This morning's (August 22) Iowa City Press-Citizen contains a page-one promotion of its forthcoming promotion of the casino next Monday (August 28).
The bottom-of-page-one promo (along with "New To The Area?" and "Have Football Fever?") is headlined, "Want To Roll The Dice?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 22, 2006, p. 1A. It reads, in its entirety:
"Get ready for the opening of the Riverside Casino with a special eight-page section in the Press-Citizen. Find out how the casino came to be and what effect it will have on the area, what it's like to be a dealer and more. Coming Monday."
There are a number of things to be said, and questions to be asked, about such a promotion. And of course the answers won't be available until the "eight-page section" appears.
1. There are those who believe that gambling, once the province of organized crime, never should have been legalized, let alone taken over by the state as an alternative form of taxation. As discussed here yesterday [Nicholas Johnson, "Gambling's Road to Nowhere," August 21, 2006], its costs, both direct and indirect, are enormous and disproportionately paid by the poor. Not to mention the human misery uncounted by economists.
(In addition to Iowans' $1 billion-plus gambling losses, yesterday's entry noted the "externalities [that] include such things as a community's 'infrastructure' costs for roads, water and sewer lines, and so forth. The increase in crime requires an increase in law enforcement expenses. There are the programs to assist the gambling addicts and problem gamblers who want treatment. There's the increase in bankruptcies, domestic violence, and divorce." And, to this, Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan was quoted as noting the consequences of the reallocation of political power, especially in a small community.)
2. The fact that gambling is legal means that -- unless otherwise prohibited or regulated -- the advertising of gambling (once cause for an FCC inquiry into a licensed radio or television station) is also legal. The broadcast advertising of tobacco was outlawed by Congress. By agreement, hard liquor was not advertised on radio or television.
But pharmaceutical companies are not prohibited from advertising their "illegal drugs." (What conceivable purpose could there be to advertising a product to an audience that is legally prohibited from buying it (that is, prescription medicines not available "over-the-counter") -- except to build pressure from patients on doctors to write prescriptions for drugs they would not otherwise have prescribed? It's like advertising toys to children too young to buy them -- but not too young to whine and pressure their parents into buying them.)
And women's magazines were able to take tobacco company advertising dollars -- while refusing to publish articles pointing out cigarettes relationship to lung cancer -- at the same time lung cancer was overtaking breast cancer as the primary cancer in women.
So, just because all the persuasive powers of the mainstream mass media can be focused on encouraging human behavior known to be harmful -- whether cigarette smoking or gambling -- doesn't make it right. Legal justification is not moral justification.
Why would a newspaper want to devote an almost unprecedented "eight-page section" to a subject, a business, that will almost inevitably result in increased attendance -- from a college community at that -- in an activity that will encourage problem gambling and gambling addiction, and all the other social costs associated with it?
The paper may not be morally obliged to conduct an effective news and editorial campaign against the casino (notwithstanding the number of its readers who would encourage it to do so), but what justifies it directing all of its promotional fire power at increasing gambling's attraction?
3. There is another issue here, specifically addressed in the journalists' Code of Ethics. I wrote about it in Nicholas Johnson, "Mr Editor, tear down this wall!" August 8, 2006. The reference to "this wall" was to the wall of separation between the news and business/advertising sides of a paper. The principle is still embodied in the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics, which provides, among other things, that
"A journalist should . . . Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two."
The specific issue at hand in that earlier blog entry was what purported to be a news story in The Gazette, unabashedly advertising a new product at Wendy's, Casey Laughman, "Vanilla, you saucy tramp; New Frosty steals chocolate's thunder," Associated Press/The Gazette, August 8, 2006, p. 5D.
Similar questions should, and will, be asked about the Press-Citizen's forthcoming special section. Will it be, like the Frosty story, essentially an eight-page ad for the Riverside casino? Or will it be a balanced piece -- albeit the overall effect of which will be to bring the casino forcefully to every reader's attention -- but one that gives equal time to the downside of gambling casinos?
(How will it compare with The Daily Iowan's impressive, lengthy supplement about Riverside in general and the casino in particular? Masters Media Project Students, "The Riverside Project," The Daily Iowan, May 5, 2006.)
Will it, in fact, be an ad literally as well as figuratively? In other words, will the business justification for the section be the fact that it contains enough paid advertising space to more than justify the added costs? Or will it, like a Saturday insert, be nothing but a paid supplement?
It's far too early for answers, let alone passing judgment, on the Press-Citizen's treatment of these issues. No one has yet seen the special casino supplement. But it is not too early, as journalism's Iron Curtain continues its fall, to raise some issues in its place