What if Journalists Had to Disclose Drug Use?

Republican drug-testing advocate Trey Radel is caught with cocaine, and the political media screams “hypocrite.” But there’s another hypocrisy to consider.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 9: U.S. Rep. Trey Radel (R-FL) speaks during a press conference, on Capitol Hill, July 9, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Republican leadership discussed the immigration bill and the Obama administration's decision to delay a portion of the Affordable Care Act, which will extend the deadline for employer mandated health care to 2015. 
National Journal
Ben Terris
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Ben Terris
Nov. 21, 2013, 10:04 a.m.

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.

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