Gamblers Unanimous

It’s always easier to debate an issue once you’re certain it has nothing to do with morality. Well, the papers were quick to clear that underbrush away from the lively argument Chicago and the state are about to enter over whether to build a $2 billion casino-entertainment complex that would be the city’s financial salvation.

“No longer moral dilemma, casino now political jackpot,” declared the headline over the Tribune story announcing Mayor Daley’s Ozymandian vision. “Indeed,” this account observed, “in a state that already has a lottery and permits offtrack betting and riverboat gambling, it appeared that for the most part, the moral question already had been answered.”

The editorial page argued that Illinois “already profits handsomely from vices,” and concluded that “with gambling already a pervasive, government-sanctioned fact of life in the city and the state, this debate cannot be based on morality, but on a hard assessment of economic and political realities.”

The Sun-Times sounded actually contemptuous of morality: “We also don’t see much room for making a case against casino gambling (not so long ago opposed by Daley himself) on so-called ‘moral’ grounds. What makes it different from horse race betting, Lotto, riverboat gambling, ‘casino nights’ for charity and other forms of gambling already legal in Illinois?”

Maybe there is no difference, although when our kids’ grade school ran a casino night a couple of years ago, the PTA was looking to raise a few thousand dollars for books and computers, not $500 million in annual tax revenues. And we weren’t quite as worried about mob infiltration as the city will have to be.

At any rate, before dismissing morality the papers could at least make a hard assessment of moral reality. Let’s phrase the papers’ argument a little differently: society has moved from casino nights to horse-race betting to Lotto to riverboat gambling and now to casinos in a squalid attempt to maintain its public institutions without paying for them, but by this point we’re all without shame so there’s no turning back.

It’s the shamelessness that’s the moral issue. Last Sunday we happened to hear a Lutheran minister raise it eloquently in church. A man of the world, he wasn’t against gambling; he spoke against the disintegration of the commonweal, against people’s refusal to assume responsibility for one another’s needs so long as there’s a chance of sticking a sucker at a slot machine with the tab.

So let’s not dismiss the moral issue out of hand. The wonderful thing about it, moreover, is that it cuts both ways. Hope is no less a human necessity than water, and a thoughtful editorial page might want to argue that it is up to government to provide both. The duty of City Hall, by this logic, is not to curb gaming opportunities but to extend them to the hopeless. The water department could send out a notice with its bills announcing “you may already be a winner” and explaining that a call to a 900 number could bring time shares in a condo in Sarasota. A city income tax could easily be introduced if it were collected in some form of raffle, with every tenth taxpayer getting double his money back.

Since the city’s growth strategy is clear, what the people of Chicago need now is a symbol of the joys of irresponsible speculation. Fortunately, we have one. If number 23 can coolly drop $57,000 on a golf-and-poker weekend, as federal investigators are suggesting, his fans can risk a sawbuck. Furthermore, there’s no reason why he should have to travel to South Carolina to find “rough-hewn, colorful entrepreneurs,” as the Tribune last Sunday described his pals “Slim” Bouler and the late Eddie Dow. Isn’t this species still being fabricated on the last assembly line in Chicago? Bet like Mike. And let’s give folks a chance to bet on Mike too. Parlors can be opened in every neighborhood so folks can back their hero whenever he goes 18 holes. Each time he loses, another music teacher gets hired.

Can ‘Inside Chicago’ Come Back?

Freedom of the press, A.J. Liebling observed, belongs to those who own one. Still, if you’re one of those . . . Taste the freedom to publish what you please, and normal ways of making (or losing) money can seem saltless by comparison.

A KO’d publisher is always ready to stagger back up and go another round. It took Todd Fandell months after Chicago Times went under to accept the fact that he wasn’t going to be able to raise the money to bring it back. And now that Inside Chicago has disappeared, owner Gershon Bassman prefers to speak of “suspended publication” while looking for some way to resurrect his yuppie bimonthly.

Bassman dropped $4 million on Inside Chicago, which he founded in 1987. His former executive vice president, Darryl Reade, tells us he thinks the magazine might have made money on one issue in its lifetime. The recession was devastating; ad revenues in January, when Bassman halted publication, were down 50 percent from a year earlier.

On top of which, the magazine was never very good.

Can it be saved? we asked Bassman the other day.

“Yes,” he said. “The financing has to be in place. There’s a number of individuals and groups that expressed an interest in coming in. But everybody is just a little skittish about the economy or a lot skittish about the economy. They said they’d be interested at some point in time.”

Inside Chicago readers were young, were mostly single, and lived near the lake, and their pockets jangled with disposable cash. Bassman thinks “there’s a need in the marketplace” for his magazine; it’s still a “viable opportunity.” Possibly he wasn’t close enough to the operation when the magazine was new, but he’d “definitely” be a more hands-on boss if it gets a second chance and he’s still part of it.

Beyond displaying a sort of cheekiness, Inside Chicago never became especially interesting. Yet it died at a moment of promise. A new editor, Shane Tritsch, who’s 30, had rethought and redesigned the product–a “real, real shot in the arm as far as I’m concerned,” Reade said. The changes had been announced and were going to be introduced in the January-February issue. But Tritsch felt he wasn’t quite there yet, and the new look was pushed back an issue. This issue never appeared, and for that matter neither did January-February; Bassman had turned out the lights.

“Editorially it did not offer enough entertainment or information or provocative copy to really appeal to readers,” Tritsch told us. “I just don’t think the magazine contained enough substance or surprises to really make people want to come back to it.”

He said, “I think we seemed like a Chicago wannabe.”

That line has the ring of an epitaph. But Bassman will not concede death, although wolves bay at his door. Does he really think he can bring it back? we asked John Matyasik, who’s president of the company that did Bassman’s engraving. He means it, Matyasik said.

Matyasik, alas, is one of the baying wolves. He says Bassman owes his company, Media Graphics, $7,000–a debt Bassman does not deny–and he has told his lawyer to prepare to sue. Bassman admits he owes other contractors as well, as last weekend a group of Inside Chicago contributors who say Bassman stiffed them for their work on the two unpublished issues met with their own attorney. The magazine’s former PR rep, Cindy Kurman, has already filed suit. She says Bassman owes her about $30,000. Alleging Kurman didn’t do the work she was hired for, Bassman countersued.

By all accounts, litigation does not frighten Bassman or make him repent. “I think threatening to take Gershon to court,” says someone who worked for him, “is like threatening to put a fish in water.”

Media Guide

Reporters wouldn’t know what to do without the media guides that various organizations–like colleges and sports teams–turn out crammed with names, facts, and phone numbers. But even though information from the public is the lifeblood of journalism, we’ve rarely seen a guide to the media themselves.

Spotting a need, the Community Media Workshop of Malcolm X College has published a double-barreled guidebook, Getting on the Air: A Citizen’s Guide to Chicago-Area Broadcasters and Getting Into Print. This $40 guide–$25 for nonprofits–is crammed with the names and numbers of producers, editors, and beat reporters; it’s great for leakers–and for community organizations with stories to tell. We use it a lot too.

For a copy, call 942-0909, extension 617. The price includes Active Voice, the workshop’s occasional newsletter.

Columnist’s Intuition

We wrote last week that the Chicago press didn’t get the hang of the Carol Moseley Braun race until she’d won it. We should have acknowledged the conspicuous exception: the Sun-Times’s Carole Ashkinaze, who demonstrated in columns written as long ago as last October that she appreciated Braun’s candidacy and understood that women’s dissatisfaction with Alan Dixon went a lot deeper than just his vote for Clarence Thomas.