Sheldon Adelson: Playing To Win
Sheldon Adelson’s newspaper, Israel Hayom, changed the course of Israeli politics and moved the country further right. Will the hard-charging casino magnate have the same luck in Las Vegas?
This story follows “The Adelson Effect,” which focused on Adelson’s growing influence on the media scene in Israel and ran in Moment’s May/June 2014 issue. That article, reported by Robert Slater and Wesley G. Pippert, was a finalist for a 2015 Mirror Award for Excellence in the Media Industry, from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
In 2012, Sheldon Adelson granted a rare interview to Politico’s Mike Allen at the owner suite in the Venetian, his casino and hotel in Las Vegas. Over a dinner of salmon and mixed vegetables, Adelson told the reporter that he didn’t believe one person should influence an election. “So, I suppose you’ll ask me, ‘How come I’m doing it?’ Because other single people influence elections.” He continued: “I suppose you could say that I live on Vince Lombardi’s belief: ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.’ So, I do whatever it takes, as long as it’s moral, ethical, principled, legal.”
The 83-year-old billionaire and his wife Miriam, 71, have especially strong opinions about winning when it comes to Israel. Both have deeply felt emotional ties to the country: Adelson often speaks of his father, a struggling Lithuanian Jewish immigrant to the United States, who was a fervent believer in the need for a Jewish state. Arthur Adelson never made it to Israel, so on Adelson’s first visit, he wore his late father’s loafers, leaving their prints on the Jewish homeland. Miriam, a physician who takes an active role in the couple’s business and philanthropic pursuits, was born in Israel to a mother who survived the Holocaust.
Upon their 1991 marriage, the second for both, their passions for Israel intertwined, and they emerged as an indefatigable power couple, self-styled protectors of the Jewish state armed with Adelson’s casino fortune. Willing to put their money where their beliefs were, they began pouring audacious sums into projects they believed would strengthen Israel. This includes a wide range of causes from the popular Birthright program—designed to draw young American Jews closer to Israel and their Jewish identity—to building up settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Adelsons are among the largest donors in history to the Republican Party, but when it comes to Israel, they are further to the right than most Republicans. They’ve visibly pressured President Donald Trump to make good on his promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. More controversially, they oppose a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which they consider a security risk tantamount to suicide.
As anyone who has seen footage of the quadrennial Republican “Adelson primary” at the Venetian knows, the Adelsons often judge American presidential candidates based on who they think will be best for Israel. In the 2012 American presidential season, they showered money on Newt Gingrich, whose campaign nonetheless floundered. In 2016, they looked for like-minded candidates who they thought had a better chance of winning (including senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz), and ultimately donated $82.5 million to Republican coffers.
In Israel, too, the Adelsons find ways to invest in politicians, and by far their biggest success story to date has been Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Adelson became close around 1990. The bond strengthened as Netanyahu became Likud leader in 1993 and then served as Israel’s youngest prime minister from 1996 to 1999. When Netanyahu began jockeying for a return to power in 2005, Adelson was there for him. He reportedly thought Netanyahu would be tougher on the Palestinians and less likely to embrace a two-state solution than then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Prevented by Israel’s strict campaign finance laws from donating significant funds to Netanyahu’s campaign, Adelson addressed Netanyahu’s complaint that Israel’s media were mistreating him by launching a new daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, in 2007, says Rafi Mann, previously a senior editor at Maariv and a founding editor of the Israeli media watchdog The Seventh Eye. Ten years ago, on July 30, a small army of men and women wearing red jumpsuits and caps began handing out the free tabloid at coffee shops, gas and bus stations, apartment complexes, supermarkets, hospitals and campuses.
“Free” was not just a come-on. Israel Hayom stayed free, with Adelson reportedly spending $200 million so far to cover its losses—peanuts for a man Forbes estimates is worth $35 billion. Given its price, high quality production and well-paid professional staff, Israel Hayom quickly became popular, undermining the economic viability of Israel’s other dailies, which depend on subscription, newsstand and advertising revenue to survive.
Today, 40 percent of Israel’s newspaper readers, about 340,000 people, read Israel Hayom. It has five percent more readers than the once dominant Yediot Aharonot, according to a 2016 Target Group Index survey. Yediot Aharonot’s Friday weekend edition, with 600,000 readers, still has an edge over Israel Hayom’s 550,000. But Adelson delivered a double blow to Yediot Aharonot. Besides taking a hit in subscription revenue, the paper had to cut its ad rates to compete with Israel Hayom’s heavily subsidized ones. The fallout was even worse for two other popular dailies: Maariv is but a shadow of its former self, and the religious Zionist Makor Rishon was purchased by Adelson in 2014.
But Israel Hayom’s biggest impact has been political, since the affected papers were among those that Netanyahu considered his “enemies.” The paper, led by editor and Netanyahu confidant Amos Regev, quickly earned the sobriquet Bibiton—a combination of Bibi (Netanyahu’s nickname) and iton (“newspaper” in Hebrew). Mann says that Israel Hayom strengthened Netanyahu’s hand in a small country where newspapers, especially the thick weekend editions, still carry a lot of weight in shaping public opinion. “It has presented and framed Netanyahu’s activities and positions in a very positive way, refuted the claims of his critics and overexposed the failings of his opponents—in politics and in the media,” he says. The paper, he says, helped Netanyahu win the 2009 election and eventually led to the erosion of the center-left bloc in Israel, moving discourse rightward, especially on the settlement issue.
Adelson, who did not respond to an interview request, has been quoted saying that he is proud to provide Israelis with an alternative to a left-leaning press, but over the last decade the newspaper’s pro-Netanyahu message has infuriated Israeli politicians on both the left and the right. “It is important to note that Israel Hayom is not a newspaper that promotes the right-wing ideological agenda, but rather it has served the personal interests of Netanyahu,” says Hebrew University economist Momi Dahan, co-author of an Israel Democracy Institute study on election financing and corruption. “Sheldon Adelson has provided unlimited resources to Benjamin Netanyahu by financing a newspaper that has been under the direct influence of Benjamin Netanyahu,” a de facto violation of campaign finance laws, he says. Efforts to pass legislation to force Israel Hayom to charge for papers and other measures to curtail its power have failed. The paper was one of the key factors leading Freedom House—the press and democracy monitoring group based in Washington, DC—to downgrade Israel’s freedom of the press ranking from “free” to “partly free” in 2016.
Several years ago, Adelson joked before an audience at a conference in New York that buying The New York Times would be the most efficient way to influence U.S. dialogue about Israel.
Adelson is now Israel’s most powerful media mogul, but can he transfer that magic to the United States? Several years ago, Adelson joked before an audience at an Israeli-American Council conference in New York that buying The New York Times would be the most efficient way to influence U.S. dialogue about Israel. He noted how difficult that would be given the paper’s two classes of ownership and that the buyer would have to “pay significantly more than it’s worth.”
These remarks may have been tongue-in-cheek, but in late 2015, Adelson did, in fact, make a move to become a player in U.S. media. He didn’t launch a new paper but, in a secret deal, he bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal, paying significantly more than it was worth.
Las Vegas hasn’t always been Adelson’s primary stomping ground, although it’s where he made his name. He grew up in the rough Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, a poor, scrappy, streetwise kid with a bent for launching businesses and making money. The first of his 50 or so enterprises was selling newspapers, and from there he graduated to vending machines, a chemical spray to defreeze windshields, toiletry kits and charter tours. He first came to Las Vegas in the 1970s when he amassed a fortune producing COMDEX, a leading computer trade show. In 1989, when he was in his 50s, he steamrolled his way into the gambling industry with his purchase of the iconic Sands Hotel and Casino and the creation of his Las Vegas Sands Corp. His rise from there is the stuff of Hollywood: He razed the hotel, replacing it with the Venetian—a colossal and colossally successful resort hotel with gondoliers and a casino—and later added a second hotel, the Palazzo. He expanded his empire to Singapore and the unlikely city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and in 2007, the same year he started Israel Hayom, he opened the wildly ambitious $2.4 billion Venetian Macau Resort Hotel in southern China.
The Review-Journal, the city’s only surviving daily and the largest paper in Nevada, had a proud 100-plus-year tradition of covering corruption in the gambling industry and standing up to casino owners such as Adelson. For most of that time, the paper had been part of two chains, both based in Arkansas. In February of 2015 that era came to an end when the Review-Journal was one of 60 or so daily and weekly papers sold by Stephens Media to another large national chain, GateHouse Media, for $102.5 million.
This is where the Review-Journal story begins to turn into a media industry “who-bought-it?” Looking back, Mike Hengel, the editor of the Review-Journal at the time, says the first clue was a curious request from GateHouse management in November, eight months after the sale. He was asked to look into a district court judge in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located. He wondered why GateHouse cared about a local judge but assigned three reporters to the task.
The judge, Elizabeth Gonzalez, was hearing a contentious wrongful termination suit against Adelson and the Sands that had been filed by the company’s former chief executive in Macau, Steven C. Jacobs. Jacobs claimed that he had been fired for refusing to carry out illegal orders from Adelson, including making payments that might have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The case had led the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to open a separate investigation into the Sands and had turned into a test of wills between Adelson and Judge Gonzalez. She had fined him $250,000 for withholding documents and admonished him for arguing with her. Adelson had appealed unsuccessfully to the Nevada Supreme Court to take Gonzalez off the case.
It took only a few days to find out that, for the first time in the Review-Journal’s history, The new owner was not only local, but a casino owner, and that Schroeder was a front for Adelson.
The reporters spent two weeks looking into Gonzalez but found nothing untoward. Hengel sent a lengthy report up the chain to corporate, thinking that would be the end of it. Then late in the afternoon of December 10, a man named Michael E. Schroeder arrived at the Review-Journal’s Las Vegas headquarters. After a GateHouse official announced the sale to a surprised staff, Schroeder, the publisher of a small chain of Connecticut dailies, spoke.* The new owner, he said, was a newly formed Delaware holding company, News+Media Capital Group, of which he was manager. When questioned, Schroeder refused to divulge details of the sale and said the new owners “want you to focus on your job.”
Newspapers are a very public business, and it is rare, if not downright unheard of, for newspaper owners to remain anonymous. So although they were concerned about possible repercussions, Hengel and his top deputy, James Wright, immediately assembled a reporting team to identify the secret buyer. Adelson was at the top of the list of possible purchasers, but when Reuters and other news organizations asked him, he denied that he was involved, insisting that he “had no personal interest in the paper.”
It took only a few days to find out that, for the first time in the newspaper’s modern history, the new owner was not only local, but a casino owner. Schroeder was a front for Adelson, who had paid $140 million for the paper as well as two Nevada community weeklies, a business weekly, a Spanish language newspaper and some local magazines—$37.5 million more than GateHouse had paid for the entire Stephens chain of papers a few months earlier. Patrick Dumont, who is married to Miriam Adelson’s daughter and is a senior officer of the Sands, had orchestrated the deal. On December 16, the Review-Journal broke the story of its new buyer. A day or two later, Mike Hengel received an email with a statement from the new owners that he was accepting a severance package. The next day Hengel read about his resignation in the paper he edited.
Soon, more details emerged. Adelson had sought to buy the paper directly from Stephens Media, but Stephens had preferred to sell it to GateHouse. Not to be outdone, Adelson’s representatives had turned to GateHouse and had been secretly negotiating to buy the paper for six to eight months. By September, those talks had advanced enough for the Adelsons to form News+Media. By November, the prospective buyer had felt confident enough to request the investigation into Judge Gonzalez, which Wright says was an effort to discredit the judge so that she would be removed from Jacobs’ suit against Sands.
A few particularly bizarre wrinkles came to light as well. News+Media manager Michael Schroeder (who lasted only a few weeks at the Review-Journal) had written an article criticizing Judge Gonzalez under a pseudonym in one of his Connecticut newspapers, which was published a few weeks before the paper was sold to Adelson. And under the terms of the sale agreement, GateHouse had promised never to reveal that Adelson was the buyer.
When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013, the newspaper’s editors began to flag possible conflicts of interest by reminding readers in relevant stories that Bezos also owned the paper. This is common practice in the media business, and so, almost immediately after it became known that Adelson was the buyer, the Review-Journal instituted an “About Our Owners” box that ran in the paper each day, with the promise that “[the Adelsons’] various interests will be disclosed when relevant in stories throughout the Review-Journal.”
Within weeks, the Adelsons began installing their own management team. Craig Moon, a former top executive of USA Today with political views similar to those of the Adelsons, was persuaded to abandon retirement and become the publisher. Keith Moyer, a former colleague of Moon and later publisher of the Minneapolis StarTribune, was appointed editor. Shortly after joining the Review-Journal, Moyer was quoted as saying, “We have an owner with pockets as deep as the Grand Canyon.”
Moon removed the “About Our Owners” box and gradually began to exert stricter control over the Review-Journal’s editorial content, says Wright, who stayed on for six months after the sale. “Some of Adelson’s machinations were fairly predictable,” Wright adds. There were what he calls “glowing stories” about new restaurants at Adelson’s properties, “lapdog coverage” of federal investigations of his business practices, a “sudden elevation” of reporting on the basketball team at a school supported by the Adelsons and “hyper-coverage” of the opening of the Sands’ new Macau property, which included flying staff to China. On orders from above, Wright continues, the paper also provided what he calls “boosterish” coverage of Adelson’s efforts to move the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas. “It’s not like paper owners haven’t done things like this in the past, but with Adelson, it’s on steroids,” says Wright.
The greatest tension between the reporting staff and management stemmed from the lawsuit being heard in Judge Gonzalez’s courtroom. On one occasion, Wright says, management demanded that 12 points from a motion prepared by Adelson’s attorneys, summarizing what they considered to be Judge Gonzalez’s sins, be printed verbatim on page one. The order to publish this story did not come directly from Adelson but through the chain of managers, says Wright.
Wright says that Adelson was not actively involved in newspaper management while he was at the Review-Journal, but “there’s very little daylight between Adelson’s public relations and political operatives and his newspaper managers.” Editor Moyer disagrees. “We’re not told anything by the Adelson family,” he says. “No one has told me not to run something or to run something.” Moyer says the owners trust him to make the Review-Journal a better paper. “My pledge to Sheldon and his family was that we would treat them as fairly as anybody else…including his companies.”
Wright is not the only former staff member to take issue with the new management. During the year and a half Adelson has owned the paper, all the reporters and editors who were involved in breaking the ownership story have left and, in general, staff turnover has been high. “What the purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal did was take off the boards between 20 and 100 people who might reveal something that Sheldon Adelson doesn’t like,” Wright says in Brian Knappenberger’s new documentary, Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, which explores the impact that Adelson and tech titan Peter Thiel have had on the media.
One such critic was columnist John L. Smith, who resigned from the paper last year after a 30-year career reporting on Adelson and the gambling industry. Adelson sued Smith for libel over his 2005 book Sharks in the Desert: The Founding Fathers and Current Kings of Las Vegas, and although the suit was eventually dropped, the legal fees bankrupted Smith. When the new owner was unmasked, Smith wrote that “the purchase of the Review-Journal signals a tectonic shift in the political landscape of Las Vegas and Nevada and has the potential to reverberate all the way to the White House.”
Smith has said he left the paper because the new editors prevented him from writing about Adelson and another Las Vegas casino owner, Steve Wynn, who had also sued him. “Recent events have convinced me that I can no longer remain employed at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a spirited newspaper that had battled to remain an independent voice of journalism in this community,” Smith wrote in his resignation letter. “If a Las Vegas columnist is considered ‘conflicted’ because he’s been unsuccessfully sued by two of the most powerful and outspoken players in the gaming industry, then it’s time to move on. If the Strip’s thin-skinned casino bosses aren’t grist for commentary, who is?”
Moyer says he would have preferred that Smith had not resigned, but he believes Smith had “personal conflicts of interest with Adelson and Wynn that would preclude him from writing with at least a modicum of objectivity about either.” Moyer says he is proud of what he has been able to accomplish at the Review-Journal, citing a six-person investigative team, a two-person Washington bureau with a full-time White House correspondent and a major redesign of the paper. He says 50 new staff members have brought the newsroom total to 150, but he wouldn’t comment on how much the staff additions are costing Adelson. Hengel estimates that the new “newsroom budget could be as much as $500,000 more per year.” Like Israel Hayom, the paper is unlikely to break even—and it doesn’t need to.
Was Adelson’s purchase of the Review-Journal spurred by his irritation with Judge Gonzalez and his desire to influence the paper’s coverage of the lawsuit? If so, it didn’t help him. The case was settled in 2016 shortly before it was to go to trial. Sources say that the Sands paid $70 million to Jacobs and a $9 million fine to the SEC for improperly documenting payments to a consultant. And last fall, Judge Gonzalez’s colleagues elected her as chief judge of the district court—a poke in the eye to the Adelsons.
The paper’s new management told employees that Adelson was inspired to buy the paper by the movie Spotlight, which told the story of The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the Boston archdiocese’s cover-up of Catholic priests who sexually abused children. Wright is skeptical of the notion that Adelson bought the paper to make things better in Nevada. “This doesn’t hold water, because of what he’s already done, and let’s not forget that he took great pains to forever conceal his purchase,” says Wright. “Good government and community improvement crusaders don’t do things like that.”
Adelson did push hard for the creation of the investigative team, says Wright. But “it is notable that the team’s first big investigation out of the box was of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which Adelson has been lobbying to kill off for years,” because he considered it competition to his own operation, says Wright. A veteran observer of Nevada politics and media, who asked not to be identified, agrees that Adelson purchased the Review-Journal to push his agenda. “He paid so much more than it was worth that it was clear he wanted to add it to his stable of political weapons,” the observer says.
The purchase of the Review-Journal signals a tectonic shift in the political landscape of Las Vegas and Nevada and has the potential to reverberate all the way to the White House.
Adelson, he adds, is “probably the state’s biggest power broker,” and with the paper he wields more clout than the owners of rival casino companies such as MGM International, Caesars Entertainment and Boyd Gaming. Adelson is also made stronger by his relatively recent alliance with Wynn, another casino owner and a towering figure in the gambling industry who shares Adelson’s political views. These factors have helped Adelson in his push to anoint Nevada’s Republican attorney general Adam Laxalt as the state’s next governor. Laxalt has received significant political contributions from the Adelsons, according to The Nevada Independent, an independent news site edited by longtime Nevada reporter and politics watcher Jon Ralston.
The Review-Journal also provides Adelson with a powerful platform to promote his policy agenda. In some areas, the paper’s editorial policy (which traditionally leaned libertarian) was already in line with Adelson’s views. Like Adelson, the paper followed a conservative line on Israel and geopolitical issues but had varied positions on social issues. Adelson, for example, is a social liberal who is pro-choice, supports marriage equality and favors a nationalized health care system, such as the one in Israel. (Israel Hayom’s liberal opinions on health care and other social benefits in Israel were a factor in helping it build readership.)
On some issues, the Review-Journal has changed its editorial positions. The newspaper no longer advocates for legalized internet gambling, which Adelson, who could lose millions to online competitors, staunchly opposes. (He has pressed for a ban, both in Nevada, where he is aligned with Laxalt, and on the national level, where the ban has support from Vice President Mike Pence as well as Senators Rubio and Lindsey Graham, all recipients of Adelson’s largesse.) Another about-face may be more personal. A post-sale editorial called legalizing marijuana “a dangerous proposal for Nevadans,” even though the paper had been an early proponent of decriminalizing narcotics and marijuana. Both Adelson and his wife are ardent foes of legalization initiatives. In a 2008 interview in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Miriam Adelson, who specialized in addiction treatment, said both of Adelson’s estranged sons from his first marriage struggled with drug abuse and one of them died of an overdose.
Can the Review-Journal help Adelson change how Nevadans vote in future national elections? The state has a typical urban-rural voter configuration: The two major cities, Las Vegas and Reno, have large populations of Hispanics who work in the hotels and casinos and vote Democratic, making Nevada a swing state. Less than a month before the November 2016 election, the Review-Journal became the first major paper in the country—and one of the only papers—to endorse Donald Trump for president. The rare above-the-fold endorsement did not turn the tide for Trump in the state. Hillary Clinton edged Trump (47.9 to 45.5 percent) to win Nevada, and the state elected Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto to succeed Harry Reid, the retiring Senate Democratic leader. Says the veteran observer: “It will be very difficult to turn Nevada red, but Adelson will try.”
Wright says that the paper’s “distinctly further-right turn” is evidenced not only in its editorial policy but by its new hires, including White House correspondent Debra Saunders, a longtime conservative columnist. Wright also points to the hiring of Trump ally* (and self-described Jew turned evangelical Christian) Wayne Allyn Root as a columnist. “I suspect Adelson sees the paper as providing balance to liberal reporting elsewhere,” says Wright, “getting his viewpoint across and maybe getting it picked up elsewhere, attributed to a ‘legitimate’ newspaper.”
What makes Adelson different from other modern-day billionaires who purchase newspapers? After all, there are plenty of them—including Bezos of The Washington Post, Rupert Murdoch of the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal, John Henry of The Boston Globe, Glen Taylor of The Minneapolis StarTribune, Paul Huntsman of The Salt Lake Tribune and Philip Anschutz, owner of The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, The Gazette in Colorado Springs and the Washington Examiner.
Billionaires, many of them new to the media industry, are buying papers at a time when the business is in flux and corporations and chains have shied away, says Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. And every wealthy owner, he says, is unique. Some consider their purchase of a newspaper as an investment, others pour their wealth into improving the newspaper and beefing up the newsroom, while still others use it as a bully pulpit—“and some may not care. A lot depends on the character and goals of the individual mogul.”
In a statement after the Review-Journal purchase, Mark Fabiani, a crisis management expert and spokesman for Adelson, compared Adelson’s purchase of the Review-Journal to those of other billionaires. Questions are always raised when a billionaire buys a paper, he said. “But over time these questions are answered, and in the end the newspapers often benefit from the financial strength that new owners provide.”
Nevertheless, says Rosenstiel, Adelson is particularly controversial because he is “a would-be kingmaker.” When combined with media ownership, Adelson’s kingmaking (and dethroning) can have wider reach. In Israel, Israel Hayom’s coverage echoed the Adelsons’ negative opinions of former president Barack Obama. Throughout his administration, the paper lambasted Obama and championed Netanyahu in the public feud over the Iran nuclear deal. That anti-Obama slant metamorphosed into a pro-Trump slant when the Adelsons reluctantly jumped onto the Trump bandwagon in May 2016.
You don’t need to speculate about Israel Hayom’s coverage of Trump. The paper gives Trump better coverage than Fox News and practically works as his PR.
From then on, Israel Hayom helped burnish Trump’s image in Israel. The paper’s then-foreign editor, Boaz Bismuth, who covered the campaign, interviewed Trump often and wrote gushingly of the candidate’s warmth toward Israel. In February, Bismuth scored a post-election coup—a newspaper interview with Trump in the Oval Office.* “You don’t need to speculate about Israel Hayom’s coverage of Trump,” says The Seventh Eye’s Shuki Tausig. “The paper gives Trump better coverage than Fox News and practically works as his PR.”
Israel Hayom’s—and Adelson’s—biases about Israeli and American leaders and their policies have spilled over into North America, particularly in the Jewish community. In 2011 the paper launched an English-language website. That same year, the Jewish News Service (JNS) was founded to challenge JTA (formerly the Jewish Telegraphic Agency), which has provided news to American Jewish newspapers for more than a century. Through an exclusive deal with Israel Hayom, JNS widely distributes its translated articles and columns via Jewish newspapers and social media. This content, as well as material produced in the United States, is made available for free or at extremely low rates. Again, it is Adelson who makes this possible: In 2015, the Israeli press reported that he had committed a total of $1.2 million to the U.S.-based nonprofit, making him its largest donor. “I regard Sheldon Adelson as the greatest individual supporter and protector of Israel on the planet,” says JNS publisher Russel Pergament, who once worked with Michael Schroeder, the former manager of the corporation that Adelson used to buy the Review-Journal.
In 2014, Netanyahu, facing a tough reelection campaign, held a series of secret meetings with Yediot Aharonot publisher Arnon Mozes that were recorded by the prime minister’s chief of staff and leaked in January to the public. In the recordings, the two men discuss the proposed law that would require Israel Hayom to charge readers for its papers. Moreover, a desperate-sounding Mozes pleads with Netanyahu to ask Adelson to close down Israel Hayom’s weekend edition; in exchange, Mozes says, Yediot Aharonot would hire journalists of Netanyahu’s choosing. These conversations have led to a criminal investigation into whether Netanyahu overstepped legal boundaries by discussing using his influence with Adelson to weaken Israel Hayom’s stranglehold on Yediot Aharonot. Netanyahu has denied that he broke the law.
While Israel Hayom has generally downplayed the scandal, it is big news in Israel, where it has upset the political status quo and reportedly infuriated Adelson, who is not personally under investigation but has had to testify twice so far. The probe has also led to upheaval at Israel Hayom. First came talk that the paper’s editors and columnists had backed off, ever so slightly, from promoting Netanyahu, and that photographs of the prime minister’s wife Sarah were appearing less frequently in the paper’s pages. Then, in May, founding editor Regev was fired and replaced by the foreign editor, Bismuth. Rumors flew that Regev had been let go because he was asserting more independence from Netanyahu, or alternatively, that he had clashed with a senior member of Netanyahu’s inner circle. Tausig and Seventh Eye colleagues Avner Hofstein and Oren Persico speculate that the firing may have had more to do with personality, since Regev was considered something of an Archie Bunker type and Bismuth is more easygoing, making him a better spokesman for the paper on TV and radio. “He is more helpful in legitimizing Israel Hayom in the mainstream media,” says Tausig. “Adelson has been known to complain in the past that although Israel Hayom triumphed in terms of circulation—due to the fact that it is handed out free—it has no real influence on the media cycle on a daily basis. Bismuth and his ties to Trump could change that, as he is considered close to the White House.”
Whatever the reason, Tausig says that the Adelsons were behind the firing of Regev. “A major decision like that can only be his or her [Miriam’s] call,” he says. When reached, Regev declined to comment, and Bismuth, who has been with the paper since 2008, said: “I hope to maintain the paper as number one in circulation. I hope to maintain the appreciation by Israelis. I hope to maintain the line of the paper…[which is] right-wing.”
To complicate matters further, rumors are now circulating of a possible rift between Adelson and Netanyahu. Some say that the Adelsons are disappointed by what was recorded on the leaked tapes. “They heard how their dear friend, the friend in whom they had invested so much love, money, ties and wishes, sold them for a lentil stew,” wrote Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea in Yediot Aharonot recently, referring to the story of Jacob and Esau in the Bible. “When you’re a billionaire from Las Vegas, that’s unbearable.” Others say that the Adelsons, who have always been to the right of Netanyahu, suspect that the prime minister asked Trump to postpone the embassy move. Word has it that Israel’s far right also believes Netanyahu is holding up building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and has not adopted a tough enough stance on the two-state solution.
Or perhaps the problem is that Jewish Home Party leader and Education Minister Naftali Bennett is sidling into Netanyahu’s spot as Adelson’s favorite. Before Trump’s May visit, Bennett demanded that the prime minister publicly reject the two-state solution. Readers of Adelson tea leaves point to signs such as a recent VIP dinner at Ariel University in the West Bank, where Adelson was honored for his $20 million gift to the university’s medical school. Bennett—and not Netanyahu—sat next to Adelson. Noted, also, is the sudden favorable coverage of Bennett and other Israeli leaders such as defense minister Avigdor Lieberman that has begun appearing on the pages of Israel Hayom. “The dosage has changed: from a free paper that personally worships Netanyahu, Bibiton, to something else, maybe Beneton, even Lieberton,” says Mann.
Avner Hofstein—whose 2011 reporting on Adelson on Israel’s Channel 10 led to a public dispute, a highly dramatic apology from the channel on live TV and several editors’ and reporters’ resignations—says that he thinks Adelson might support Bennett if and when the politician becomes a serious contender for prime minister. But Tausig warns that talk that Adelson may ditch Netanyahu for Bennett could be spin and suggests that even if Adelson and Netanyahu are no longer friends, they will continue to work together. “If I were a gambler, I’d put my money on that Adelson and Bibi are business as usual,” he says.
The hard-charging and restless Adelson appears to be keeping everyone guessing. A private and enigmatic figure, both in Israel and here, he has not let age or illness—he uses a motorized wheelchair—slow him down. The influence he wields in Israel, thanks to Israel Hayom, may not be completely transferable to the United States, but it is clear that in small ponds—such as Las Vegas, Nevada and the American Jewish community—a billionaire kingmaker willing to pour money into media can be a formidable force. At the end of the day, as Adelson has said, it may all come down to winning. “I don’t know exactly what drives Mr. Adelson, but you don’t do that kind of spending on Israel Hayom and the Review-Journal without a drive to win,” says Wright. “The only question is how much money he wants to throw at them.”
*An earlier version of this story stated that Review-Journal White House correspondent Debra Saunders had a one-on-one interview with President Trump at the time. She did not. Also, while News+Media representative Michael Schroeder did discuss the sale with the Review-Journal staff at the staff meeting on December 10, 2015, a GateHouse official first announced the sale. An earlier version of this story identified Wayne Allyn Root as a Trump campaign official. Although Root was an active Trump supporter, he did not serve the campaign in an official capacity. We regret the errors.
Billionaire Sheldon Adelson is best known in the United States for his outsized contributions to Republican presidential candidates. But in Israel, where he owns two newspapers, he may wield far more influence.