By: M.L. Stein Susan Clark-Jackson defends her move; Reno Gazette-Journal staffers upset; mixed reaction from news execs around the state sp.
THE ELECTION OF Susan Clark-Jackson, president and publisher of the Reno Gazette-Journal, to the board of a firm that operates one of Nevada's biggest gambling casinos has drawn mixed reaction in the state as a conflict of interest issue. Among those expressing shock and dismay at the move were newsroom staffers. One, who requested anonymity, told E&P he will resign in disgust, saying, "People around here are walking around with their jaws open in disbelief. You just don't sit on a board when the company is a big player in the city and state and generates news and advertising." Clark-Jackson, 47, who also is president of Gannett Co.'s Pacific Newspaper Group, defended her membership on the board of the Promus Cos. Inc. of Memphis, parent firm of Harrah's, one of the major casinos in Reno and Nevada. "Gaming is the chief industry in this community and its biggest employer," Clark-Jackson said in a statement. "I hope that my involvement with Promus gives me greater understanding of my community's major industry. Many publishers serve on bank boards, chambers of commerce and United Way. What's the difference?" Some Nevada publishers and editors saw a distinct difference. Rick Hoover, managing editor of the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune, said, "The Gazette-Journal, as the dominant news outlet in northern Nevada, should be wary of any potential ethical problems. Casinos are the leading industry in Nevada and must be held accountable to the public. Government officials don't seem inclined to do that but newspapers should." Hoover added he saw nothing wrong with publishers becoming involved in the community. "But I'm not sure this is the way to do it," he said. "The Gazette-Journal hasn't been asking tough questions about downtown Reno for years and has taken on the role of promoting tourism and gambling whether it's good or bad." Publisher Dale Wetenkamp of the Carson City Nevada Appeal said he would not sit on such a board. But he pointed out Promus is not a publicly funded institution, which lessens the conflict of interest issue. Still, there could be a "tough situation," he maintained, if the Gazette-Journal has to take an editorial position on gaming. Clark-Jackson is a member of the paper's editorial board. Brian Greenspun, president and editor of the Las Vegas Sun, said he and his late father, Hank, had been offered board positions with various casinos and turned them down. "But the gambling environment is different today," Greenspun said. "There is no reason in my mind why a publisher could not give good counsel to a gaming company just as the president of any business would give counsel." Greenspun contended that a publisher serving on an editorial board can abstain whenever a discussion involves a possible conflict. "It's a matter for the individual and how he or she handles such a situation," he added. "I would have no trouble with it, but if it's a question of a managing editor on a board, I would say no." Asked about the perception of conflict, Greenspun replied, "One man's perception is another man's reality. The conflict of interest line blurs in different situations. I think a newspaper should handle conflict of interest issues on a case-by-case basis." Warren Lerude, former editor and publisher of the Reno Evening Gazette and Nevada State Journal, which became the Gazette-Journal, said he admired Clark-Jackson as a "very able journalist and manager," but he expressed misgivings about her Promus connection. "Gambling and its growth are key issues in a community where she publishes a newspaper and should be the subject of constant editorial board vigilance," the Pulitzer Prize winner asserted. "For her to be a paid member of one of many competitive casinos could raise the question of whether she is an advocate of that casino's success." Lerude, currently a professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, pointed out the Gazette-Journal editorial board may be approached by a group lobbying for higher taxes on gambling establishments, "which is done frequently in Nevada." "The question then raised: Is the lobbying group appearing before an editorial board with a member who is an advocate for one specific casino?" he asked. "When you want to get gambling taxes raised in Nevada you go and talk to the newspaper." Lerude noted that the Gazette-Journal had not covered the controversial aspect of Clark-Jackson's board election, in contrast to the Nevada Weekly, an alternative paper in Reno. At this writing the Gazette-Journal had run only a three-paragraph story about her being named to the board. Weekly editor Mike Norris, a former Gazette-Journal business editor and investigative reporter, termed Clark-Jackson's involvement with Promus a "clear-cut conflict of interest. What are other casino owners in town going to think?" Norris, whose paper is a frequent critic of the Gazette-Journal, said the paper's reporters and editors he talked to displayed "stunned disbelief" at the development. A Gazette-Journal reporter who did not want to be identified told E&P, "Even if her appointment doesn't affect the news, the appearance of a conflict exists. You lose some public trust." The reporter, with a note of irony, cited the newspaper's employee handbook, which states that staffers are to maintain an "impartial, arms-length relationship with anyone seeking to influence the news." The staffer related that it goes on to say employees are prohibited from having outside interests, investments or business relationships "that dilute their loyalty or dedication to the principle of a free and impartial press . . . . " Another news employee said he regards Clark-Jackson as an "excellent, fair-minded publisher who had never given a hint of having a conflict of interest." "That's why I'm surprised and concerned now," he continued. "Most of us at the reporter and lower-editor level feel the same way. If there isn't an actual conflict of interest, the appearance is certainly there." Clark-Jackson reportedly will receive a $25,000 annual stipend and $1,000 from Promus for each of the quarterly board meetings she attends. Promus chairman Michael Rose said Clark-Jackson "brings a unique perspective to our board of directors." Gannett has no overall policy on the outside affiliation of its publishers, according to spokeswoman Sheila Gibbons. "It can be decided on an individual basis," she said. Gibbons said Clark-Jackson had discussed the Promus board membership with Gary Watson, president of the Gannett newspaper division. Ande Engleman, executive director of the Nevada State Press Association, said she knew of no other member publisher on a casino board but noted that one weekly publisher is mayor of his town, another is running for county commissioner, and an editor has served on a school board. She said the association has no governing rules on the matter, adding, "We are not a regulatory body." Recently it was learned that Cathleen Black, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, had, with the permission of the NAA board, rejoined the Coca-Cola Co. board, a position she held before joining the NAA (E&P, July 2, p. 11). Her duties with Coca-Cola bring her an annual $50,000 "retainer fee" and $1,500 per meeting. Black also is an unpaid member of the Notre Dame University board. NAA chairman Charles Brumback said he had no problem with Black's outside affiliations, saying her having contacts on those boards helps the newspaper industry. He said Coca-Cola "is not a big advertiser in newspapers" but could become one as the result of Black's presence on its board.