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Between the Lines: Safe-Bet B-Roll

Local TV news helps casinos and politicians keep the picture fuzzy.

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Thursday, November 08, 2012

Although the iconography of gambling and resort casino decor have never been my cup of tea, I will admit that spinning roulette wheels, rolling dice and blinking slots machines make pretty good b-roll for TV news.

Which is to observe that the nightly presentation of local news on the three network affiliate stations is getting a graphic boost these days, thanks to the never-ending casino story in Massachusetts. The competition among major resort developers for the opportunity to build in Springfield, in particular, has given local stations nearly daily reasons to flash their best, easiest and cheapest of canned decorative elements. When editors tire of running footage of gamblers at the blackjack tables, there are always the logos of the vying corporations—MGM Resorts, Penn National Gaming and Ameristar Casino—to add visual splendor to the day’s package of casino stories.

Springfield Mayor Dom Sarno deserves credit (at least from the region’s TV stations) for keeping Springfield’s casino wars at the top of the news. His plan to go through his own vetting and selection process, culminating in a ballot question to voters next year, has created awkward moments in his discussions with State Gaming Commissioner Steve Crosby, who reminds Sarno that it will be his commission, not the Sarno Administration, that ultimately chooses the winning developers and awards the gaming licenses. But Sarno’s goal may be less about picking between the three resorts that have been “prequalified” to enter “Phase II” of his selection process, and more about establishing in the minds of city voters the inevitability of a casino in that city.

To watch the state’s progression (regression?) toward casino gambling in real time is, at least for me, duller than a night of bingo. It’s taken nearly 20 years to get finally to the point that the state (and, as in Sarno’s Springfield, specific municipalities) is taking bids from actual developers. In all those years, the arguments for and against legalized gaming have changed not a whit. Neither has the glitzy stock footage local media use to decorate (as opposed to illustrate) news reports. And while the dollar figures that attend to discussions of casino development are, indeed, often eye-popping—Penn National Gaming, for example, proposes to spend $807 million on a resort with Springfield’s approval—the process of crafting and implementing a state program of legalized gambling, like most big economic development initiatives, is hardly sexy stuff,at least to those of us who are watching it all unfold through a local media filter.

I don’t entirely blame the TV stations, with their shots of craps tables and decks of playing cards, for using flashy b-roll to compensate for a lack of relevant live shots. When it comes to so-called “public-private development,” it’s not unusual for high-ranking state officials and their corporate counterparts to conduct most of their meaningful discussions out of the view of the cameras. The Big Dig, that gloriously inflated public works project in Boston, was no different during most of its history, when TV stations used motion pictures of static yet handsome blueprints and architectural drawings to adorn dry but hardly irrelevant reports about cost overruns and disputes over oversight authority and fiscal management. (It’s perhaps worth noting that the Big Dig began providing good-for-television images only after it was built, with shots of a more beautiful Boston skyline as well as the more troubling footage of deadly falling ceiling tiles and tunnels leaking seawater.)

My concern and complaint is simply this: the daily coverage of the casino industry’s slow but relentless march on Massachusetts is mostly sizzle and very little steak. The bright colors and flashing lights of the casino motif distract from an even more compelling if somewhat horrifying story—one in which government officials, elected and appointed, working with lobbyists, lawyers and casino developers, not only get to write the rules and carve up the territories for a new multi-billion-dollar monopoly in the state, but get to start by picking the winners and the losers from a list of businesses that have flooded the coffers of state pols with cash.

Of all of the arguments against legalizing gambling, the most persuasive to me is the one that envisions the various problems with having politicians try to regulate casinos. And while, for various reasons and with varying results, folks like Sarno and Crosby insist that the process of selection and regulation is and will remain aboveboard and transparent, its hard to see anything clearly when one is being blinded by all that glitz and glitter.•

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