The NY Times' Drug Policies and Jayson Blair
Newspapers Need a "Harm Reduction" Policy; not Drug Tests
By Al Giordano
May 19, 2003
Journalist Seth Mnookin, in the current issue of Newsweek, adds a new twist to the journalism scandal of the year: Drugs.
According to Newsweek, ex-New York Times reporter Jayson Blair’s now legendary problems of plagiarism and invention were compounded by cocaine abuse, alcoholism, and manic depression.
Blair’s use and/or abuse of alcohol was hinted at by the Times’ own 14,290-word confession on Sunday, May 11th, with some vague references to the 27-year-old Blair’s “personal problems.” By Friday the 16th, Sarah Hepola of the Morning News had penned a confessional about Blair buying her drinks and pleading for a kiss while tea-totaling his way through a NY Times party flirtation. “He had given up drinking,” wrote Hepola, “fearing it had begun to compromise his work.” Pretty normal stuff among yuppies in the fast lane… drinking and not-drinking… and talking endlessly about it… in some Manhattan circles, that’s considered foreplay.
But now the Big D – “drugs” – enters the story and the endorphins start to tingle at the sound of what is now being sucked up the mass media straw. Wait for Leno and Letterman to start in tonight. And if this turn of the tale of the short tall taleteller doesn’t make the lyrics on the next Eminem album, we’ll have to seriously think of publishing a fourteen-thousand word confession revoking Marshall Mathers’ journalist-of-the-year award, crying about “a low point” in our… well… three-year history!
That Mnookin spoke out loud about what many were whispering over the past week is interesting, too. Mnookin’s own mother, Wendy, in 1999, wrote an essay about him, “My Son, the Junky,” and his own past trials with drug abuse for Salon. Seth Mnookin wrote a companion piece – “Harvard and Heroin” – published that same day. Now Mnookin is back on his feet writing about Jayson Blair and drugs (and perhaps too much about the “affirmative action” angle). If Blair recovers and gets a second chance like the white Mnookin – who is a talented writer, too – justifiably did, well, can Blair’s own confession and resurrection be far behind?
If the “This Is Your Times on Drugs” report is true – and I stress the word “if” because the realm of drugs and health is almost never dealt with accurately in the Commercial Media – Blair’s reported cocaine problem raises an even more serious question for Howell Raines and the bosses at the New York Times: their viciousness toward an addict on his way out the door.
If Blair did have a cocaine abuse problem, then it is vital to note that the Times’ own drug policies are exactly the kinds of policies that deter illicit drug abusers from seeking, and getting, effective help: particularly, the Times’ requirement that incoming employees must submit to drug tests; a policy that, obviously, sends a strong message to its reporters that use of illegal drugs won’t be tolerated if they want to keep their jobs. Thus, the Times’ policies give incentive for secrecy and clandestine behavior that alcohol abusers at the newspaper do not suffer.
Perhaps it is time for the Times’ corporate office to investigate the growing movement of “Harm Reduction,” that seeks to diminish the potential damage of use of illegal and legal drugs; including those damages that are caused not by the drug use or abuse, but by the prohibitions imposed by governments… and by the policies of profit-making companies… like the New York Times.
The report of Blair’s cocaine abuse also raises serious questions for Timesman Jonathan Landman who has basked in glory over the past week with the Times-fed impression that he warned them that Jayson Blair must be stopped from writing for the Times “right now” in April 2002. Well… was Landman speaking of Blair’s reporting, as the Times has implied? Or was he privy, instead, to a problem of addiction or abuse that the Times’ own policies may have encouraged Blair, and others, to keep quiet about?
And, if the latter, did Landman spend the past week allowing the impression that he and he alone warned about plagiarism when it might be that he was speaking not about plagiarism but about drugs? Mr. Landman: Care to step up the plate and clarify the full story?
Blair Wrote About Drugs, Too
The Media Awareness Project – www.mapinc.org – logs four stories by ex-Timesman Blair that, now, after the current Newsweek report on the reporter’s alleged cocaine abuse, should be read again in a new light.
On January 2, 2000, Blair, writing for the Times about the failure of juvenile boot camps (was this story an exercise in fact, fiction, or thinly-veiled autobiography about life on 43rd Street?), quoted Gerald Wells of the Koch Institute, as saying, “just because you place someone in a highly structured environment with discipline does not mean once they get home, and are out of that, they will be model citizens.”
And Blair quoted (should the word “quoted” be in quotation marks?) politician Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as saying, “Facilities that provide structure and discipline can be run effectively and have a role in our fight after juvenile crime.”
“Structure and discipline” is what the boot camp of the New York Times is famous for among journalists, and according to the Times the month of January 2002, when he wrote this story, was a problem month of heavier-than-usual structure and discipline for Blair in the Times organization: so to whom was Jayson Blair speaking in that story, anyway?
An October 1999 story by Blair, also in the Times, waxed nostalgically about a time when he would have been 13-years-old in a city where he was not raised: “A decade ago on the Lower East Side, drug dealers sold cocaine and heroin so brazenly to such long lines of people that local residents often mistook the crowds for street fairs,” penned Blair.
In this story, Blair claimed that, “A two-year-old effort to rid the Lower East Side of its street-corner drug bazaars has worked so well that senior police officials say they want to expand it to every precinct in the city.” (Really? The L.E.S. is rid of street-corner drug sales? Well, we already know that he, law enforcement authorities, and the Times writing about drug policies, all share a penchant for fertile imagination.)
But, about the current Blair drug story: If the Times’ management knew, when they published their 14,000 words on Mother’s Day damning Blair for the end of the world as they knew it, that Blair had a drug and-or alcohol abuse problem or that he had bipolar disorder, then the Mother’s Day story can only be viewed as the most cruel attempt to push that kid into committing suicide. Why? What are they afraid he will say if he survives it? Well, now, paradoxically, he’s got better care from literary agents and lawyers with more incentive to keep him alive than the Times apparently had.
When I first read the Times’ long confession, some things did stand out for this longtime drug policy reporter: Blair avoided travel to rural areas (Texas and West Virginia, where he secretly “reported” from New York but “datelined” from those places) but he did go to the Washington DC suburbs, says the Times, to cover the sniper case: “Just six days after his arrival in Maryland, Mr. Blair landed a front-page exclusive,” wrote the Times. Well, what’s available in the suburbs of Washington that’s not as easily available in West Virginia? Could it be that he was in a stage of heavy cocaine use (although Newsweek has suggested that he’s been “clean” for a year, but, according to whom?) and that kept him from traveling to places where an out-of-towner would not be able to procure for a cocaine habit?
According to the Times timeline of events, Blair’s aversion to travel also seems to have begun after September 11, 2001, a day that flying became more scary for everyone, but especially for illegal drug users, as it was the parting of the waters for heavier airport baggage and personal inspections that would give pause to any carrier of an illegal substance before stepping on a plane, or even into an airport.
And if that is the case, how might the illegal status of one drug (cocaine) have changed the course of the storyline in a way that another drug (alcohol) that is legal might not have? Beyond limiting one’s travel to places where one’s drug of choice is available, there is an institutional question here: The fact that a drug is illegal – or prohibited among workers, even out of the office – deters the addict from seeking help.
Drug Tests and Freedom of Impression
At the New York Times, prior to being employed, reporters are required give urine tests to demonstrate they don’t have cocaine, opiates or marijuana residues in their bodies. Urine tests for cocaine are a joke: the alkaloid decomposes within 48 hours of use. Urine tests, effectively, only screen out someone who has used marijuana in the past 30 to 60 days. They are aimed at pot smokers, not at cokeheads, which makes the imposition of urine tests on journalists a bestial practice; after all, smoking a joint never made anyone a worse journalist; there is plenty of evidence that some of the best, by their own testimony have long smoked grass.
They talk, talk, and talk some more, at the New York Times and other newspapers about “freedom of expression.” But freedom of expression, as my friend Dick Evans, a Massachusetts attorney, told me years ago, requires freedom of impression. Drug testing eliminates a large percentage of society – illicit drug users, mainly marijuana users – from the Times and other media organizations. The lofty goal of “diversity in the newsroom” that the Times made secondary scapegoat in its mishandling of the Blair adventure will always be out of reach as long as those places ban employees for their off the job pleasures.
Of the Times’ use of piss tests (an interesting question would be “how often are they given to employees already hired?” Or, “are they given again after the hiring process?” And “what happens if a Times employee is found to be using illicit drugs as opposed to the permitted legal ones like alcohol?”); that policy might well deter a reporter with a cocaine abuse problem from seeking help. This is speculation, but it is speculation based upon what frequently happens to illicit drug users in our society, and in journalism, compared to a very different story for alcoholics or abusers of legal drugs who can more easily ask, and obtain, help without fear of punishment or being fired.
So, we have a situation in which under a national policy of drug prohibition, and corporate policies that mirror it, an abuser of illegal drugs, like cocaine, has far less incentive to come in from the cold and seek help from his employers.
It’s an interesting paradox: Here is the mighty Times, with its urine testing policy and its editorial policies (and news “reporting” a la Juan Forero filing from Bogotá) that are blatantly pro drug-war from Crown Heights to Colombia, and the prohibition may have been a contributing factor to what is now the permanent end of the Times’ glory as the international “paper of record.”
And if the Times did know that Blair had a coke problem, that makes its brutal ritual sacrifice of him – from “the newsroom where,” they said, “he is no longer welcome” – on Mother’s Day unforgivable. The giving of “two-week leaves of absences” does not suffice for an employee with a cocaine addiction problem. You don’t bring that person back after two weeks and restart him on a high-pressure schedule of ten-to-fifteen Times stories per month. Not if you care about the human being. And if you did fuck up, as the Times on at least some level did, you don’t then go blame your problems on the addict, if he was one. That’s inhuman. And, I add, it’s cowardly behavior by management.
Everyone at the Times has to now take a long hard look in the mirror, and at the institution’s drug policies, and at how those policies may have contributed to Blair’s and to the newspaper’s own downfall, and at how the pro-prohibitionist bias in the news reporting has contributed to a culture that increases the damage and harm done to illicit drug users in a manner that does not happen to licit drug users or abusers. And, I repeat: how the making of a drug illegal discourages the addict from seeking help, because the penalties – both under criminal law and workplace policies – are so great that the coke addict has to hide his problem in a way that the alcoholic does not, and therefore fewer coke addicts and abusers seek or find real help.
It seems that while the Times reviews its editing policies it also must review its drug policies, in-house, and editorially, because the Times has helped create the societal problem that Newsweek now tells us was part – but clearly not all – of Blair’s and the Times’ problems.
What the Times, and all journalistic institutions need, is a “harm reduction” policy that reduces the harms associated with drug use, licit, and illicit: Because, I tell you today: There are drug users and drug abusers, illegal and legal, still, inside the Cathedral on 43rd Street. The Times’ own drug policies – in print and in-house – have helped to create its current problems.
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