War on Drugs

The Role of the Media in the War on Drugs

Fourth estate working


The media's often called the fourth estate. Where's that come from? In the Middle Ages in Europe the first estate was the nobility, the second estate was the clergy, and the third estate was peasants, everyone else. Together the three estates constituted a feudal "realm." The king existed outside the estates and used them to maintain control.  The fourth estate, as such, acts outside the standard power structure, and can either help to legitimize or delegitimize government power and policy.

The war on drugs would have been impossible for the government to wage for the last 40 plus years without support from the media. The drug war is horrific. Earlier this month, a DEA agent shot a grandmother reaching for her child during a raid that found no drugs. In the summer, a SWAT team in Georgia threw a flashbang into a baby's crib, critically injuring it. There are more than 150 such raids each day in America, so there are a lot of horrifying stories that come out of that, on a regular basis. Rarely, if ever, do such stories break out of the local news and into the national news cycle. There is no equivalent of the Ferguson story when it comes to the drug war. But these stories are just as frightening and outrageous.

That's where outlets like Reason.com come in. Today, a local story in Georgia can receive attention nationwide even in the absence of traditional news coverage because of the proliferation of online media sources. So they can amplify local stories and bring more attention to them.  That's important for a couple of reasons: First, wider attention to local drug war abuses increases awareness of them and the real cost of the drug war. Second, such wider attention for local stories incentivizes local news media to cover drug war outrage stories. All media are animated by the drive for consumers: readers, viewers, listeners. Drug war stories are popular because they strike us emotionally. As local news outlets realize how much traffic those kinds of stories drive, there will be more stories like that, and more of an effort to bring those stories to the attention of national online outlets like Reason.com, which can turn around and bring those stories to an even wider audience.

The twisted way in which the media distorts the particulars of the drug war—sanitizing its destruction and hyperbolizing the dangers of its targets—has always perplexed me. Before coming to Reason I spent several years working at NBC and Fox News, and worked with people who had been all around the business for years and even decades. And there's a lot of drug use in journalism. A government study in 2007 found about 13 percent of employees in media admitting to using drugs in the previous month, in the top five professions for drug use. So how do so many members of the media get the drug war so wrong? I suppose for the same reason staffers in DC all seem to smoke pot but their bosses are mostly against legalizing the thing.

That's starting to change. Just like the politicians—the new first estate—are slowly catching up with the public and easing their positions against drugs, so the fourth estate will as well. In neither case will it be because politicians or journalists suddenly found religion. It will be because public opinion has shifted despite their best attempts to control it, because of the proliferation of media sources and viewpoints that make it increasingly more difficult for the powers that be to define the terms not just of the drug war debate but of the acknowledged realities of the drug war.

Going back to the Georgia SWAT team case and Baby Bou Bou. After being reported by WSB-TV, an Atlanta TV station that regularly covers local government abuse stories—because they do so well—the story of Baby Bou Bou was picked up by CNN. It didn't gain the kind of momentum other stories do because the organized interests in favor of ending drug prohibition are still very much outside the mainstream. So you hear about Ray Rice instead. But Reason can draw as much traffic highlighting the horrors of the drug war as a site like Deadspin can writing about Ray Rice or posting Brett Favre's dick pics. That makes all your work more important. Public opinion is on your side. The media, as such, may never be, but the end is drawing near on their ability to ignore the reality of drugs and the drug war and replace it with their fantasies. And that's going to require pressure from you.

Just last week a local paper in Massachusetts wrote a scare piece about gnome, 25-I, a synthetic drug that's supposed to be something like LSD. My understanding is it's a pretty subpar drug. And this local paper in Massachusetts ran a story about how dangerous 25-I was and how law enforcement officials and politicians were worried about this drug and wanted to ban it. The paper did acknowledge that none of the police departments it talked to reported any cases of anyone being busted for the drug, but failed to mention the DEA already banned it, by executive fiat, last year. We ridiculed them for it at Reason.com, as we regularly do with drug scaremongering and all kinds of hysteria, but this stuff's going to continue in traditional media for some time because fear is a powerful tool to attract an audience. And even though interest is growing in the horrifying realities of the drug war, a lot of the media will keep falling back on what they know, until you show them better.

This column is based on remarks at the Students for Sensible Drug Policy Conference in Arlington, Va. this weekend.