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Learning From Las Vegas

By Russ Smith | Posted 7/28/2004

Last Friday night I was dining with a family friend in Roland Park, and Bob, an articulate middle-aged man who’s not a journalist, asked a simple question. “Do you think it’s possible,” he queried, “that another daily could take on The Sun in Baltimore?”

My answer was sad but simple: no. It’s not as if newspapers are going to disappear overnight, or even in the next decade, but it would take a vanity entrepreneur with the partisan zeal and bank account of George Soros to compete with a franchise like The Sun in the new-communications 21st century. The city’s only daily, despite the paper clip-counting edicts from owner Tribune Co., isn’t really as awful as it appears, even if one looks back just 25 years ago when Peter A. Jay made the op-ed page respectable and the News-American prodded both The Sun and Evening Sun to achieve a standard higher than today’s.

But for an East Coast city the size of Baltimore, The Sun is pretty lousy.

You can’t blame the paper’s news executives for pretending that they still preside over a top-notch product—morale would sink even further if its utter mediocrity was admitted—but the sanctimony that drips from the editorial page makes you wonder exactly how severe the mass self-denial is on Calvert Street.

I’m thinking, at least this week, of the editorial “Las Vegas, America” that appeared on Thursday, July 22. The issue posed by the writer, exposing the parochialism that infects the entire paper, was the dispiriting fact of Las Vegas becoming the fastest-growing city in the United States, despite its relatively libertarian culture. Regular Sun readers are familiar with the paper’s antiquated view on gambling, as it fights the inevitability with a horse-and-buggy mind-set, but the dim view of Las Vegas is expanded to criticize the possibility of legalized prostitution. Oh. My. God. Naturally, the benefit of such an occurrence isn’t explored, just ridiculed.

Baltimore’s politicians aren’t close to taking a stand on the issue, but if prostitution—not to mention the cash cow of legalized marijuana—no longer distracted the police from more pressing concerns, the city would likely be a safer place in which to live.

The editorial is splattered with contradictions. At the outset, the writer cites the statistic that each month 7,000 people move to Las Vegas, yet later maintains that “many” of the 35 million tourists wouldn’t choose the Western city’s attractions “for their own backyards.” Could be, but Las Vegas isn’t drawing its huge number of newcomers simply for amusement. Even though The Sun grandly proclaims that Las Vegas “produces next to nothing and profits from peddling live fantasies, increasingly sexual,” it does note that the unemployment rate there is “well below the nation’s.”

That’s a bad thing? And, by the way, if consistency prevailed, the writer might add, at least parenthetically, that many liberals believe that Wall Street, the country’s economic engine, “produces” nothing but paper and electronic transactions.

The editorial correctly points out that Nevada recently enacted tax and gambling-fee increases—that’s a plus in the Sun’s view—to help finance “schools and other services” because of its “phenomenal growth.” I’m second to no one in advocating tax cuts, especially for businesses that could create jobs with money saved from handing it over to the government, but that aside, wouldn’t it be terrific if Baltimore had to struggle with the problems of “phenomenal growth”?

In a July 20 column, Michael Olesker laments the very real possibility that the Montreal Expos might relocate the Washington area, either in suburban Maryland (very unlikely) or Northern Virginia (probable). Taking the side of Orioles owner Peter Angelos—talk about shaking hands with the devil—Olesker fears that a competing team would leave downtown barren of tourists, residents, and business. He writes: “Leave the ballpark and walk along nearby streets, alive with restaurants and pubs and outdoor cafés, and young people who have discovered surrounding neighborhoods and learned to call them home. The good cheer is irresistible—and, for those of a certain generation, it feels like pulling aside the blackout curtains after a bombing.”

That’s not an uncommon sentiment—and I’ll spare readers a repetition of my own views about the benefits of D.C. baseball—but it suggests a lack of imagination that’s similar to the “Las Vegas, America” editorial. The Orioles are not the only attraction in town; while Camden Yards has indisputably helped business downtown, the reformation of the area really began with Harborplace in 1980, back when the Birds were playing on 33rd Street. Baltimore doesn’t have to become an exact replica of Las Vegas to add jobs, tourists, and thriving businesses, not only in the Inner Harbor but throughout the city as well.

The Sun may sniff that Vegas churns out nothing but entertainment, but the days of Bethlehem Steel and other manufacturing plants are long gone. Baltimore, unless it sheds its myopic, post-war attitudes toward morality and the new reality of revenue streams, affluent and pious editorialists notwithstanding, will be left behind and its population will continue to decrease.

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