Morality? What Morality?

Last November an ad hoc group opposed to casino gambling sat down with members of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board.

Doug Dobmeyer, executive director of the Public Welfare Coalition: “We didn’t change any minds. Basically, the pitch of the Tribune was, ‘This is the only game going. How can you people be opposed to it? The moral argument was lost years ago. How come you people are trying to resurrect it?'”

Dr. William Koehnline, representing the Presbytery of Chicago: “The frame of discourse we engaged in was meaningless to them. We weren’t trying to persuade them to adopt our moral position, but to recognize there was a moral position. We had representatives from purely secular organizations such as the Americans for Democratic Action. We had economists. But they simply refused to take us seriously because we insisted there was a moral component in our argument.”

Sheldon Duecker, Methodist bishop of northern Illinois, who’s also met with the editorial board of Courier News in Elgin: “It’s been almost as though they haven’t had respect for the opposition forces. I asked one board if they could give me studies they have read which convinced them gambling would be a good thing economically and for the quality of life, and they had nothing to offer. They had no awareness there were other times in our history when gambling was very prominent and was voted out in almost every state. It’s not a new panacea. It’s something that’s been tried and hasn’t worked.”

Don Wycliff, editorial-page editor of the Tribune: “Just from my personal perspective, if there were no gambling now in the state of Illinois it would be a very different situation. It would be a different kind of judgment that I would make.

“There is not unanimity on the board about this. There is a recognition that we’re quite far down the road already. The question becomes not whether the state of Illinois will make some new departure, but whether there’s some rational basis for denying to Chicago this means of revenue provided to others in the state.

“I remember that session. And my annoyance, and I guess it did come through, was not with the moral argument against gambling but with–I think it probably was with Dobmeyer’s argument in particular. There was this unreal notion he expressed that we should pursue some other kind of approach to jobs for people. You know, the mayor of the city went to the mat for an airport and didn’t get it. Frankly, at this point it’s not at all clear he’ll get this gambling thing either. It’s not as if there’s a tree out there loaded with economic goodies and he can pluck one anytime he chooses. This is the real world. There’s a sense of unreality to some of these arguments.”

In a world that evidently is not the real one, the moral and practical arguments would clash and bang in full view of Chicago. The debate waged privately at Tribune Tower would move to a public arena, and even if neither side persuaded the other the rest of us would be the wiser.

But instead of hand-to-hand combat, there’s only the occasional puff of snipers’ smoke. A Tribune editorial last year began like this: “Illinois is already in the game. The question is: Do we play to win? That’s the only pragmatic way to think about the prospect of legalized casino gambling for Chicago. It’s no longer a question of whether gambling is desirable or moral.”

Dobmeyer, in a letter to the editor last April: “Riverboats and casinos are an extension of the hedonist life-style that pits the well-to-do against the poor.”

Urban affairs writer John McCarron in the Tribune last June: “Also lining up against riverboats are several of our city’s very own religious and do-gooder organizations. . . . Typical is Doug Dobmeyer. . . . They choose to ignore that Chicago is in life-or-death competition for economic survival.”

The Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, in a statement issued at a press conference last week: “We dismiss the often heard statement that moral and ethical concerns regarding gambling’s effects are no longer at issue. They are at issue, and any claim to the contrary is false and misleading.”

This press conference at the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint James drew three reporters. There might not have been anyone at all if the Catholic archdiocese hadn’t just joined the opposition. But the event was deemed a success. The religion writers of both major papers wrote articles that actually dealt with what the clerics had to say. What’s more, the Tribune’s Michael Hirsley followed up with a column, and the Sun-Times ran an editorial.

Not that the editorial was friendly. It made the easy point that churches that object to riverboat gambling shouldn’t sponsor bingo nights. But as Dobmeyer put it to us, “I thought it was a cheap shot, but if you abide by the idea any press is good press it may not have been so bad.”

The moralists make their own easy point: the papers can’t be trusted to write objectively about gambling because they want the advertising. Just last Monday the Sun-Times sports section carried big ads for Harrah’s Casino and the Empress River Casino in Joliet and the Par+a+Dice Riverboat Casino in East Peoria.

When each side belabors the inevitable slice of the other side’s argument that’s hypocritical, a debate goes nowhere. But maybe that’s bound to be the fate of this one. In his introduction to a new study called “Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media,” the chairman of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, John Seigenthaler, observed, “There’s a great chasm of misunderstanding that exists between those who practice religion, who lead religion, and those who practice journalism. It leads to a clash of alien cultures.”

The last time clergy who oppose riverboats held a press conference, the results–from their side of the chasm–were appalling. The Religious Task Force to Oppose Increased Legalized Gambling (1) invited County Clerk David Orr to participate, and (2) staged the August 17 event at City Hall. The Sun-Times wrote nothing; political writer John Kass covered for the Tribune.

Because Orr wants to be mayor, and because he was stating a position that implied Mayor Daley’s is morally offensive, Kass wrote a political story. He mentioned the task force exactly once.

The Reverend Fred Milligan of Fourth Presbyterian Church wrote the Tribune complaining that Kass had “treated a grass-roots movement as nothing more than a campaign stump speech for David Orr.” A fellow Presbyterian, the Reverend William Brauer, called Kass’s story “a cheap political hatchet-job on David Orr.”

Dobmeyer is not so naive. “You hold a press conference in City Hall, you’re likely to get John Kass. That’s the cynical downside of holding a press conference at the hall. That’s sort of a strategic decision you have to make. Do you take that risk?”

So how do you get the media to take your message seriously? we asked him. “There are probably two ways,” he said. “You try to get important people to take on your message. Or you develop a tremendous grass-roots following that has to be taken seriously because it represents voters. That’s what the Methodists are doing, and it’s been largely ignored by the media. But they’re doing it statewide.”

Now This Is Morality

Moral tale number two. Tribune editor Howard Tyner’s last big call as top dog of the features department was to snuff a comic strip. What stuck in Tyner’s craw was Berkeley Breathed’s Outland of July 25. Opus, Bill the Cat, and Milquetoast were cracking wise about womenfolk, and a delegate from that gender approached and sniffed, “Men should pause for one moment and take another long hard look at the very thing that brings meaning to their meaningless lives.” The boys looked down their pants.

“This strip received more reader reaction than any strip Outland has produced in four years,” says Suzanne Whelton, operations manager of the strip’s syndicate, the Washington Post Writers Group. “Bryant Gumbel wanted the original for himself. The president of CNN wanted it for Ted Turner. We had copies made in color for the first time since Outland came out. Berkeley was signing them, and we were selling copies for $20 apiece.”

But Tyner was not amused. The strip promptly vanished from the Tribune, and last week Whelton received a letter formally canceling it.

Tyner’s successor as features czar, Owen Youngman, is doing the talking. “Howard made the decision, but I would have done the same thing,” he said. “I thought the one in question was lewd, vulgar, and didn’t belong in the paper.”

Did you think it was a typical Outland? we asked.

“There were plenty that made me grit my teeth when I read them in the paper before I was over there [in features],” Youngman said. “This one seemed to have gone too far. I was disgusted by some of the penguin-phone-sex ones he did. I wasn’t amused by his Chelsea Clinton-Bill the Cat stuff. The Bill the Cat-Bill Gates transmogrification stuff was sort of interesting.”

Commercially, it must be said, Outland is not an especially successful strip. Folding the daily Bloom County, Breathed launched Outland in ’89 in 300 papers. Now it’s down to 250. Whelton will send copies of Outland strips to anyone who asks for them. She wants to know just how many down-deep fans are out there.

We heard from one who pointed to the Mother Goose & Grimm of two Sundays ago. A dame is sipping a drink in a bar and Pinocchio muses, “Gee . . . I’d like to ask her out, but how do I know that she doesn’t have termites?”

“Maybe the same mentality that got rid of Outland will get rid of this too,” the reader told us.

Possibly. “I remember the punch line,” said Youngman. “I just kind of thought it was stupid.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.