MPT's 'Betting on the Lottery' only scratches the surface


November 06, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Frontline's "Betting on the Lottery" asks some hard and smart questions about state-run lotteries and the values of public officials who are using tax dollars to promote these games of chance.

But the report, which airs at 9 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67), ultimately loads the dice against lotteries by focusing too much on only one lottery official and letting her come to represent all lotteries in viewers' mind.

Bottom line, this is not a balanced piece of reporting by correspondent James Reston Jr. and producer Marian Marzynski. But it is a long-overdue and provocative call for us to think about the $20 billion a year we are spending to play government-sponsored lotteries, and ask whether citizens are being served or exploited by them.

The main focus of "Betting on the Lottery" is Illinois and that state's lottery director, Sharon Sharp. But Maryland -- which has the second highest per capita spending on the lottery, according to Frontline -- is one of three other states highlighted. Maryland's lottery comes in for some of the toughest questions from Reston, who says he is a Maryland resident, and the harshest criticism from Clarence Davis, a state representative from East Baltimore.

fTC Reston and Marzynski show us a woman who won a million dollars in the Maryland lottery. They identify her as Shirley Adams, from Washington, D.C. As we are shown advertising and public relations men and women using Ms. Adams in promotions to sell more lottery tickets, Reston says, "I couldn't help wondering if all this was a proper and dignified role for my state government."

As Reston and state delegate Davis are shown driving through Davis' Baltimore district, Davis says of the lottery, "It's worse than the old numbers racket. It undercuts the true dream of black America."

That's a powerful claim. But the report fails to follow up and examine it. Instead it returns to Illinois and its extensive day-in-the-life coverage of Sharp, that state's lottery director. Reston says of Sharp, "I've been around a lot of public servants, but never one like this. Is she a fun-loving tax collector or is she like the flim-flam man?"

This is where the dice get loaded. Sharp does not appear to be a woman concerned about whether there are victims (intended or not) of her highly promoted state-run gambling operations. But that does not mean all lottery directors are like her.

Yet, it is this woman who will remain in viewers' minds as the personification of all state-run lotteries, because that is the way television often works: Complex issues are reduced to personalities. Reston and Marzynski clearly understand television's bias toward personality. That they chose to exploit rather than avoid the oversimplified personality route is the great disappointment of "Betting on the Lottery."

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