Opinion

Jack Shafer

Drug panics, bath salts, and face-eating zombies

Jack Shafer
May 31, 2012 23:26 UTC

Last Saturday afternoon, a naked man gnawed off most of the face of a half-naked man on a Miami causeway. He continued chewing even after police shot him and did not stop until they shot him dead.

Things like that don’t happen everyday – not even in Miami – so quite naturally the horror story has been picked up by every flavor of media around the world. The most sensational – and I don’t mean that in a good way – coverage came from local TV station CBS4 (WFOR-TV). On the day Rudy Eugene attacked Ronald Poppo, CBS4 relied on the musings of the president of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police and an emergency room physician – neither of whom attested to having firsthand knowledge of the case – to speculate that the attack was caused by a new kind of LSD, by a mixture of drugs, or by “bath salts,” the street name given to the many quasi-legal, over-the-counter stimulant concoctions that are packaged and sold under such wacky brand names as “Ivory Wave,” “Vanilla Sky,” “White Cloud” and “Zoom.”

Before any criminal lab could determine that Rudy Eugene had drugs in his system, some outlets, including the Guardian, the New York Daily News and CNN were seizing on CBS4′s reporting to vilify a “new” drug and its users, exaggerate the peril it presents and launch a new drug panic. To believe the early press accounts about bath salts – recall last year’s story of a West Virginia man found in bra and panties next to his neighbor’s murdered goat – madness comes in a $20 package of powder, the product gives its users superhuman strength, and they may have turned a 31-year-old man into a flesh-eating zombie.

To assist the press in its coverage I offer this brief bath-salts primer. I don’t want to overstate its worth – any skeptical journalist with access to the scientific literature could produce such a primer in an afternoon. That the press hasn’t bothered to produce such a primer speaks volumes about how serious they are in covering the drug beat.

Reporting on bath salts is complicated by the fact that bath salts aren’t one thing: They’re whatever a drug entrepreneur dumps into colorful bags and sells through head shops, convenience stores, and over the Internet as “bath salts,” plant food” or “air freshener.” Promoted by word-of-mouth, bath salts are supposed to deliver a high similar to that of methamphetamine, cocaine and even the “entactogen” MDMA. Bath-salts marketers make certain to label their products “not for human consumption” because, as this July 2011 Department of Justice “situation report” (pdf) explains, the Food and Drug Administration can prosecute anyone who introduces into interstate commerce a compound that’s marketed as a substitute for either a licit or illicit drug, no matter what the compound is composed of.

The cable news audience has peaked

Jack Shafer
May 24, 2012 21:15 UTC

CNN’s rotten ratings have grown only rottener. The Time Warner-owned news network drew fewer prime-time viewers last week than any week since September 1991, the New York Times just reported. But CNN isn’t the only network riding the down escalator when it comes to ratings. Over the same week, Fox News Channel attracted its fewest viewers in the important 25-to-54-year-old category since July 2008, the Times added. * But CNN isn’t the only cable news network in the doldrums, according to year-by-year data. Various observers have blamed the viewership downturn on the lull in the 2012 campaign, on viewers defecting to the season finales on the entertainment channels and on the lack of breaking news. But I interpret the falloffs as fresh evidence that the audience for cable news has peaked.

The first sign of a peak in cable news appeared in March 2011, when the Pew Research Center released a study that proclaimed, “Though many will remember 2010 as a hard year for CNN, in reality, most cable news channels suffered audience losses.” The able chartists at Pew drew a sad graph of cable news. Combined median viewership for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC during prime time had receded 16 percent, to 3.2 million, that year. Mean viewership had also dropped 13 percent, to 3.3 million, making it the largest year-to-year drop for cable news since Pew started analyzing the numbers in 1997. It also marked the first drop in the median audience since 2006.

The bad news continued through 2011, as cable news viewership remained nearly flat. This was fairly astonishing considering all the breaking news from that year – the Arab Spring, Japan’s tsunami, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Libyan civil war and the European economic crisis – not to mention the bustle of the presidential campaign.

So Warren Buffett likes newspapers again?

Jack Shafer
May 18, 2012 23:05 UTC

Just because Warren Buffett blew $142 million in cash on 63 daily and weekly Media General newspaper titles yesterday doesn’t mean that newspapers are back. All it means is that an old cow that’s still a milker has been moved to a neighboring farm’s pasture, where it will be squeezed until it can give no more and will then be ground into pet food.

Buffett has long loved newspapers, having made about a half a billion dollars on the Washington Post Co. after his company, Berkshire Hathaway Inc, started investing in it in 1973. In 1977, he bought the Buffalo Evening News for $32.5 million, and after it vanquished the city’s other daily, it became one of the country’s most profitable newspapers, as measured by return on assets.

But Buffett isn’t romantic about newspapers. He buys when he sees value that others don’t. For instance, in a lecture he gave at Notre Dame in 1991 (pdf), Buffett explained why he bought Washington Post Co. stock.

Candidate-press relations are, well, about as ‘sour’ as usual

Jack Shafer
May 16, 2012 23:53 UTC

Having secured the nominations of their parties, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have set their campaign throttles to late-spring idle with a speech here, a speech there, a commencement address over there, and fundraisers and soft TV appearances everywhere. Eventually, the two candidates will stop coasting, but until they do, reporters will continue to lard their work with exercises in meta-journalism, such as today’s 1,800-word Politico piece, “Obama and Romney’s common foe.”

The common foe, don’t you know, is the press! According to Politico’s Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush, Barack and Mitt both “disdain” the “political news media” because they believe reporters are “eager to vaporize them for the sheer sport of it.”

Is there anything new about presidents and presidential candidates having bad feelings for the press? Does nobody recall John McCain’s low regard for the New York Times coverage of his 2008 campaign? Or of George W. Bush’s attitude toward the press? Bill Clinton’s scorn? George H.W. Bush’s hatred? Carter’s? Nixon’s? Johnson’s? Sometimes candidates do charm the press, as McCain did in 2000, and the anti-war candidates of 1968 and 1972, but it’s the exception, never the rule.

Aiming for Bradlee but missing

Jack Shafer
May 9, 2012 14:21 UTC

This review originally appeared in the Washington Post on May 6, 2012, and is being reprinted by permission of the Post.

Jeff Himmelman uses his new book, Yours in Truth, to take shots at Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and their 1974 book, All the President’s Men. But Himmelman’s fire does not come from the usual redoubt of Watergate revisionism. He is a former researcher for Woodward, one who worked so diligently on Maestro the reporter’s 2001 book about Alan Greenspan, that Woodward gushed about him in his author’s note.

“Jeff Himmelman,” he wrote, “was my full-time collaborator at every step of this book—reporting, writing and editing. … A truly remarkable man of unusual maturity, brainpower and charm, Jeff is an original thinker who retains a deep sense of idealism. … This book would never have been completed without him, and it is his as much as mine. I consider him a friend for life.”

Anatomy of a leak, 1966-67

Jack Shafer
May 8, 2012 15:27 UTC

Every leaker of information has an agenda. The leaker can be an honest whistleblower, a spinner, a junior Machiavelli, a nut job, a misinformed flunky or a combination of several of the above. But with every trickle of privileged information, the leaker invites other interested parties to leak their side of the story, setting institutions against institutions and publications against publications.

An extraordinarily well documented account of battling leaks appears in Marigold: The Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam, a new book by George Washington University history professor James G. Hershberg. Professor Hershberg’s exhaustive book – and by exhaustive I mean 936 pages long – draws on declassified diplomatic cables, foreign archives, countless interviews, and reporters’ private notes to recount the breakdown of secret Polish-Italian efforts in 1966 – code-named “Marigold” – that hoped to coax the United States and North Vietnam into direct peace negotiations.

Like all history lessons, Marigold charges a high price for admission. If you’re not already a student of the Vietnam War or weren’t reading newspapers in the 1960s, the players will sound sketchy and the dispute ephemeral. But I promise a payoff: Marigold etches a template that can provide relief for today’s news consumers who find themselves perplexed by dueling accounts in competing publications. It teaches that sometimes the real news is often who is leaking, and that’s news that can’t often be found in newspapers.

Rupert Murdoch’s escape act

Jack Shafer
May 1, 2012 21:49 UTC

The publication today of Parliament’s 121-page report (pdf) on phone hacking has the British press all but publishing obituaries for Rupert Murdoch. The report damns him for turning “a blind eye” to the scandal of phone hacking at his companies, News Corporation and News International.

Murdoch is not “a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company,” the report concludes, leveling a hammer to the media baron’s head. As the Telegraph interprets this finding, BSkyB, the UK satellite broadcaster that Murdoch owns 39.1 percent of, is “vulnerable” to a challenge from the regulators at Ofcom. If the regulators applied their “fit and proper” test to BSkyB, they could cancel its broadcasting license, order News Corp. to reduce its holdings in the broadcaster and oust Rupert’s son James Murdoch from its board of directors. The BBC seconded the Telegraph‘s take, and the Telegraph and the Guardian speculate that the report will echo in the United States, triggering criminal prosecutions and unending damage to Murdoch’s corporate reputation here.

Murdoch’s corporate counterattack today states that News Corp. has “already confronted and … acted on the failings documented in the Report,” insisting that the company has righted all the wrongs. In a memo to his 50,000 employees, Murdoch remained defiant, minimizing corporate wrongdoing and maximizing the corrective measures his company has taken.

What did Ben Bradlee know, and when did he know it?

Jack Shafer
Apr 30, 2012 21:13 UTC

In 1990, former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee told journalist Barbara Feinman, who was helping him on his memoir A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures, that he had “a little problem with Deep Throat.” Bradlee, who was then 69 years old, continued:

Did that potted [plant] incident ever happen? … and meeting in some garage. One meeting in the garage? Fifty meetings in the garage? I don’t know how many meetings in the garage … There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.

This confession and other findings drawn from Ben Bradlee’s papers appear in a book excerpt that was published in New York magazine last night. The excerpt has sparked a near riot in Watergate Nation – the principals who reported the story, other journalists, history buffs, and political devotees for whom the 1972 Democratic National Committee headquarters break-in and Nixon administration cover-up remain an inexhaustible topic of fascination.

Who cares if Murdoch lobbied?

Jack Shafer
Apr 25, 2012 20:51 UTC

Pummel Rupert Murdoch and his minions all you want for News Corp.’s phone-hacking of celebrities and crime victims, its computer-hacking, its blagging, its bribing of police, its payments of hush money, its obstruction of justice, and its operation of what former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown once called a “criminal-media nexus.”

But spare me the feigned outrage excited by this week’s interrogations of Murdoch and his son James Murdoch by the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and practices. The Guardian, the Telegraph and the New York Times, among others, appear to be appalled by news that the media baron lobbied the UK government aggressively so that he could expand his holdings in the tightly regulated satellite broadcaster BSkyB from 39.1 percent to 100 percent. The Times cites subpoenaed News Corp. emails released by Leveson to show a Murdoch lobbyist working “hand-in-glove” with the office of a government regulator.

Isn’t climbing into the skins of regulators the very definition of lobbying? That’s how I understand it. Hate Murdoch all you want, but if you’re invested in highly regulated businesses like BSkyB and you need government approval to invest deeper in the regulated business, then working “hand-in-glove” with the regulators is exactly what the situation calls for. Should the Murdochs have ignored the regulators as they attempted to increase their holdings in BSkyB? Of course not.

Sadly, human trophies are as old as war itself

Jack Shafer
Apr 18, 2012 23:00 UTC

If you talk very long with soldiers who’ve seen combat, they’ll offer that death is a joke. Not a very funny joke, but one that never gets old. With every new war, with every new brigade of recruits, soldiers rediscover the death joke and retell it by taking battlefield trophies of enemy equipment, enemy personal effects and even staged photos with enemy body parts, as the Los Angeles Times reports today.

The Times obtained a series of 18 photos of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan posing with enemy corpses and published two of them in a story that began on page one. The living posers are all grins and chuckles, indicating the high mirth that battlefield death brings. In one of the published photos, amused U.S. soldiers hoist two severed legs of a suicide bomber and mug for the camera.

The Times describes other photos it did not run:

Two soldiers posed holding a dead man’s hand with the middle finger raised. A soldier leaned over the bearded corpse while clutching the man’s hand. Someone placed an unofficial platoon patch reading “Zombie Hunter” next to other remains and took a picture.

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