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War on reporters

<p>George Knapp</p>

George Knapp

Do you think the Nevada Taxicab Authority would be willing to reinstate my long-expired permit to drive a cab? I mean, yeah, there have been a few negative stories I’ve written over the years, but surely they wouldn’t deny me a chance to earn a living merely because of a few inappropriate wisecracks and exposes, would they?

I’m giving a lot of thought to my employment options in light of the legal arguments I heard the other day in front of the Nevada Supreme Court. If The Supremes rule in favor of the plaintiffs, it would constitute a legally approved War on Journalism in Nevada, an open season on reporters that could likely lead to an exodus from the profession, or — at a minimum — a distinct chilling effect on hard-hitting news reporting in our state.

The case has dragged on for a couple of years, which by itself is an abomination. At the center of it is a tenacious, principled journalist named Dana Gentry, the producer of Jon Ralston’s Face to Face show. For years, Gentry has been gathering information and reporting on various bits of financial hanky panky surrounding Aspen Financial, a hard-money lending company once headed by Jeff Guinn, son of the late Gov. Kenny Guinn. Gentry didn’t invent the problems swirling around Guinn and his company. Investors have filed lawsuits alleging a range of financial improprieties, including accusations of fraud. No reporter in the state has worked the story harder or knows more about the players than Gentry.

Dana’s defenders — and there are many in the journalism community — think that Guinn unleashed his lawyers on Gentry in hopes that she would be pulled from working on additional stories about Aspen, and that by going after her on a personal level, they might intimidate other reporters from traveling down the same path. So far, the plan has worked — to an extent. Gentry was pulled off the story by one employer (the Las Vegas Sun, now an ex-employer) but has been given the green light by a new one (KSNV Channel 3). And, for the record, when she first started working on the Aspen story, she and Ralston worked under the same roof with me over at KLAS Channel 8.

Here’s where it gets truly insidious. Lawyers for Guinn have been alleging all sorts of scurrilous, completely unsubstantiated crap about Gentry since 2011. They have stated — without one iota of proof — that she slanted her news coverage because of a personal friendship with someone involved in the Aspen litigation, that she accepted gifts and or loans in the form of freebie remodeling work on her home, and — more sinister still — that she was also extorted by unknown persons who threatened to unleash embarrassing personal information unless she did their bidding by putting out the news stories that “they” wanted to see.

The very idea that a journalist with such a well-earned reputation for integrity would be swayed by gifts or loans or freebies shows how little the plaintiffs know about Dana. And the notion that she could be blackmailed into putting out a false, defamatory story proves they truly do have their heads up their asses. Even for lawyers, these guys are truly clueless.

How do we know there is not one shred of proof for their allegations? One telling little clue is that the Guinn lawyers have repeatedly been asked to produce such info, have been given every opportunity to do so, even in a closed hearing. More than two years later, they have failed to provide it. They want Nevada courts to allow them to haul Gentry in so they can hit her with questions about her personal life, her home and finances and to ask such invasive questions without ever meeting the most basic standard of proof. In fact, as the Nevada justices heard this week, Guinn’s lawyers already have a sworn deposition from the guy who did the remodeling work at Gentry’s home, and he says Gentry paid for the work herself. So there goes that little theory. The slanderous allegations about Dana Gentry are not only unproven, they are flat out untrue. For the courts to allow plaintiff’s layers to launch a legal fishing expedition against a reporter because they don’t like certain news stories would be an outright abomination.

Gentry’s lawyer, Don Campbell (who once defended Knappster), told the high court exactly what is at stake here. Allowing plaintiff’s lawyers to harass an aggressive reporter through tactics that clearly seem designed to discourage further reporting would create a “disincentive for journalists” to pursue stories in the public interest. Jon Ralston called it “codified character assassination.” Campbell argued that Guinn’s lawyers haven’t come close to meeting their burden of proof in order to sidestep Nevada’s top-notch “shield law” for journalists. To their credit, the justices who spoke up during the hearing — in particular James Hardesty — didn’t seem to be buying any of the vile flotsam being spewed by Guinn’s legal team.

When you look at this case in context with the Department of Justice subpoenas for the phone records of AP reporters, and the politicization of national news reporting as audiences seek out news outlets that mostly reinforce preconceived ideas about how the world works, you can understand why it is all the more important that a free and independent Fourth Estate be allowed to operate without unfair hindrance, to investigate and report stories that are important for the public to know.

I don’t see how the Nevada Supremes could possibly go along with something so outrageous, and am confident they will make quick work of this sneaky assault on the First Amendment. Anything less than a total rejection of the Aspen fishing expedition would amount to a declaration of war against Nevada reporters.

Still, who knows, so in the future, if that scruffy taxi driver looks a little familiar, make sure to give him an extra-large tip.

LEGISLATIVE FOOTNOTE

If there was ever a doubt about the folly of term limits, the 2013 Legislature should remove such concern once and for all. What a colossal failure this session was. I was not there to cover it this time, but I read dispatches from the front every day and am not surprised in the least that gaming got everything it wanted, as did NV Energy; that — once again — lawmakers failed to enact some kind of broad-based business tax; and that smarty-pants lobbyists pretty much had their way with the well-meaning, hard-working, but inexperienced solons. The fact that they could leave Carson City while discussing the need for an interim “study” of the tax structure should be an embarrassment to all of them. Hey, maybe we need even stricter term limits, huh? One legislative session and that’s it?

GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8.