The Reno Gannett-Journal: corporate Pinocchio


The gambling-industrial complex has panicked. The unrest among the great unwashed has increased from candlelight vigils along the Truckee River to a firestorm on the Las Vegas Strip. Down in Gomorrah South, angry senior citizens are organizing an initiative to double the gambling industry tax. A Negro—gasp!—state senator has endorsed them and may run for governor.

That irritating longhaired David Farside is again questioning the legalities of how Washoe County spends its room tax millions. With revolution smoldering statewide, the Reno Gazette-Journal sprang to action on behalf of the ruling class.

Last Sunday, the newspaper began a five-day series entitled "If Gaming Dies..." With its publication, the critics who have for years wrongly accused the Reno Gazette-Journal of being a corporate mouthpiece now have all the evidence they need, printed right in the paper. The ethics of talk radio have come to the front page of Gannett's high-profit western flagship.

Setting up straw men as easy targets to knock down was once the preserve of talk-show poltroons ("Did Clinton murder Vince Foster?") and pulp-fiction politicians ("When did my opponent stop beating his wife?").

By asking "If Gaming Dies...", the Gazette-Journal lifted the impossible question technique prevalent in the heyday of yellow journalism a hundred years ago. No matter how you answer, you lose. William Randolph Hearst would be proud.

The series title isn't even original. The Gannetteers borrowed the concept from a shabby but successful marketing ploy used by a book misnamed "The End of History." It's actually about the thaw in the Cold War, but the title worked wonders for a vapid diatribe.

As a result, some four dozen authors now pimp everything from the end of racism to the demise of broccoli. On the first page or soon thereafter, they write that they were just kidding, but by then, the sale has been made. Sensational sloganeering always sells well. Just ask William Randolph Hearst, who once sold us a war in exactly the same way.

Why would the Reno Gazette-Journal run such drivel in the first place? We can learn much from what was not included.

On January 2, the day after the series ended, came the disclosure that three more Reno casinos have applied for a huge tax break not available to you and me. The Sands, the Pioneer and the Riverboat want their property taxes cut on grounds that they are not making enough money. John Ascuaga's Nugget and the Reno Hilton have saved hundreds of thousands a year since they crawled through the same loophole. Unlike big business, homeowners cannot apply for a property tax break should their income drop from one year to the next.

In a masterful exercise of guilt-trip travel agentry, business writer John Stearns wrote a sidebar puff piece portraying casinos as a workers paradise. He told of longtime John Ascuaga's Nugget employees retiring comfortably thanks to "an industry that often is unfairly tagged as dead-end."

One Nugget worker told Stearns "without higher education, (the gambling industry) supports your kids. You can have a family off this job."

It's not that easy. A couple of years ago, the Nugget made a big splash announcing a miserly $20 per week child-care allowance for some of its workers. No one bothered to ask how much child care one Andrew Jackson will buy. I talked to a card dealer who got nothing and was quite irritated by the publicity. He told me of a woman who worked a low-paid job at the Nugget because she needed the health plan.

"She puts in her eight hours here, then rushes to a second full-time job for her family's food and rent," the dealer told me.

Stearns failed to note how much more Las Vegas casino workers make in a town with a far lower cost of living. Low pay causes tremendous hardship throughout the region, but Stearns was not about to let facts get in the way of a good story.

Covering almost 13 full pages, the Gazette-Journal articles interlarded fact, opinion, old quotes, hyperbole and industry press releases into the nastiest piece of scare-the-peons pseudo-journalism I've ever seen perpetrated in these parts.

The series painted a portrait of a great depression should the gambling industry suddenly leave town. The paper's Picture of Dorian Gray of course included the specter of a state income tax and statistics about the low-tax paradise we enjoy thanks to casino generosity. Facts to the contrary have been printed in the Tribune for years. (Where is Ralph Heller when we need him?)

"If gaming dies...taxes, joblessness likely to rise" read the Dec. 29 front page.

Who says? Is Don Carano closing the Eldorado? That well-managed property has netted an annual pre-tax profit of well over $40 million for years. Even the poorly-run Reno Hilton scores about $20 million a year. Harrah's usually makes a consistent 17 percent return on investment and may soon expand.

Given all the corporate welfare handed to Nevada fat cats, it really takes effort to lose money in a casino. In addition to skimming the room tax to pay its promotional bills for the past 38 years, the local industry has shunted more than $150 million in Reno-Sparks property taxes to downtown redevelopment. The governor just announced a move to give employers a whopping 22 percent cut in injured worker insurance after years of slicing benefits to victims.

Adding insult to injury, the 1997 legislature gave casinos substantial tax breaks while facilitating higher, regressive sales taxes on their workers.

Nevada gambling outfits are even allowed to print money. They can now deduct the full face value of "lucky bucks." A coupon costing perhaps a thousandth of a cent to print can generate a state tax deduction of $1 or $5 or more.

Any wonder why the populace is puked off?

The Las Vegas senior citizen initiative proposes doubling the gaming tax to 12 percent, still just half of what many Nevada companies pay in other states. State Sen. Joe Neal (D-North Las Vegas), a possible gubernatorial candidate, proposed an increase to eight percent during last year's legislative session and has endorsed the seniors' crusade. [Editor's note: Sen. Neal formally declared his candidacy for governor the day after this column ran.]

The shabby reportage begins to make sense when viewed as inoculation against that petition drive.

All of which makes Gazette-Journal columnist Rollan Melton's assertion doubly surprising. Assembly Speaker Joe Dini (D-Yerington) "might be our next governor if his campaign platform would strongly urge a big increase in Nevada's gambling taxes - to levels of other states. No one would vote for Joe," Melton wrote on Dec. 29, "except the over-taxed people."

Melton's comment did not run as part of the series. Recently retired from Gazette-Journal parent Gannett's board of directors, he outranks the publisher and has the clout to write what the underlings cannot.

One embarrassingly contradictory passage did slip through in the series' first installment: "Perception: When California gets gaming, we can count on Reno going down the tubes. Reality: The consensus (of experts) is that as a destination, Reno will continue to have an appeal and attract loyal visitors."

So why publish another dozen pages? Corporate PR presents the only plausible answer. The impetus for the gaming tax increase comes from Las Vegas, but firing back locally would merely fan the flames. Better to begin the petition assassination in Reno where the boss of the major paper scores well over $30,000 a year just for sitting on Harrah's board of directors.

Publisher Sue Clark-Johnson's outfit does not like admitting its conflicts of interest. The Reno Gazette-Journal has intentionally witheld from its readers the fact that two Gannett board members work for Union Pacific, a trainwreck of a corporation which could destroy the community. The railroad won't pay a penny to re-route its tracks around downtown Reno-Sparks despite doubling or tripling its traffic, including nuclear and other hazardous cargos.

On New Year's Day, the paper did reprint a full page noting its employees' "community involvements," ranking the publisher's casino directorship with the church and charity work of others from janitor to salesman. The two railroad execs were not mentioned at all.

The Gazette-Journal's unlucky 13 pages present a preview of the political puppet show this election year will become.

Be well. Raise hell.


© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of CWA Local 9413. He is a Reno-based syndicated columnist, a 29-year Nevadan, and editor of U-News. Send an E-mail.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988 and parts of this column were originally published 1/4/98.

Reprints of the UNR financial scandal newsbreaks remain available for the cost of copying at
Nevada Instant Type in Sparks and both Office Depot Reno locations.