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Analysis: Groundbreaking Made for TV, Edited for Language & Content…

Confetti covered broken ground. (WMassP&I)

Confetti covered broken ground. (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—It was a made for TV moment: the confetti, the standard mound of dirt, and the construction equipment. With great fanfare, gushing speeches and conveniently clear weather, MGM Springfield had its groundbreaking in the South End with the damaged Zanetti School as a backdrop.

The show as presented Tuesday morning never found its way into the media. News reports offered a much more measured description of the events. To an observer of the event itself, it might have been mistaken for Mayor Domenic Sarno’s reelection kickoff. Despite the standard Good Morning America-level of cheeriness of some Valley newscasts, the reports cast a rare hint of skepticism about the project.

Both Connecticut’s proposal to expand gaming and that only a specially sculpted pile of ground was broken featured in nearly all media reports. Hartford, in particular, media focused on the brewing war between MGM and the tribes that own Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods.

The pre-noon groundbreaking took place only hours before Sarno unveiled his Vision 2017 presentation not far away at City Stage. Yet The Republican chose to glowingly highlight Vision 2017’s “Dream Big” on its cover above the fold, it relegated the groundbreaking to other half of the front page.

Juxtaposed with Vision 2017 and with no construction expected immediately, the groundbreaking projected something else entirely. MGM did not need this event—at least not how it was presented. They won the PR war long ago and even tamped down expectations by predicting “hundreds” would attend, a low number given how broadly transformative the project is said to be for a city of 150,000. Most estimate say 500 were there. MGM was wise to measure expectations.

Rather the shoveling theater set to “Beautiful Day,” felt very…political.

Emcee Kathy Tobin, head of Friends of the Homeless and a former reporter, laid it on thick when she suggested residents citywide were unified behind MGM and breathed a sigh of relief when casino repeal failed last year. That’s a bit much as only about 34,000 city voters actually showed up last year and even then 36% of them supported repeal. Even less turned out for the referendum that passed 58-42.

MGM Chairman & CEO Jim Murren showered Sarno with praise. “He has the humility to listen,” Murren declared, which many experienced City Hall watchers might deem a laugh line.

Construction equipment poses for photo op. (WMassP&I)

Construction equipment poses for photo op. (WMassP&I)

Piling on were the references to the tornado, long a political asset—and arguably a fair one—of Sarno’s. However, Sarno described the city as on the edge in the tornado’s wake. The storm was unquestionably catastrophic, taxed city resources and uprooted perhaps thousands of lives. The South End and nearby neighborhoodsmight have been on the brink—although those problems date back decades—but the whole city was not. Unlike fiscal crises, Beacon Hill’s help was never in doubt. FEMA money has become a huge boon, financing much-needed and much-desired projects the city could not otherwise afford.

And yet much of the propaganda was refreshingly absent from many media reports. The only narrative the television stations adopted was tying the 2011 tornado to MGM’s arrival.

Broadcasts brought the storm up only generally or as part of the broader gaming law’s timeline. None really played along with some speakers’ assertions that MGM was salvation delivered from on high.

The lack of any real construction work may have kept Boston media away. The Globe has covered MGM and Springfield, but it either sensed a lack of real news or opted to abstain from a mayoral lovefest. Beantown’s TV stations and NECN apparently produced no reports of their own on the groundbreaking. Only an Associated Press reporter from Boston ventured west and produced a fair “just-the-facts ma’am” assessment.

Local news reports from the TV stations to The Republican almost universally noted that the first building to be demolished, Zanetti School, was weeks away from the wrecking ball. MGM must still go before the Massachusetts Historical Commission, which will take time. MGM Springfield head Mike Mathis confidently predicted the historic and planning issues will be sorted out—and in all likelihood they will be.

CBS 3 Springfield – WSHM

Many news outlets had their own spin on the groundbreaking and often with more than one angle. WWLP opted to revisit much of the Massachusetts gaming law’s history. WSHM, that is CBS3 Springfield, took pains to emphasize how ceremonial Tuesday’s groundbreaking was and that pending ongoing historic reviews, an actual construction date was unknown, if inevitable. WGGB’s Ray Hershel ran down the basics of the groundbreaking, although his report included more face time for Sarno and as well as some of MGM’s hiring goals.

The radio stations were a little different. New England Public Radio’s Jill Kaufman echoed some of Sarno’s rhetoric on the casino, such as his description of MGM as Springfield’s rising phoenix. But Kaufman’s report was a broad survey of the groundbreaking, including West Springfield’s “sweet deal” and Mom & Rico’s stick-to-itiveness even as neighboring businesses sold their properties to MGM.

Northeastern Public Radio’s Paul Tuthill also provided a survey, but in the context of what the city will receive in the deal and the shifting regional gaming scene. He mentioned the opening of Plainville’s slot parlor and Connecticut’s proposed expansion. He quoted Sarno’s “phoenix” line, too, and both public radio stations mentioned that actually was not really starting Tuesday.

Murren was the featured player in the Connecticut broadcasts and The Hartford Courant, striking a confrontational tone toward Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. He urged them to step up their game rather than build slot parlors along I-91. WVIT, branded NBC Connecticut, said one tribe criticized Murren’s words as “trash-talking.” WTNH carried a statement from both tribes on protecting jobs. That station characterized the Connecticut’s take from the casinos as less generous than Massachusetts’s. WFSB appeared to use sister station WSHM’s report.

The Courant noted Mohegan Chairman Kevin Brown’s admonition that full gaming options, not just slots, will be available. They will not be full-fledged resorts as MGM will be, however.

Masslive/The Republican had stated for days that Tuesday’s event was for show, as many groundbreakings are. While the paper’s editorial page has been only too eager about MGM, especially alongside Vision 2017, their new coverage included a story on tepid support from residents.

Overall the media ignored the pomp and circumstance and rhetorical flourishes of the day. Sarno’s phoenix quotes were a highlight, but just one detail of many reported.

Outside those 500 people—many of whom do not vote in Springfield—and the two dozen or so skeptical journos, few likely heard as much about the lovefest for the mayor that was on stage. Sarno need not feel too bad. One news report said signs of construction will become visible in late spring.

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