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Rock Bottom

Get stoked: the MSM are acting less childish about pot
September 15, 2009

The strain of “reefer madness” that’s been infecting American newsrooms since at least 1911 appears to be abating amid some sobering new economic realities. Salacious stories about cannabis continue to move newspapers just as briskly now as they did in the early Twentieth century, when the drug became illegal. But the fever’s changed gears.

“The de facto ban on serious, cogent mainstream media discussion about the topic has been lifted,” says Stephen Gutwillig, State Policy Director for the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington. “They’ve stopped acting like they’re in sixth grade. There’s less puns and ‘scare quotes.’ The Wall Street Journal did a front-page story last week that treated medical marijuana like just another industry story.”

Recently, The New York Times ran a classic, “Style” section hit piece on cannabis, but then followed it up, almost as a mea culpa, with an extremely insightful and bold “roundtable discussion” with leading thinkers on the topic. The Economist now stands alongside the National Review in calling for legalization, and even the staid Congressional Quarterly Researcher devoted its entire June issue to a thorough review of the topic.

Watchers say demographic changes (about half of the adult population born since 1960 has tried the drug by age 21) and the Obama administration’s progressive outlook have combined forces with pure capital interests and technology to effect a pushback against traditional law-and-order voices on the issue.

Ryan Grim, author of the history and analysis This Is Your Country on Drugs and senior congressional correspondent for The Huffington Post, says winds of change are, indeed, blowing in the opposite way of historical precedent—not just in the culture at large, but in journalism, too.

“Some people have referred to it as ‘the drug war exception’ to journalism: where you’re supposed to get both sides of the story, but for some reason, with drug war reporting it doesn’t apply,” says Grim. “It hasn’t in the past, but it’s starting to change.”

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Take, for example, the hysterics of Teddy Roosevelt’s Opium Commissioner, Hamilton Wright—whose journalism in the early 1900s (‘UNCLE SAM IS THE WORST DRUG FIEND IN THE WORLD,’ read one Wright-inspired New York Times headline in 1911) encouraged the ‘reefer madness’ that stayed with the country and its journalism until late in the Twentieth Century.

“They gave [Wright] 5,000 words to spew out this unsupported nonsense like, ‘There is an epidemic upon us!’—things that weren’t even remotely true,” Grim says. “And the ironic thing was, the press at the time was significantly funded by advertising for patent medicine—opium elixirs and other unregulated stuff—which is now infamous.”

According to a Congressional Quarterly Researcher analysis, the 1930s emerged as the golden era of cannabis prohibition agitprop, with even The New York Times stating in 1934, “The poisonous weed…maddens the senses and emaciates the body of the user…. Most crimes of violence in [the West], especially in the country districts are laid to users of the drug.” The canonical propaganda film Tell Your Children appeared in 1936. In 1937 Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, effectively prohibiting the drug.

It was the Nixon Administration that gave newspapers the War on Drugs to fight all-time peak levels of cannabis usage by high schoolers, which in turn led to the hard line “Drug War” of the ’80s. It wasn’t until the ’90s that the reform movement—then a generation old—became professional enough to push back against media portrayals, says Grim.

“You had NORML in the ’70s, but it was more of a theater agitprop, and not the kind of organization that was sending out press releases and producing annual reports and generally trying to play within the confines of the media game,” Grim notes. “That definitely has changed—and it’s not surprising that after the movement has started professionalizing itself, it has been able to get the ear of some different people.”

As a result, information and perspectives about pot’s role in American society are now coming from multiple sources. “People are now interviewing other medical professionals, cops who are for or against the war, specialists, the whole variety of voices are in articles that in the past would have just been totally dominated by one position,” Grim says. And the press have been using data whose gathering was funded by the Marijuana Policy Project in computing the possible benefits of legalization.

The Bush administration proved powerless against popularly led medical cannabis initiatives metastasizing across the country. And with Barack Obama’s landslide victory, and its hands-off approach to state reform, the topic is now wide open. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom have called for a dialogue on the subject. California State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano is sponsoring a bill this fall to legalize personal possession of small amounts of cannabis in California—a fact that, in a turn of events that would have been almost unimaginable in previous decades, has made him something of a media darling.

“My schedule for media is very heavy and it’s very diverse,” Ammiano says. “There’s so much media around every day and internationally that I can pick and choose.”

As for the coverage itself: a lot of it has been good, he says, “but it needs to get better. Certainly the Fox Network doesn’t really treat it with any kind of gravitas. Those people still have that puerile Cheech and Chong attitude. They don’t see it as public policy, they see it as something to tie to prostitution. There has been more serious discussion in the Wall Street Journal, [in] The Economist, [and among] people like Milton Friedman—and there have been very thoughtful editorials about it,” Ammanio says. And “CNN treated it in a more adult fashion.”

At the same time, though, the influence of network television is waning amid the rise of an old-style partisan press on the Internet. Just as “we’re seeing a rapid decline of straight media on electoral campaigns,” California political consultant Larry Tramutola points out, the Web is diversifying the conversation about marijuana. The debate “may be decided in the blogosphere,” Tramutola says. “It may be decided on informal networks.”

That shift means that the goal posts of the mainstream coverage of that debate have moved, as well, says Richard Lee, sponsor of Tax Cannabis 2010, a direct democracy initiative to legalize marijuana in California. “We’ve seen a big change in the media,” Lee says, “where for years we were the one whacko little quote at the end, and the law enforcement got the majority. Now it seems the opposite. We seem to be making the front page more than ever.” In fact, Lee says, “reporters keep telling us how difficult it is to find opposition quotes.”

Lee describes a recent appearance he made on Fox Business Channel. “Instead of debating somebody who was against legalization,” he says, “the person they had on there was just quibbling about how much money could be made when [marijuana] was legal. It’s like this professor somebody and they were like, ‘There’s lots of good reasons to legalize it, but I don’t think we’ll be getting as much money as some of the proposals say.’ I wasn’t even really debating the guy.”

Indeed, some of the billions of dollars of cannabis revenue have begun circulating into the legitimate economy, sobering the discussion for reporters amid record shortfalls in government revenue and a massive recession. In cash-strapped Oakland, voters just approved a medical pot tax by a margin of four to one. Furthermore, medical cannabis now comprises a significant percentage of print advertising at many urban weeklies.

“The Wall Street Journal is not going to joke about it if it’s real money,” Grim points out.

Still, change comes in increments. “People are seeing the reality of change on the ground when a shop opens up and the sky doesn’t fall,” Grim says. “It’s the change that begets change, because people’s fears are not matched by the reality of what’s happening.”

And one of the changes is journalistic—a shift in the terms of the legalization conversation itself. “I think editors are realizing that people want more honest, unbiased coverage of the issue,” Richard Lee puts it. “Newspapers are to a certain degree mirrors of our society. To the degree that our poll numbers [about marijuana] are up and more people than ever don’t think it should be illegal—the coverage reflects that.”

David Downs is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. A former editor for Village Voice Media, he has contributed to Wired magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Believer, and The Onion in addition to other publications.