Sheldon Adelson: The casino tycoon who took on free speech and lost face
The billionaire stands accused of trying to control opinion in Israel. But now his opponents are having their say. Catrina Stewart reports
Tuesday 13 September 2011
As one of Israel's main news programmes wrapped up last Friday, its anchorman resigned on air, the credits rolled with names blanked out, and the cameras panned to the production room, where staff erupted in spontaneous applause.
This moment of high drama had Israelis on the edge of their seats, appearing to signal the impending implosion of an independent news channel that had rubbed a powerful tycoon up the wrong way. In bowing to shareholder pressure to air a nearly 90-second apology to Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire Jew who was the subject of an unflattering profile on Channel 10 last January, the station has lost three of its biggest names and provoked a slew of unsympathetic coverage lamenting the blow to free speech and journalistic integrity.
The documentary, the conclusion of a four-month project, explored the life and business of the US-based billionaire, a self-made man who built his fortune in casinos in Las Vegas, propelling him into the ranks of America's richest.
When the 20-minute profile aired, Mr Adelson took exception to two points: one of the people interviewed claimed that the tycoon owed him money; and another implied that Mr Adelson had used his political connections to win a gambling licence.
Known for his litigious nature, Mr Adelson threatened to sue before demanding a lengthy on-air apology dictated by his own lawyers, denying every one of the claims.
If the independent Channel 10 had not been so cash-strapped, the story might have turned out differently. But when a major shareholder, Ron Lauder, the man behind the Estée Lauder brand, put pressure on the station's executives to air the apology, they felt they had little choice but to comply. An unidentified source at Channel 10 told the Israeli news site Walla: "We were made to understand that unless we do this, the channel would shut down."
Channel 10's news director, Reudor Benziman, resigned, quickly followed by Ruti Yovel, the editor of the This Week news programme. As the show came to a close on Friday night, outgoing anchor Guy Zohar said: "Sometimes you have to raise a black flag and stand up for professional and ethical values."
Israel's media industry has been largely sympathetic to the plight of the three media executives, viewing Mr Adelson's interference as an unwelcome blow to free speech. Weeks after nearly half a million Israelis took to the streets in social protests that, in particular, took aim at the wealthy elite, there is little sympathy for a man perceived by many as using his wealth to blur public perception of him.
Susan Hattis Rolef, a member of the Israeli Labour Party, wrote in the right-leaning Jerusalem Post newspaper: "Though both Channel 10 and the freedom of speech received an unpleasant blow, it is Adelson's reputation that has suffered most. If Adelson believes that as a result of the apology anyone who had a negative opinion of him as a man who made his fortune from the gambling business, and is using his wealth to meddle with Israeli public opinion, has changed his mind, he is wrong... He emerges from this affair looking like an egotistic bully."
The son of a Boston taxi driver, Mr Adelson worked his way up from selling newspapers on street corners to presiding over a hugely profitable casino empire, making him, as the New York Times once put it, the richest man that most people have never heard of. Forbes estimates his wealth at $23.3bn (£14.7bn), making him the 16th richest man on the planet.
A fierce opponent of a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he has poured money into right-wing Jewish causes – including some that eschew a political compromise with the Palestinians – and was a major financial backer of George W. Bush's US presidential re-election campaign in 2004.
After twice failing to buy into an Israeli newspaper, he set up Israel Hayom, a daily free paper that is so supportive of Israel's right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, also a close friend of Mr Adelson, that it is widely dubbed the "Bibiton", or Bibi paper, a play on Mr Netanyahu's nickname. One Israeli columnist described Mr Adelson's investments last year as "endless capital with a political agenda".
Not surprisingly, Israel Hayom is the one paper that has stopped short of supporting the Channel 10 journalists. Opening its full-page coverage with a full reproduction of the apology to Mr Adelson, it suggested that the station's executives had quit because of the channel's low ratings and because of ongoing disputes with other staff at the channel.
But others deny that, saying many staff at the channel were incensed by the way the apology was forced upon them, not least because they were given no opportunity to challenge Mr Adelson, even though the documentary had been cleared by the station's in-house lawyers.
"The journalists involved should have received a proper chance to prove their case, either through negotiations or by going to court," said Uri Benziman, a cousin of the departing news executive and the editor of the media ethics publication Seventh Eye. "They were forced to yield to dictates made by Sheldon Adelson... [It means] that tycoons have the power to do ... whatever they wish."
From slum to Vegas
Childhood Born in August 1933 and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, Sheldon Adelson was the son of a cab driver. One of five children, he sees himself as a "kid from the slums".
Career He had his first job at 12 and spent time as a mortgage broker, an investment adviser and finance consultant before making a fortune with Comdex, the big Las Vegas computer trade show. Moved into casinos via the Sands and later the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino, becoming the third-richest man in America. Lost more than $20bn at the peak of the recession in 2008, but has since recouped much of those losses and is now said to be worth more than $23bn. Says he has created more than 50 companies.
He says "There is no such thing as fear – not to an entrepreneur" (ABC News interview, November 2010)
They say "He's very tough ... some would say unreasonably tough." (Gary Loveman, chief executive of casino rival Harrah's, talking to the New York Times)
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