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Vice Dos and Don’ts

By Russ Smith | Posted 11/9/2005

It’s possible that the Sun’s editors, demoralized by the persistent budget cuts of owner Tribune Co., have given up the battle to produce even a second-class newspaper. That’s one way to explain the front-page coverage on Nov. 4 of a downtown police raid at the Owl’s Nest, where 80 people were charged with illegal gambling. News of the riots in Paris, by contrast, was dumped on page 11.

Lynn Anderson and Gus G. Sentementes, perhaps drawing the assignment desk’s short straw, got right to the juicy part in the second and third paragraphs: “[On Nov. 2], city police swarmed a refurbished warehouse in South Baltimore, shut the game down and charged 80 players with illegal gambling. Authorities seized $25,655 in cash, 16,020 poker chips, 141 decks of cards, dozens of parts for illegal gambling machines, and boxes of illegal booze. A vice sergeant said the raid was the largest in the city in decades, perhaps since 72 people were busted in 1932 during a Prohibition-era raid in Highlandtown.”

Although Anderson and Sentementes did explain to Sun readers that “poker is all the rage,” on television, the internet, and school clubs, there was one salient fact missing from the article: What did the police do with those 16,020 poker chips?

Doesn’t this minor story—and you’d think the cops would have more threatening congregations of lawbreakers to “swarm”—belong back in the Maryland section, given three or four column inches? The “bust” also made the front page of the daily last Saturday and Sunday. (Dan Rodricks devoted part of his Nov. 6 column to make the same point, although his sarcasm didn’t mention The Sun by name.)

A really cynical observer might suggest that The Sun is preparing for next year’s launch of the daily Baltimore Examiner, a free tabloid. But I doubt the forthcoming competition, which is minimized by The Sun, is the cause, but rather an extreme case of the “Nanny State” ethos prevalent in not only Maryland today but across the country.

Gambling, whether in the form of poker, slots, or casinos, sticks in the craw of media elites, including The Sun, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times, even if “ordinary people” (as they’re called in print), when polled, are usually in favor of legalization of such activities.

On Nov. 4, New York Times sports columnist Harvey Araton pegged a morality lecture to the news that Yankee Alex Rodriguez, baseball’s highest paid player, has frequented illicit poker games. He illustrated the depth of this “problem,” citing a “compulsive gambling” expert for backup, by warning readers that at many bar mitzvahs today “hired dancers are out and hip dealers are in.” Some parents, inexplicably alarmed by the mind-numbing amount of surveys purporting that teenagers are engaging in oral sex more frequently than previous generations, might be relieved that Texas hold-’em is currently more popular than lap dances on the bar mitzvah circuit.

Araton fumed: “What’s next on ESPN, the Little League World Series of Poker? Can you see those supercharged sports parents, hovering over the shoulders of their pimply and poker-faced wannabes, frantically waving cards?” As someone who, as a teenager in the early 1970s, was both pimply faced and an excellent poker player, Araton’s remark is terribly offensive. I’d wave the Thought Police in his direction, but they’re way too busy.

Another great topic of debate in the past year is the increasing number of Americans recognized as obese, particularly those under the age of 18. Fast-food restaurants are under attack for allegedly masterminding the girth of a nation. This is blunt, but it seems to me there’s a simple solution for those whose guts or butts are a little too large. Eat less. Take walks. Drink water. Stop blaming big business.

The Sun piled on with an editorial two months ago (Sept. 12, “Fast food, fat food”) lamenting the findings of a Harvard School of Public Health examination that claimed 80 percent of Chicago’s schools had at least one fast-food joint within a half-mile of its location. “Researchers cited previous studies,” the writer said, “showing that, on a typical day, almost one-third of American youths eat fast food. Those youngsters take in more calories, fats, and sugars and eat fewer fruits and vegetables than on the days when they don’t eat fast food.”

How in the world would the public cope without such scholarly scolds?

As if gambling, oral sex, fatty cheeseburgers, video games depicting violence, and pop-music lyrics weren’t enough to send a worry-wart media into conniptions, NBC’s Today ýhow last week ran a segment on a group of outraged youths who are waging war against the suggestive T-shirts marketed by Abercrombie and Fitch. The program’s Katie Couric nodded approvingly as 16-year-old Emma Blackman-Mathis explained that her Pennsylvania-based organization is fighting the retailer with a “girlcott” of its wares.

Frankly, as a father who remembers a time when both adolescents and adults regularly drove cars while completely intoxicated or stoned, causing needless loss of life and injury, a real problem that’s been significantly reduced in the past decade, I’d rather my kids navigate the current popular culture than return to the “good old days” when America supposedly held fewer temptations.

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