Lottery's obscene intrusion


THE MARYLAND Lottery is big business -- a $1.3 billion business, to be exact.

Of that money, about a third goes into the state's general fund, to finance everything from education to public safety to the stadium authority. And millions of people play it. Naturally, those people want to find out if they hold a winning number. And one of the ways they can find out is by watching TV, where the drawings are broadcast live every day.

That means that TV programs often get interrupted. Not always, of course. The week of Sept. 11 was an exception. But anyone watching WJZ-TV (Channel 13) on Sept. 15 got a lesson in the priorities of America, or at least of Baltimore.

CBS' 60 Minutes was airing a news story about an American conductor named Gilbert Levine who was chosen by Pope John Paul II to lead papal concerts at the Vatican and in Krakow, Poland, the pope's former home. More than just a profile of a talented man, the story was about an unusual collaboration between a Jew and the highest official of the Catholic Church.

The church has had a troubled history with the Jews, its silence during the Holocaust being the most profound example in this century. Pope John Paul II has made some attempts at atonement for that history, in apostolic letters, in diplomatic recognition of Israel, in his pilgrimage to Auschwitz, about 30 miles from Krakow. So it was in this context that the scenes of music making at the Vatican and the centuries-old Basilica of St. Mary in Krakow were particularly moving.

As we saw footage of Mr. Levine conducting, as we heard the voices of Holocaust survivors and their families, as we watched people lighting candles, something strange happened. The TV image suddenly shrank to a box in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen. In a larger box that filled the rest of the screen, up popped little white balls with black numbers printed on them. A wooden-looking woman with the rictus of a grin on her face turned each ball so that its number faced the camera.

But of course -- lottery time!

The surreal spectacle continued for at least a minute -- popping balls on the left, worshipers on the right -- as Channel 13 interrupted the program with the important "news" of the lottery winning numbers. You had to try hard to follow the story while the white balls boinged away.

Nothing in the head-smashing, bullet-flying, breast-baring oeuvre of The Sopranos could top this for obscenity.

Couldn't lottery hopefuls have waited to find out if they had won? Couldn't they have read a newspaper the next day? Did we really have to put up with the interruption of a serious story to satisfy a few people who think they can get rich overnight?

It would be easy to blame the State Lottery Commission and WJZ for this arrangement. After all, they've worked out a mutually beneficial agreement: The commission pays for commercial time to advertise the lottery throughout the television schedule in exchange for the studio and technical support to broadcast the drawings live. But it's not so simple. Citizens clamor for these live drawings. They squawk when they're pulled.

Yet people also complain about the level of sexuality and violence that is depicted in movies and TV programs. They lament the loss of respectability and dignity in the highest corporate and political offices of the land. They decry the lack of spirituality in popular culture. But one wonders what they made of the display that Sunday night, when the hawking of the lottery took precedence over all other concerns.

And this wasn't just any Sunday night; it was Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. Among many things television has to atone for, exaltation of greed and panting after ratings are just two of them.

Yes, the lottery interrupts programming every night. But on this particular night, a mild nuisance was raised to the level of provocation. If anyone ever wondered, amid all the talk of faith and dignity and family values, what's really important in this country, one needed only to look at the TV screen for an answer that night.

Lisa Simeone, a free-lance journalist and host of National Public Radio's World of Opera, lives in Baltimore.

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