“I knew the minute I was called into this meeting with the lawyers that I had gotten myself into something big,” said the 50-year-old Geer. “This is what happens when you try to cross a Steve Wynn.” In addition to higher-ups from her own newspaper, there were “multiple” lawyers from Wynn’s side at the table, recalls Geer.
Those lawyers earned their money that day. “I just remember feeling really intimidated,” recalled Geer. And so, apparently did her bosses.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal on Monday published that rarest of journalistic species: A probe of its own editorial decisions. Under the bylines of Arthur Kane and Ramona Giwargis, the newspaper revealed that, in 1998, it killed Geer’s story about allegations of sexual harassment at the Mirage, where Wynn served as chairman. Now it is bringing the twisted considerations that sidelined the story into light, though there’s an impure aspect to the whole enterprise: Ownership of the Review-Journal has changed, and the current stewards — the family of casino owner Sheldon Adelson — are rivals of Wynn.
Just how Geer’s story ended up seesawing on the Review-Journal’s spike isn’t just a great journalistic tale; it is also a case study on the importance of citizen access to — and careful media coverage of — the country’s courts. In 1997, a group of eleven Mirage waitresses sued the Mirage for discrimination over employment practices that depicted Wynn’s property as a sexist hellhole. “The women’s claims of discrimination originated in a meeting between them and Wynn,” noted a piece in the Las Vegas Sun summarizing the complaint. “The women, the majority of whom were over the age of 40, said Wynn allegedly told them they were too fat to serve drinks, they had ‘fat asses’ and he was hiring a personal trainer to help them slim down, testimony showed.” According to Geer, the waitresses were ordered to keep their weight within six pounds of their hiring weight. The Review-Journal and other outlets covered the lawsuit.
Yet not everyone had pounced on a spinoff story from the “fat meeting” complaint, as Geer did. As is routine in civil litigation, both sides get to pose “interrogatories” to the opposing side. As Geer recounts, lawyers on Wynn’s side of the case pursued a line of questioning that yielded some interesting filings. One of the plaintiffs, Earlene Wiggins, responded in great detail. Baccarat players, she noted, had groped her. She also alleged that another plaintiff, Cynthia Simmons, had to “accommodate customers sexually.”
And this, from Monday’s story in the Review-Journal: “Another server, upon bragging about her first grandchild in the early 1990s, reportedly was pressured into having sex with Wynn, who said he wanted to experience sex with a grandmother, according to a court filing.”
Little more context is necessary to understand why Wynn’s lawyers pressed hard to kill Geer’s story in their meeting with Geer et alia. Though Geer cautions that her memory is hazy, she did allow: “I can no longer remember the specific conversation but I was left with the impression that they were trying to discredit the women.” Brass-knuckle lawyering, in this context, is no surprise. What is a surprise is how the Review-Journal’s then-publisher, Sherman Frederick, was said to have responded to the pressure: by proposing a lie-detector test for Geer’s sources, the women who were accusing a casino mogul of sexual harassment. “In my memory, it was right after that — standing in the hallway shortly after [the meeting],” said Geer, referring to the moment when Frederick decided to have the sources take a polygraph.
Before proceeding any further, contemplate the weaseliness of this mere consideration. The outrageous allegations against Wynn, for starters, weren’t being made on some street corner, or in an anonymous message. They were clothed in the towering privilege of a federal court filing. Newspapers can report on the allegations in such filings with minor limitations, especially in cases where they dutifully seek the input from the other side. It is called the “fair report privilege,” and it is used by media outlets every day. “The fair report privilege likely would apply here if the paper simply had quoted from and attributed the allegations directly to documents filed as part of a judicial proceeding,” notes Clay Calvert, a University of Florida professor often quoted in this space on media law.
So why would the Las Vegas Review-Journal put its sources through a lie-detector test? “It was the only time I recall it ever happening,” said Thomas Mitchell, who served at the time as the Review-Journal’s top editor. Since the polygraph wasn’t his idea, he said he did not recall the rationale. Referring to the paper’s look-back piece, Mitchell said: “The story makes it look like the paper did something wrong.” By contrast, Mitchell said his people commonly published tough coverage of Wynn, and added that he had to endure the mogul’s frequent blasts. “I especially remember him calling me stupid to the editorial board.”
Addressing the newspaper’s ability to use court filings as the basis for news stories, Mitchell asked: “Do you run something because it’s privileged or do you run stories because it’s accurate?” he said. “I’m just saying that the allegations were hearsay.”
Also: One of the women who took the Review-Journal’s polygraph performed less than superbly, Geer said. Someone killed the piece. “I remember clearly being told to delete it from the system,” said Geer, who doesn’t remember who did the killing and remembers feeling that the situation was “hopeless.” Mitchell, too, doesn’t remember who made the call. “I’m sure I was involved in the discussion,” Mitchell told the Erik Wemple Blog. “I don’t think I was the one to make the final decision not to run it.”
Frederick, who is now the owner of a group of community newspapers in Nevada and California, told the Erik Wemple Blog that he did not recall proposing the lie-detector test, though “it doesn’t sound like a horrible idea, especially since one of them didn’t pass.” Over his time as publisher, Frederick & Co. covered “every fruit and nut in the basket” in terms of casino owners, he said. “The egos were off the charts and they were fighting with each other all the time. Those casinos are hard-wired to compete and this also was a time when they all decided to go public and — Jesus Christ! — everything we wrote about them [was contested],” Frederick said.
Whatever the particulars of the story, Frederick won’t stand for Adelson’s Review-Journal to sully the Review-Journal of his time. A couple of years ago, noted Frederick, Review-Journal columnist John Smith resigned after his bosses barred him from covering both Adelson and Wynn. “It stings a little bit to have that newsroom with those entanglements try to second-guess something that I did 20 years ago,” says Frederick.
All these spotty memories leave a lot of killer questions unanswered. According to the Review-Journal’s Monday piece, for example, Mitchell accompanied Geer’s sources to the lie-detector test. Where was Geer? “I’ve been wondering about that. I’ve been wondering about how it was set up. I was surprised to learn that someone from the Review-Journal was there and I wasn’t there. . . . It was just such an unusual occurrence,” said Geer, who now supervises more than 20 staffers as the paper’s Metro editor.
Upon glimpsing the Wall Street Journal’s scoop, Geer “immediately thought back to this story. . . . The first thing I did was tell upper management about my story, and I said, ‘I tried to tell this story 20 years ago.’ ” Trouble was, she wasn’t quite so sure where her draft was hiding. Since she had complied with the directive to delete the story from the newspaper’s system, there was only a hard copy. She had moved offices five times since covering the Wynn lawsuit, meaning that it could be in a box at home, or perhaps at work. “I realized I had a box under my desk,” she said. “I lifted up the lid and the file was sitting right there.”