a mix of editorial voices, the Sun said in its story on the buyout. But the media environment of today is far different from the one in which the Sun entered into the original JOA in 1989. Sure, there was television news, but there wasn’t the cacophony of voices and editorial perspectives that one can find today on the Internet and cable news.
“It’s critical that you have multiple voices and various perspectives within the media, whether it’s in print or broadcast or whatever,” said Tod Story, director of the ACLU of Nevada. “The community can see the different perspectives that freedom of the press can provide in keeping the public informed.”
Over the years, the Sun has been home to real giants, among them, Mike O’Callaghan, the ex-governor and Sun executive editor for more than two decades; Bryn Armstrong, who, as executive editor in the 1960s championed civil rights; Ruthe Deskin, who covered Nevada stories for 50 years; Steve Sebelius, who moved over to be a columnist at the RJ and has perhaps the sharpest wit in Nevada politics; Jon Ralston, “the dean of Nevada journalism”; and many others over the years.
Ralston, of course, has his own contemporary blog site, a must-read for fans of national and Nevada politics, to go with a daily television program. Deskin and O’Callaghan and Hank Greenspun would have carved out their own places on the Internet. But it’s hard to imagine a blog that would have the impacts that those journalists had — in print.
What newspapers had, and perhaps still have, is authority. Their stories and editorials are the voice of the referee, the pedigree, the institutional knowledge that comes from decades of work and a sustained relationship to a community. Blogs have perspectives, but they don’t have that accumulated authority.
It might be true that the Sun, to abuse the cliche, has been setting for some time. Brutal staff cuts in the last decade have limited the paper’s ability to cover the metro area. The reliance on imported columns available from other media sources hasn’t helped. “If the disgruntled part owner of the Las Vegas Sun wants to make a case for relevancy of the product he probably shouldn’t produce Sunday paper with wire story lead, two local stories more than 48 hours old and no staff generated columns whatsoever,” one RJ reporter snarked on Facebook last week. And Thomas Mitchell, a former RJ editor who now has his own blog, took swipes at both the Sun and his old newspaper, but he didn’t tell us how we would replace those voices.
Asked how much weight Stephens Media gave to issues of editorial diversity in the community while working on the deal, a company spokesman declined comment.
Steve Evans, a lifeline member of the Las Vegas community, former city planning commissioner and the son of legendary local labor activist Blackie Evans, might have summed it up best:
“I think Hank and Barbara Greenspun would be very disappointed in seeing the Sun set for good,” Evans told me last week. “So would Gov. O’Callaghan, and Ruthe Deskin, and my old friend Bryn Armstrong, and scores of others whose careers were about making the Sun shine everyday. Communities need competing voices.
“It’s ironic, now, that the future of the Las Vegas Sun is the story. The information and opinions that the Sun brought us every day changed ours.”
This story was amended to reflect that the Sun, not Hank Greenspun, that entered into the joint operating agreement with the Review-Journal in 1989.