Thursday, August 31, 2006

Gazette Shames Press-Citizen

It's not always fair, accurate or thorough to do a critique of one media outlet's coverage of a story by comparing it with how other media have covered it. They may all be violating some principle of good journalism, or one or the other may have good reasons for the difference. But such comparisons can at least create what we'll call "some evidence."

In that spirit, a comparision between this morning's Gazette and Daily Iowan on the one hand, and Iowa City Press-Citizen on the other, is revealing for what it shows of the papers' choice between unabashed, public relations, all-out promotion of a commercial venture vs. "news" about it.

What does The Gazette have to say about the Riverside casino's formal opening this evening? Bear in mind, one of the Press-Citizen's stories quotes casino owner Dan Kehl as saying that he "expects the majority of the casino's guests to be from the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids area" (for which Riverside will be one of its closest casinos). So it's not like this is less of an event in Cedar Rapids than in Iowa City.

It's always possible I missed something, but it looks to me as if both The Daily Iowan and The Gazette have nothing, zilch, nada -- not even in their "80 Hours" and "Weekend" entertainment sections. No special promotional supplement, no front page stories, no embarrassingly gushy quotes about how wonderful gambling is in general and at the Riverside casino in particular.

Moreover, The Gazette it ran a story by Gregg Hennigan on Tuesday (August 29) that balanced the praise of the facility ("more than a dozen people interviewed . . . expressed support for the casino") with less enthusiastic responses (the story's statistics let one calculate that only 27% of the eligible voters voted for the casino).

‘'‘It looks like it may provide a lot of jobs, but are they good jobs?' asked Mike McCandless, 58, of
Washington, Iowa. 'It looks like it’s going to bring a lot of people here, but are they good people?'’’

Washington banker Dale Topey is quoted as saying "I will never be convinced that taking money from people and profiting from it makes sense."

Harold Neuweg said, "I'd hate to see people lose their homes."

Gregg Hennigan, "Washington County Residents Greet New Casino and Resort With Excitement and Caution,"
The Gazette, August 29, 2006.

Meanwhile, as if its eight-page special supplement promoting the casino (Monday, August 28) wasn't enough [see Nicholas Johnson, "Press-Citizen: Promoting Casino Gambling?" August 28, 2006], the Press-Citizen is at it again, with the entire front cover of its "GO" section a picture of cards and chips and the big headline, "Casino Bets on Luxury." The "GO" section is, admittedly, devoted to information about entertainment. Even though The Daily Iowan and The Gazette did not feel the opening worthy of mention, even in their comparable sections, an informational item in "GO" woud be legitimate.

But the cover, center spread and lead story are really over the top. The center spread of "GO" is made up of one full page of posed pictures of happy gamblers with "Blackjack," "Craps Tables" and two seemingly orgasmic teenage girls pointing at "Slot Machines." The other page is devoted to a story headlined, "Live Like a High Roller at Riverside Casino," along with inserts on "Entertainment" (advertising Jay Leno's $120-a-ticket appearance), "Riverside Casino & Golf Resort," "By the Numbers," and the details on times and prices for "Dining." (These are, presumably from the layout, not paid advertising, but presented as "news.")

I would provide quotes from the piece, but since it's virtually all promotional it would lengthen this blog entry too much. If you're curious as to what all was included, better you read the piece. (The one-word lead is, simply, "Luxury." The last line quotes casino CEO Dan Kehl as saying, "Riverside Casino & Golf Resort is all about Iowans investing in Iowa.")

Deanna Truman-Cook, "Live like a high roller at Riverside casino," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 31, 2006.

Not content with this blowout in the "Go" section, and just to make sure everyone knows the good news about the casino's opening, there's a page-one story as well headlined, "Riverside Casino Ready to Roll Today."

It contains the following phrases and comments: "people . . . were impressed," "'It's so awesome for Iowa,'" "'It's a place to come spend an evening. You can come here and find something to do,'" "'It looks like the prices of the restaurants are real reasonable'" [without noting that this was a common ploy of Las Vegas casinos for years as a way of attracting potential gamblers, whose meals became much less "reasonable" if they ever bothered to count up their losses], "free entertainment," "Jay Leno scheduled" [with no mention of the $120 for tickets], "'we're all pretty excited,'" "Joyce Patton . . . said she loves the Riverside Casino . . . [a restaurant there] 'was wonderful. A real treat.' . . . 'I think this place is spectacular.'"

Rachel Gallegos, "Riverside casino ready to roll today," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 31, 2006.

Needless to say, neither story mentioned local opposition to the casino (only 27% of eligible voters voted for it), the seven additional State of Iowa law enforcement officers needed on premises (at Iowa taxpayers' expense), concerns about increased gambling addiction and more calls to 1-800-BETS-OFF, or even the traffic problems on the two-lane road leading to the casino.

Moreover, if a story is going to be headlined, "How to Live Like a High Roller at Riverside Casino," one would think there might have been some inquiry, and then reporting, about Riverside's high rollers. The casino has a "VIP" room, a "High Stakes" slot machine room, and possibly private rooms for higher stakes poker than what is played in the 14-poker-tables room. One would think readers might be interested in knowing the "entrance fee" for the VIP room. How do they define "high roller" at the Riverside casino? What limits are placed on betters -- if any? What's the maximum a gambler can lose in a single evening? Is it possible
that more than Harold Neuweg (quoted by Gregg Hennigan, above) should, "hate to see people lose their homes"?

No local paper has yet followed up on my suggestion they find out where the money came from for this $140 million-plus facility. If there is Nevada money in it, isn't that something Iowans might like to know? If you're going to print, unchallenged, Dan Kehl's assertion that
"Riverside Casino & Golf Resort is all about Iowans investing in Iowa" (rather than "all about Iowans sending their money out of state") it would seem that the source of the money is a question that now cries out for research and reporting.

I could go on with the list of items that could have been mentioned in these stories to give them a little more balance, but this should be enough to make the point. Unfortunately (or it gives me no pleasure to say it), I think it's fair to characterize both of this morning's Iowa City Press-Citizen casino stories as essentially promotional, public relations, puff pieces rather than "journalism."

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