Ryerson Review of Journalism graphic

It’s July 27, 1998. As the sun sinks behind the Detroit skyline, the diamonds splashed across the fa?ade of Windsor’s new casino begin to fade. So too does the glare thrown off by the bone-white streets specially constructed to accommodate the big, shiny white-and-aquamarine monstrosity. In the half-light of dusk, the massive, rainbow-coloured neon canopy protecting the main entrance makes the casino look like a UFO-a UFO that, disguised to land on the Las Vegas strip, has been blown off course and crashed into the north bank of the Detroit River, across from the site of the old Windsor farmer’s market.

They must be friendly aliens, though, because they’ve invited 6,000 area residents inside. The gala marking the opening of Windsor’s permanent casino facility promises to polish Windsor’s reputation as party capital of the province. Along with decidedly B-list celebrities like Regis Philbin and Robin Leach, there’s an Austin Powers look-alike, a 007 impersonator who descends to the floor by pulley-rigged jet-pack and bungee gymnasts. The food includes 3,500 pounds of shrimp, 30,000 canap?s and-I didn’t get an invitation so I can only imagine the magic-turnips carved to look like angelfish. Prudently, the party planners have stocked 180 cases of champagne and 510 cases of wine to wash it down. (Similarly prudently-and in accordance with gaming commission regulations-the PR people have ordered all media cameras off the floor by 9 p.m.)

The gathering has been in full swing for a couple hours when Marty Beneteau, metro editor for The Windsor Star, ducks out the back door to call the paper. He almost doesn’t need a phone-the Star’s offices are only three blocks east-but he pulls out his cell and punches in the newsroom number. He’s checking on the night staff, busy stuffing late copy and photos into tomorrow’s edition for the 200,000 other plebes who didn’t get an invitation.

When the paper goes out-headed “Opening Night Glitters” in 90-point-it features a two-page photo spread and 70 inches of copy. As the climax of the biggest event in the life of the city this decade, the magnitude of the story has not been lost on the Star. Each day during the week preceding the opening, the front page carried a special casino feature (“Roomier Casino Will Improve Life for Workers”) and a small, colour graphic of dice under the tag line “Ready to Roll!” counting down the days. On the big day, the A-section carried instructions on how to play roulette, baccarat and blackjack. An intern at the time, I had done the puff piece de r?sistance the week before: 12 inches of snappy copy on what people would be wearing to the gala.

Aesthetically, the coverage, like the people at the party, looked good, wrapped up as it was in a recent banner redesign and printed on the Star’s new press. But the casino story represented change on a much more fundamental level than page layout. A few years ago, if you wanted to gamble you went to Nevada or New Jersey. Now, in an age of reduced government expenditure and lower tax revenues, legislatures are approving casinos as a fast way to make a buck. Among the seven provinces that have legitimized gambling, Canada is now home to 52 casinos. Of course, gambling hasn’t gone completely downtown-in Ontario it’s banished to the dark corners of the province: Niagara, Windsor and Orillia. But as a local or regional issue, the debate has become a big story for small papers like the Niagara Falls Review and Orillia’s daily, The Packet & Times. And because it’s a story about changing the nature of a city, it often generates more controversy than consensus.

On one hand, it’s the usual business tale about depressed communities, jobs and economic opportunity. But a casino isn’t the same as a car plant. Gambling is a pastime associated with personal loss and public crime, or, at the very least, a less than family-like atmosphere. Which confronts citizens with a choice between the pragmatic economic reality of, say, 5,000 new jobs, and the idea of preserving a certain kind of lifestyle. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. As the only daily in Windsor, the Star was in a position to influence how the casino question was handled. But when the editorial board showed its hand, it was of the same opinion as the mayor’s office and the business community: the casino was a good bet. This select group of people, the city’s elite, seemed to start the game before the public was at the table, an action at odds with the traditional role of the newspaper as a populist defender of democracy existing outside established power structures. What happened to the watchdog? Perhaps it’s my own na?vet?, but the only question the Stardefinitively answered was this: Was there ever a chance the casino wouldn’t be built?

By most measures, The Windsor Star is a model of a community-minded newspaper, maybe one of the best examples in Canada. The banner boasts “Canada?s #1 Metro Newspaper in Readers Per Capita.” After the 80,000 copies printed daily have been passed around, more than 80 percent of Windsor residents will have read the Star. And although there are more wire pieces because of staff cutbacks in the early ’90s, the copy doesn’t have the anonymity and “story by numbers” feel of many big-city dailies. There are no cell-phone advertisements disguised as technology sections and you usually get to A7 before you hit a full-page ad. Instead, when it can, the Star devotes its resources to running special features on issues important to local residents, like education and the economy. The work hasn’t gone unrecognized: two of the Star’s four National Newspaper Awards have been in the special projects category.

But the most telling symbol of the Star’s place in the community is that residents don’t just read it, they use it. There’s a steady stream of letters to the editor, and a regular duty of the photographers is to shoot the couples who show up in the newsroom dressed to the nines to have their 50th wedding anniversary pictures taken for publication. Readers still celebrate graduations and 40th birthdays with an ad and picture in the paper, while the obit page runs more In Memoriams than most larger papers. It sounds like a line you’d see on the side of a bus, but The Windsor Star is a real part of the community.

So in March 1992, when a local Windsor developer, Bill Docherty, first proposed building a small, unobtrusive, European-style casino as part of a sports complex he had planned for downtown Windsor, it was with the good of the community in mind that the paper supported the idea.

“Windsor was in desperate shape in those years,” remembers Chris Vander Doelen, now an editorial writer for the Star but at the time the city hall reporter. “The business and labour community had gone through a two-year process trying to identify what they could do to improve their economy. Windsor’s historic problem has been overreliance on the auto industry; when that sector goes in the tank, Windsor’s entire economy follows. What we needed was something else to depend on. And after study and discussions with economists, they decided, since tourism is the world’s fastest-growing business sector, that increasing tourism was the city’s best chance of diversifying its economy. I thought this was a reasonable assumption.”

At the time the Docherty proposal surfaced, the Star was running one of its special series, “Economy Under Fire,” which looked at how residents were coping with the recession of the early ’90s. The answer was “Not well.” A study by a University of Windsor business professor had found only 61 percent of the area’s wage earners over the age of 18 held down full-time jobs at the time (even the former mayor, David Burr, was out of work). An editorial published a few days before the announcement had taken the Rae government to task for ignoring the plight of border towns that were seeing their local economies sucked dry by cross-border shopping. A proposal that might shower the city with money appeared as a light in a very dark sky.

The provincial government certainly saw the light. The Ontario Casino Corporation (OCC) was created to oversee the operation (Docherty was out of the picture by then), an American firm was hired to run it and Windsor’s art gallery was moved to a mall to make room downtown for an interim casino until the permanent facility was opened last summer. On May 17, 1994, the doors swung open to a lineup that stretched around the block. The casino had gone from idea to opening in two years.

Of course, it helped that there wasn’t much opposition. Two days after the proposal surfaced and long before the government had made a final decision on where and when a casino might be built, the Star’s editorial board had already placed its bet. Its first editorial on the subject detailed the economic benefits the city could hope would accrue to it. While the writer fretted about the absence of a government agency to supervise the project, the paper’s conclusion was “There’s nothing in this proposal that raises red flags.” The Star’sinfluential opinion columnist, Gord Henderson, didn’t even bother with the qualification. “What took so long? Why the heck didn’t Windsor’s…civic leadership pick up this ball and run with it years ago?” he wrote on March 12, 1992.

Of course, a newspaper is entitled to its editorial opinion, but the coverage in the news hole in those early days showed the same willingness to follow suit. The first story, which appeared March 11, 1992, announced Docherty’s proposal on the front page. It was accompanied, on A4, by a second story: “Profit a Sure Bet at Manitoba Casino.” The lead explicitly stated Winnipeg’s casino was experiencing “bigger than expected profits.” The story went on to detail how many jobs the casino had created and noted that the profits went to charity, although it did briefly suggest there were some downsides for the city.

The next day, high up in a story by reporter Scott Burnside, a local bishop noted, “The economy does involve moral decisions;” he also said “there are a lot of pitfalls” associated with casino gambling. Much lower, the former general manager of the local convention and visitors’ bureau, John Deneau, was quoted as saying that a casino “sounds like an excellent idea.” The story ended up headed: “Casino Gambling Good Bet, Tourism Officials say.”

The following day, there was another story: “City Casinos Could Lure High Rollers.” This time Deneau had been moved up to the fourth paragraph of a story that featured the succinct lead “There’s no shortage of high rollers around to make Windsor Canada’s Monte Carlo.” The bishop had disappeared.

Eventually, Burnside was sent to Winnipeg to document the impact casino gambling had had on that city. He filed a well-sourced and balanced story that investigated both the pros and cons of gambling in Winnipeg and ended with a plea for a plebiscite on the issue. But a headline-skimmer wouldn’t have had that impression. “Winnipeg Casino Pays Handsomely” was the story’s head.

It’s the kind of coverage that makes James Winter cringe. “I think all along it’s been a case of cheerleading for the casino,” says the University of Windsor communications professor of the Star’s coverage. Winter, who has been called a thoughtful media critic by some Star reporters and a lunatic by others, says he still has to search for negative casino coverage in Windsor. “Maclean’s magazine has done critical stories, I’ve seen critical stories in The Globe and Mail, in the [Toronto] Star, I’ve even seen Southam do a series which ran inThe Windsor Star but didn?t have any local material. The material is out there but it tends to be ignored,” says Winter. According to the even-voiced, earnest professor, there’s a simple reason for The Windsor Star’ssupport. “They would say, well, it’s good because it’s good for the economy and it provides jobs. But I really question whether they’re concerned about jobs at all or whether they just have this knee-jerk support of development and business because it means more advertising for them.”

Not surprisingly, Jim Bruce, the managing editor of the Star at the time the casino bid was announced, is quick to dismiss Winter’s criticism: “He seems to have no understanding that the newspaper business is like any other business in a free-enterprise system, that you have to make money. People like him get on their high horse and say that all editorial departments do today is kowtow to advertisers. If it weren’t for advertisers we wouldn’t have too many papers in our country. Somebody has to pay the freight.”

In 1995, Bruce became publisher of the Star, a position he held until he retired in 1997. That insider perspective has left Bruce with a keen sense of what makes a paper viable. “I’m telling you, if there’s a recurring message I got from readers over the last many years of newspapers, it would be we’re too negative. I always used to say, ‘Yeah, you can’t bury your head in the sand, that really happened out there, we’re duty-bound to report it.’ And that’s true to a degree. But there seems to be a lot of thinking that things that are negative have more value than positive things.” And for some readers, a photo spread of locals arriving at the gala, decked out for the biggest social event in Windsor’s history, was simply the paper documenting the success of the city.

Not that Bruce is making excuses. He’s unabashed about his paper’s decision to support the casino: “One would have to be a fool to think it was not a good thing for Windsor. You wouldn’t want a casino in the ideal world, but it certainly has brought a lot of jobs and money to Windsor.”

The numbers certainly bolster his argument. In 1993, 1.35 million cars crossed the border at Windsor; three years later, the figure had risen to 2.75 million. Just 400 tour buses stopped in Windsor in 1993; in 1996, 10 times that many middle-aged American residents showed up and left $1.5 million a day at the casino. Windsor job seekers have also cashed in: the casino has a staff of 5,000, making it the third-largest employer in the city, after Chrysler and Ford. Even David Burr, the unemployed former mayor, got a job as a dealer.

But Les Hyttenrauch, a team leader for production and customer service at a local tooling firm, isn’t swayed. He opposed-and still opposes-the casino for decidedly uneconomic reasons. “I think it has a detrimental effect on the family,” he says. “I think you should earn money the old-fashioned way and not expect to get it handed to you through a lottery or casino situation. As well, you’re promoting an addictive behaviour and making profit off of it.”

Two weeks after the proposal first surfaced, when city council considered a resolution supporting the idea of casino gambling, 200 people, roughly half for and half against, crowded the council chamber. The next day, in an issue that featured a large picture of Docherty and a small one of Hyttenrauch, the Star’s editorial was polite toward, but dismissive of, the people who had appeared in opposition. “While those speaking against the plan were eloquent in the opposition, their arguments rang hollow.” But it was the wording of the resolution that burned Hyttenrauch. It stated in part, “The Windsor community has clearly demonstrated acceptance and support for the concept [of a casino],” even though the Star reported an even split in those for and against at the council meeting. Believing that the community had done no such thing, Hyttenrauch formed Voters Expressing True Opinion (VETO) and began the “Did I say that?” campaign, reproducing the phrase on fliers to protest what he and others interpreted as a short-circuiting of the democratic process.

When it comes to an issue like a casino, backing a referendum would seem to be a natural extension of theStar’s right-of-centre, almost libertarian, editorial stance. But Hyttenrauch thinks the Star purposely went after him in print. “Anyone who was in opposition was a heretic,” he says of the Star’s attitude. “This was going to be a great thing for Windsor… and anybody who thought it wasn’t was either an extremist or had their head in the sand.” Eventually Hyttenrauch caught the eye of columnist Karen Hall, who, in a piece titled “And the Family Will Survive This One Too,” mocked him for being a family-oriented, fundamentalist Christian. “Basically, she said we were a bunch of nose-up hypocrites and how could we be so stupid. It was a pretty nasty article.”

Hall’s story, the last lines of which read, “I may never set foot in the casino, but I don’t feel the least bit intimidated by its existence. I’m more threatened by all those good people who want to protect me from it,” made a noble point about free choice but failed to mention, let alone engage, Hyttenrauch’s position on the referendum.

Alan Halberstadt, a former Star columnist, first elected to city council in 1997 as a fiscal conservative, supports the casino, but still agrees with Hyttenrauch. “I’m not saying they should have come out against it editorially, but I think they could have pushed the democratic process to say let the people decide. [The role of a paper] is to question things, not just to let things glide through.”

James Winter isn’t so diplomatic in his assessment. “If they were so democratically oriented, they would have demanded a vote like the people of Detroit had. [Detroiters were asked three times if they wanted a casino.] But it was something they didn’t want to consult the people on because what if the people said no?” (The provincial government now requires any city seeking a casino to put the question to a local vote.)

But Gord Henderson, the current opinion writer for the Star, says a referendum was impractical. “Unless you organized one, which would have been humongously expensive, the only other way to do it would be to wait until the next civic election. But there was such a sense of urgency. I don’t think we had the luxury of hanging around two or three years for an election.”

Three years after the interim casino had opened, the Star did support a motion by city councillor Margaret Williams to add a casino question to the ballot because a second casino was being discussed by the mayor’s office and provincial officials.

Williams originally proposed asking, “Do you feel that on balance casino gaming has been good for Windsor?” That way, she believed, “People morally opposed to gambling would be able to answer it truthfully.” But the wording was changed by council to ask whether residents thought casino gaming had been of economic benefit to Windsor. As Williams says, “A bit of a no-brainer.” More than 31,000 voters agreed that the casino was good for the economy, compared to 9,314 who disagreed. A second question on whether residents wanted another casino-in a sense asking whether they wanted Windsor to become Las Vegas north-also passed, but not by much: 21,642 to 19,066.

“It was in favour but it showed there were a lot of people that don’t want the city turned over to casino gambling. I know there’s a large segment of the population that feels that way,” says Halberstadt. For his part, Henderson favours the theory that a larger majority of people wanted the first casino, but residents, sick of hearing about casinos, didn’t express that opinion at the ballot box.

Kate Milberry and Rodger Levesque, copublishers of Room, a local monthly news and entertainment magazine, agree that a majority would have voted for a casino in the first place but wonder how much of that consent was manufactured by the Star. Like Winter, they criticize the Star for selectively reporting on the casino.

“There’s what you put in the paper and what you leave out, and what you leave out is just as important or just as damning as what you put in. I think they’re leaving a lot of information out,” says Levesque.

He thinks the real impact of the casino has never been calculated and maintains it’s the Star’s mandate to provide that information when the other players in the deal, like the casino corporation and city hall, won’t. “How much of a subsidy is the casino receiving? Are they paying their fair share for the damage their customers are doing to our roads? There are a lot of questions that go unanswered. We don’t have the staff or resources to do a real good story on it, so you’d expect someone with the resources to do it but they don”t,” said Levesque in a rant worthy of Rick Mercer. “I think the Star was completely misleading the public that this was pure opportunity. On one level, you have people saying the economy has improved. But it’s improved at what price?”

Milberry believes the paper failed to inform its readers about all the implications of having a casino. “Of course there are the stories of devastation and loss. Why don’t we have these in-depth features on addiction and the effect of casinos on cities, starting with Windsor? What’s happening here and how are they dealing with it? What do other communities have? What are we doing differently? How well-attended are Gamblers Anonymous groups? What are the stories of the families of gamblers who are addicts? Do we do these in the Saturday features section? No.

“The community was not told about the implications of having a casino. We were just told the benefits of the economic spin-offs. Great, I’m all for telling that, but then tell the other side.”

A current Star reporter attributes the positive coverage to the nature of newspaper reporting: “I think our stories reflected the way the community was feeling about it. You certainly didn’t see any negative stories, but then I don’t think there was a lot of negativity in the community.”

But doesn’t that say more about the mindset of the paper than public opinion? In any case, Scott Burnside, the reporter first sent to the Winnipeg casino and now a sports writer for the National Post, defends the coverage when he was working there. “I think that while we weren’t necessarily critical in our news coverage, we were balanced in taking a look at a whole range of [issues], whether it was the offshoot of jobs or the potential ramifications to the social fabric of the city. I think they’ve made a point of not merely being a cheerleader for the casino. I think the paper’s having a reporter that’s dedicated to the casino beat is an indication of the paper responding [to that].”

When I identify myself to Sue Bailey, the Star’s casino reporter at the time of the opening, a wariness creeps into her voice. “All I can say is that I’ve never felt any pressure to cast stories in a positive light,” she says, before mentioning the Freedom of Information requests she’s filed to pry financial information from the reluctant hands of the OCC, and her stories exploring cost overruns associated with the construction of the casino. She mentions she’s working on a major feature dealing with addiction. “We’ve written the stories about the jobs that have been created, the spin-offs for local restaurants and other entertainment places, but at the same time we’ve also written about health and safety concerns, working conditions and the concerns of employees.”

Bailey, who took over the beat in 1997 but has now moved on to a new job with the Canadian Press, certainly hasn’t endeared herself to casino management. The casino hired Toronto firm Shandwick Canada to handle PR for the gala opening. Shandwick assigned an employee, complete with radio headset ? la CIA operatives, to trail Bailey over the course of the evening because she was considered a “troublemaker” for a snide article she had written on the d?cor of the new casino hotel rooms prior to the opening.

Chris Vander Doelen, Bailey’s predecessor, now an editorial writer, was the first casino beat reporter in Canada. Like Bailey, he’s a bit defensive when I call: “If you’re asking me to give an opinion on what kind of job I did, I think I did a good job.” As an editorial writer, Vander Doelen supports the casino (he thinks the first one wasn’t big enough and would like to see another), but he says as a reporter he approached the casino beat like any other. He found the biggest impediment to stories was the brick wall put up by the American firms hired by the OCC to run the casino. “I was a reporter trying to find out stuff. They were determined I wouldn’t.”

He compensated by “scraping and digging and hanging around and keeping my ears open and asking people questions.” He says, “I’d be at a bar after work and I’d hear somebody say they were a dealer, I’d start asking questions. I’d go into the casino at least once a week and talk to staff. I’d buy a draft and shoot the shit with the bartender, ask him how things were going.”

Vander Doelen thinks the Star devoted too much space to the casino, especially in the early days. “We started to get a backlash from some readers saying they were sick of reading about it. It was the biggest thing going on in the city but there were days when we had five or six stories in the paper related to this.”

Today, critics like Milberry admit the current coverage is no longer as blatantly boosterish as it was in the very early days. Inevitably, the casino has become just another part of the community, subject to the same treatment by the Star as any other institution. But the fact remains that by not challenging the casino in the first place, The Windsor Star, at least in the early days, was an accomplice in, rather than a questioner of, the move to a casino economy. Winter believes the paper, by not exploring other options, has allowed the city to saddle itself with a second-rate industrial base. “I think that the paper, if it is going to live up to the way in which newspapers in the media represent themselves, that is, as serving the public interest, should be concerned about the people. And that doesn’t mean just being concerned about jobs, but concerned about the type of jobs people have.”

Levesque agrees that by adopting a casino economy, the city is settling for something second best. “[The Star] is looking at how the largest amounts of dollars can come into a community, not how the largest number of people can have dignity.”

Dignity is not a word that comes to mind when you walk through the casino. The noise generated by thousands of slot machines numbs the senses, while the rows of slot players-the majority of them low-income Americans, slumped on stools, blank stares fixed on the tumblers, robotically dumping tokens into the machines-leaves you with an impression of anything but the glitz of the opening. I notice how much fun they’re not having.

But that Windsor had to do something about its economy was obvious. What was the question. As the world economy shifts to a-pick your adjective-global/knowledge/digital economy, local municipalities are left to deal with the fallout of a manufacturing base draining to the developing nations of the world. Some municipalities, like the suburbs around Ottawa or Toronto, have countered by going high tech. The only other option seems to be the service/tourist industry.

And sure, a job at a software development firm in some lovely, landscaped industrial park where everyone’s pulling down $200,000 a year and driving his SUV to Starbucks instead of standing around in a cheesy tuxedo at 11 bucks an hour would have been nice. But let?s face the facts: this is Windsor. It already had a reputation among Americans as Tijuana North for its strip clubs and lower drinking age, and millions of Americans live within a day’s drive (which means that the money spent at the casino is coming from outside the community, and the problems that result from losing that money disappear when the Americans leave).

If you were going to design a city for a casino, you’d look to Windsor for the blueprint. Besides, ask any of the employees: they’ll tell you it’s not a great job but it’s not bad and in some cases it pays well-dealers can make $60,000 a year. In that way, the editorial board was right, the casino has paid off. But that?s still an opinion about where the final bottom line lies. An opinion like Rodger Levesque’s and James Winter’s comments are simply that-opinions. And, to extend that line of thinking, those are the views of just three of Windsor’s 200,000 residents, a group of people who, according to the policy-makers of the city, can’t be trusted to make the right decision.

As for Hyttenrauch, when he appeared in front of council the night it decided to support the casino proposal, he argued it would only add to Windsor’s seedy reputation. The last thing he said to a Star reporter that night was that he hoped prostitution is never legalized in Ontario “because the city of Windsor will be the first to have brothels.” As a potentially lucrative economic activity, it’s probably an initiative the Star could be trusted to support.

(Visited 159 times, 1 visits today)

About the author

Jeff Sanford was an Online Editor for the Summer 1999 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

Sign Up for Our Newsletter

Keep up to date with the latest stories from our newsroom.