Despite the current taste for full disclosure of journalistic conflicts of interest, readers of the New York Times received no such disclaimer on page A22 of yesterday's paper when the report on the Clark County Nevada Coroner's controversial findings in the death of Las Vegas superstar Danny Gans came with the byline of Steve Friess.
Friess (right) is the Las Vegas freelance writer, author of the Gay Vegas guide and comp queen whose sexual relationship with a local television news producer led him to dangerous conflict of interest and clear ethical lapses in his attempts to derail the investigative reporting into Gans' unexplained death on May 1st, an untimely passing at age 52 that was revealed this week to be the result of an overdose of Dilaudid, also known as "drug store heroin."
Friess' cover-up attempt began after we wrote him a private email on May 6, asking why Las Vegas journalists were not covering the Gans story, and he responded with a public Internet posting, calling us "a**hole," "Perez Hilton wanna be" and "vermin," and accusing us of "Danny Gans hate," among other things.
Within days, in a post titled "The Danny Gans Daisy Chain: Steve and Chip and Alicia and Norm and Miles and--," we reported on a tangled web of interpersonal dealings among Las Vegas media figures, including the revelation that Friess shares a bed with Miles Smith, executive producer of KVBC TV news, colleague of beauty queen-turned-local TV entertainment reporter Alicia Jacobs. Jacobs had gained notoriety as Danny Gans' close and personal friend for more than a dozen years.
She not only broke the story of Gans' death, but worked with Gans' manager to spin and obfsucate the facts in such an obvious manner that the Las Vegas Review-Journal TV columnist lambasted her for her "reverse bias." Steve Bornfeld wrote "there's a difference between professional relationships and personal friendships, especially one as strongly and publicly evident as Jacobs and Gans... it creates an appearance of potential bias -- viewers/readers wondering if a reporter-friend would conceal unflattering or damaging information."
"A.J.'s boundary-breaching closeness"
Today, in his Medialogy column titled "Except for Jacobs, TV stations play Gans news straight," Bornfeld again singles out Jacobs' career-damaging conflict of interest in reporting the coroner's slippery Dilaudid announcement:
"Efficient, yet elusive.
"Such was the level of coverage and nature of the story as the cause of Danny Gans' death was disclosed Tuesday, leaving local media to present question-riddled reports of a 'drug toxicity' reaction from the painkiller Dilaudid, the coroner refraining from terming it 'drug abuse.'
"And -- except for an Alicia Jacobs commentary with an Alice-through-the-looking-glass effect of seeming completely right while being thoroughly wrong -- coverage was responsible...
"Then there was A.J.
"Her statement on the 4 p.m. news, in part: 'I'm sure there will be much focus on the drugs in Danny's system, but it's important to remember that since his baseball days, Danny dealt with endless injuries. ... On a personal note, I hope we can go back to remembering the great man and the amazing entertainer and the wonderful friend that was Danny Gans.'
"That's the response of a personal confidant who should have been a detached observer, the modest leeway of familiarity she's granted as an entertainment reporter abused long ago.
"In case news reporters, unsatisfied with ending the story with this toxicology finding, investigate further, Jacobs nudges us toward Gans' injuries as justification for his use of Dilaudid. While that's a legit element of the story as stated by neutral reporters, from Jacobs it's clearly a request for compassion from a protective pal.
"Then she plants a big wet smooch on his memory that out-Mary Harts Mary Hart. Her 11 p.m. 'Stage 3' was essentially an encore...
"Jacobs' boundary-breaching closeness to Gans oddly inoculates her -- she's so known as his buddy that withholding a heartfelt tribute would flummox fans conditioned to consider the relationship acceptable, seeming like a friend's betrayal when it's actually a professional requirement.
"...Yes, she's on the showbiz beat where sympathy might seem harmless. But when soft features turn into hard news, credibility counts in every corner of this craft."
Jacobs' conflict of interest is taken into account by local viewers.
Tried to shut us down
Friess (left), who writes for a national audience who may not be up on the local towel-snapping scandals of which he's part, should have recused himself from the story as soon as he admitted on May 15th that he was involved in sending us false information about Gans' death in effort to discredit our newsteam and throw us off the scent. (He also took action to shut down TabloidBaby.com after we posted his photo. We have since been forced to rely on reasonable facsimiles.)
Instead, it's the Steve Friess byline that appears on a story that is given the full authority of the New York Times. The story of course, does not mention that the coroner refused to address what other drugs Danny Gans may have had in his system, pointedly refused to answer our question of possible steroid abuse, and arranges the words in a way that, like Alicia Jacobs, excuses the use of the powerful opiate in the name of sports injury:
The New York Times
Nevada: Entertainer's Death Is Ruled Accidental
"The Clark County coroner, Mike Murphy, ruled that the death of the popular impressionist Danny Gans, left, on May 1 was an accident brought on by a toxic level of the pain killer hydromorphone, which led to heart failure. Mr. Murphy refused to characterize the death as a drug overdose or disclose the level of hydromorphone, marketed as Dilaudid, in Mr. Gans’s system. Mr. Gans’s manager, Chip Lightman, said that he was unaware Mr. Gans, 52, was taking Dilaudid, but that Mr. Gans had shoulder surgery early this year before opening at the Encore Las Vegas resort and had follow-up surgery in March to remove scar tissue. Mr. Lightman previously told reporters that Mr. Gans had a family history of heart disease and for many years had been on medication for high blood pressure. Mr. Gans became a widely celebrated mimic known for his George Burns impression after his minor-league baseball career was cut short by a foot injury. He was prone to other injuries as well, canceling hundreds of performances over the course of his 13-year headlining career on the Strip because of shoulder, back and knee surgeries."
There have been many reasons suggested for Friess' involvement in the Danny Gans death, from the mundane-- Alicia Jacobs is supporter of same sex marriage and was the "celebrity" guest at his unofficial second marriage to Miles Smith at the Palms Hotel-- to his allegiance to Gans' employer, casino magnate Steve Wynn.
Friess picked up the Gans story on his own Vegas-boosting website on Tuesday and spoke as an authority on at least radio station without mention his embarrassing missteps.
He did not post again until late this afternoon when he wrote about Englebert Humperdinck.
That Darn Norm
Then there's Norm Clarke, the colorful, nationally-known Las Vegas Review-Journal gossip columnist who has printed much of Jacobs' and Friess' planted stories that led the public farther from the truth about the life and death of Danny Gans.
In the days leading up to the coroner's hastily-called and carefully-worded news conference, Norm had been in Washington D.C, merrily Twittering his every move, from meals to exhibits at the Smithsonian.
His pure joy at reporting gossip and his evident innocence in the cover-up planning was exhibited in his Wednesday column about Danny Gans, when, hours after we drew the comparison, he guilelessly put a most sunny, even excited spin on the news that Gans had overdosed on drug store heroin:
NORM: Presley and gans linked by Dilaudid
"Danny Gans and Elvis Presley had something else in common, besides dying young.
"Both entertainers were linked after their deaths with Dilaudid, a highly addictive opiate nicknamed 'drug store heroin.'
"...According to numerous published reports, Dilaudid, said to be two to eight times more potent than morphine, was Elvis' favorite drug.
"Gans, a vocal impressionist, included a karate-kicking overweight Elvis among his spoofs of musical greats.
"Gans, a Las Vegas headliner since 1996, was 52.
"Elvis was 42 when he died Aug. 16, 1977, in Memphis, Tenn."
Viva Las Vegas...
Danny Gans photo: Ralph Fountain/Las Vegas Review-Journal