Reporters at the Providence Journal were among those taken by surprise when the paper, in an abrupt and unacknowledged reversal of its long-held position, editorialized on Sunday, October 22, in favor of the proposed Harrah’s Entertainment-Narragansett Indian casino.
In advocating for the casino — to be decided by voters, through Question 1, on the November 7 ballot — the unsigned editorial cited the jobs and revenue that could be created by the envisioned West Warwick establishment, and how “the project would return to the economy of Rhode Island hundreds of millions a year” in money going to the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos in Connecticut.
Although this message dovetails with proponents’ arguments, it represents a remarkable switch for the Journal, which for years has staunchly opposed the establishment of a destination casino in Rhode Island.
Former governor Lincoln Almond, who chairs the anti-casino group Save Our State, used a Wednesday op-ed in the ProJo to point to how the newspaper printed a front-page anti-casino editorial in 1994 and, as recently as January, editorialized that the proposal was “a bad casino idea.”
To some observers, the traditional divide between the newspaper’s news and editorial pages obviated the need for any acknowledgement or explanation about the change in course. There was also a certain candor in the editorial’s observation of how Rhode Island already has two big and well-established gambling parlors.
Yet WPRO-AM talk-show host Dan Yorke, seemingly the lone local media entity to focus meaningful attention on the editorial switch, was right to call out the lack of necessary context in the editorial. He notes how the ProJo’s corporate owner, the Dallas-based Belo Corporation, owns television stations or newspapers in a number of Harrah’s markets. “One can only guess that they’re concerned with the overall Harrah’s relationship — that’s speculative,” he tells the Phoenix. “The whole thing is speculative. The crime here is not explaining to the readers how they got from where they were to where they are now.”
Some readers, in letters to the editor, have suggested that the change was motivated by a desire to cultivate more advertising — a theory endorsed by at least some in the newsroom — or ordered by the newspaper’s Dallas-based ownership.
While publisher Howard Sutton did not return a call seeking comment, a brief response to a letter published Tuesday disputed the notion of out-of-town influence, stating, “The decision to write the editorial was made by the Journal’s publisher, in Providence.”
Inside the ProJo, reaction was mixed. Metro columnist Bob Kerr, a casino opponent, called the endorsement “an honest conversion,” but he thinks it would have been more credible with an acknowledgement of how it represented a switch.
Suffice to say, the Journal’s ancien regime, such as publisher Michael Metcalf, who died in a 1987 bicycle accident, would turn somersaults at the notion of the newspaper endorsing a casino.
Yet the lack of explication was entirely in keeping with a newspaper that has become sharply averse to self-scrutiny since Belo acquired it in 1997, and where Sutton has occasionally operated with a heavy hand on the editorial page.