When Rep. Trey Radel was arrested and charged with possession of cocaine, the media vultures came out. And why wouldn't they? He was the first sitting member of Congress since 1982 to be arrested for a drug crime. What made the story even juicier for many was the hypocrisy that a man with a coke habit would support legislation that would require drug testing for food-stamp recipients.
But some members of the media wondered if there was another hypocrisy at play here. One that involved themselves.
"How many reporters are recusing themselves from the Radel story? How many should be?" tweeted Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post, who used to work for the Marijuana Policy Project and whose book includes the line, "One day in the fall of 2001, I realized that I hadn't seen any LSD in an awfully long time."
It's an interesting question. Should journalists have to avoid covering drug issues if they have been drug users themselves? Or should they at least have to disclose their own use?
Friend and colleague Mike Riggs at Atlantic Cities, whose own past drug use has been well- documented by himself and others, says they absolutely should.
"Any journalist who does drugs, and doesn't believe they should be jailed for it, has a moral obligation to disclose their drug use when writing about fellow traveler who's been screwed by the system," Riggs says. "I think if every person who works in media/politics in D.C. and who's voluntarily used illicit drugs in, say, the last few years stepped forward en masse the drug war would be over tomorrow."
As a journalist who is pro-legalization, Riggs clearly has skin in the game beyond just what the Society of Professional Journalists has to say about disclosing conflicts of interest. And in this world, he is not alone.
"[Disclosure] might go a long way toward making our coverage of the drug war less douchey and more honest," says CJ Ciaramella of the Washington Free Beacon. "However, in practice, considering most of the journalists I know, it would become more of an issue of space constraints than ethics. Full disclosure: I've done marijuana, hash oil, cocaine, Adderall, Ritalin, LSD, mushrooms, salvia, MDMA, yellow jackets, Hydroxycut, and whatever was in that weird Chinese liquor that a Phillies fan gave me."
Ciaramella is not a complete outlier (though his list is particularly ... impressive). Allen St. Pierre, who runs the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, says D.C. journalists have a storied history of illicit drug use, much of which happened at parties hosted by NORML at the O Street Mansion in Dupont Circle.
"To this day I could still end careers all over this town, in academia, foreign services, politicians, and of course journalists," he said. "Those journalists today may be some of your editors." (My editors deny this).
But just because some journalists use drugs, does that mean they are not qualified to report on the matter without risking their own career or future employment opportunities with disclosure? First, there's the fact that members of Congress — elected by their constituents to serve them honorably — should probably be held to a higher standard than lowly journalists (bias alert). It's altogether possible that the world would be a worse place if even fewer reporters felt they had the ability to call out the most powerful members of our society.
Plus, as managing editor of the Washington City Paper Jonathan Fischer puts it, he just doesn't quite see the conflict.
"Current or past drug use doesn't necessarily have any bearing on how well one does one's job, so in the abstract, I simply don't see it as a bias or condition worth disclosing," he says. "Unless the reporter is secretly the vice president for communications of the cocaine lobby, the fact that he has done cocaine shouldn't really matter much to his reporting on the drug, excerpt perhaps by giving him a better familiarity with the basic terms of art."
There, of course, is also the question of where you draw the line on the conflict of interest. Do gay people writing about gay marriage need to put their sexuality on every news story? Does a story about underage drinking require admitting to that one party in high school where you drank an entire bottle of Jim Beam?
There are plenty of conflicts more substantial and more prevalent than illegal drugs that come up on a daily basis in political reporting. Even in the case of Radel, is it not possible that the coverage is colored more by political biases than drug-related ones? There are certainly more non-disclosed Democrats writing about the "tea partier" Radel than there are people who have done a line of coke.
"All of that said: I would love to see a Washington journalist — especially a Capitol Hill reporter — write a first-person piece about cocaine use among journalists, politicians, and other Hill types," said Fischer of the City Paper. "Hell, I'd run it this week."
No takers here.