Maryland is prominent in 'Frontline' examination of state lotteries


November 06, 1990|By Michael Hill

Of the many mixed messages that youngsters can get from watching television, one of the most clearly paradoxical comes from nowhere other than their state governments.

These are the institutions that are responsible for the school systems, that pay the salaries of the teachers who tell them every day how important it is to do their homework, to work hard; this is one of the essential structures in a country where the belief is constantly espoused that with hard work and perseverance the individual can accomplish virtually anything.

But in a growing number of states across the country, those same governments are paying top advertising companies to come up with television spots that will deliver the opposite message, that will tell people to forget about hard work and perseverance, that will tell them what it takes to reach the top is nothing more than good luck.

They will tell them to play the lottery.

And you wonder why kids are confused?

Maryland, of course, was one of the pioneers in this form of taxation and has spent millions of dollars of its taxpayers' money buying time on television so that slick rock groups and people dressed in ping pong ball suits could deliver to its citizens, young and old, messages like "You Gotta Play to Win" and "It's Okay to Play" and all the other slogans urging that they bet their money on a dream instead of saving it for the proverbial rainy day.

And, because producer James Reston Jr. lives in this state, Maryland plays a prominent role in "Betting on the Lottery," tonight's edition of PBS' "Frontline," which will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 9 o'clock.

The program revolves around a $42-million payday in Illinois' lottery, following around that state's intense, slick lottery director on the day of the drawing.

The preparations for the selection of the numbers, surrounded as they are by elaborate security arrangements, have an odd sort of feel. It's almost as if you're next to the gas chamber, watching the procedures leading up to an execution.

Of course, in a few more hours, after the balls have finished their windblown journey, one dream may soar into reality -- and the lottery director knows, for image reasons, just what sort of dream she hopes that will be -- but millions more will die a sudden death.

Reston notes that his first foray into lotteries came in Maryland when he saw a somewhat shaken Prince George's county woman win $1 million. Try as they might, the lottery image makers couldn't turn her into the bouncing, smiling, joyful winner that the ad campaign demanded.

When Reston went to find her a year later, she had disappeared amid a rumor that she had taken a few personal belongings and headed south, opening up her apartment for the neighbors to take anything they wanted.

In East Baltimore, a political leader tells Reston that the old illegal numbers game was better because then the local numbers runner put something back into the community, helping out people in dire straits. He sees no such payback from the legal game.

"Betting on the Lottery" also looks at forms of the gambling the states declare illegal, examines the incursions lotteries are starting to make in the South's Bible Belt and discusses the controversy over sports lotteries.

But this hour is not a thorough examination of the lottery issue. Rather it is something of a dispassionate look at this form of governmental fund-raising that is becoming woven into the fabric of American life.

And in fact, though it makes no moral judgments, it leaves you with the same queasy feeling you might get at such a look at the death penalty. At best, lotteries come off as necessary evils that have been gift-wrapped in hypocrisy.

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