Monday, July 17, 2006

Meth and The Oregonian

Two news organizations in Portland, Oregon have been criticizing each other over coverage of methamphetamine lately. One offered a careful, well-sourced analysis. That would be the alternative weekly, Willamette Week, in March. The other offered up derision, straw men and cheap shots. That would be the Portland Oregonian editorial page -- yesterday.

In fact, the hype from the editorial page has undercut reporting in the Oregonian thats been better than most media coverage of meth, and encouraged the paper’s worst excesses.

 I don’t know why the Oregonian is complaining about Willamette Week’s gutsy cover story about the Oregonian’s meth coverage nearly four months after it was published - -but the page has become increasingly shrill in attacking anyone who doesn’t support their party line on meth. In effect, their position is: If you don’t believe every word we write, you don’t care if children die, lives are ruined, and all sorts of other havoc is wrought by meth.

Both the editorial page and the papers managing editor for enterprise, Steve Engelberg, have sought to recast the paper’s coverage, after-the-fact, hiding behind some early, excellent reporting and ignoring the rest.

 I didn’t see Willamette Week’s story when it first ran on March 22. I noticed it cited in a footnote to a recent study which included a discussion of meth and media, and then forgot about it until the Oregonian editorial appeared yesterday. Not that the Oregonian actually mentioned the story - - that would violate the first rule of mainstream media: Never mention your town’s alternative weekly” if it can possibly be avoided. But the editorial reads like a direct response to the WW story.

That story certainly has its flaws. Most notably, it fails to give proper credit to the series that essentially kicked off the papers coverage, Unnecessary Epidemic by reporter Steve Suo. Whatever flaws there may have been in characterizing the scope of the problem are outweighed by the overall thrust of the series - - which remains the only systematic reporting of its kind I’ve seen in any American newspaper.

Instead of the usual horror stories about mom and pop home labs, Unnecessary Epidemic focused on how simple ways to control the ingredients used to make meth at their source, overseas factories, have been blocked by the pharmaceutical lobby. And the series documented the existence of a way to manufacture decongestants whose key ingredient cant be turned into meth and how the pharmaceutical industry would not bring it to market.

 When Columbia Journalism Review gave the series a laurel it was on my recommendation (and I’m sure the recommendation of many others). Others who have criticized meth coverage in general, such as Slate media critic Jack Shafer, also have singled out Suo’s work for praise. Unfortunately, no big national newspaper picked up on Suo’s excellent reporting.

Willamette Week mentions this good work only in passing, and criticizes Suo largely for his role in a PBS Frontline documentary based in part on the series. (Suo did tell WW that he approved Frontline’s script).

Suos series wasnt the only time the Oregonian got it right.

 On the specific issue of meth and child welfare, I have repeatedly recommended to journalists a powerful story by a team of Oregonian reporters led by Bryan Denson. They followed the case of one infant, Timothy, with one reporter covering the birth parents, another the foster parents and a third the caseworker.

The result was a finely-nuanced story (“A baby in the balance,” March 27, 2005, available in the papers paid archive), which undercuts much of the hype that would turn up later in the Oregonian itself. The mother used meth, but was in outpatient treatment and doing well. The father was not accused of drug use at all. The child was in foster care because there was no inpatient drug treatment facility in the local community for the mother, and because of child welfare system’s pervasive bias against fathers.

Yet, for statistical purposes, this is a “meth case.” And when child welfare agencies claim that a huge percentage of their cases involve meth use, that includes cases like this one.

Willamette Week didnt mention this story either.

But where Willamette Week does criticize the Oregonian its usually right on the mark. Time after time the alternative weekly takes an Oregonian claim, usually built on some “advocacy number” or other, tracks it back to its source and finds - - there is no source, or at least none that is remotely reliable. And WW’s target often is the editorial page itself, and its increasingly shrill rhetoric.

WW also took a close look at an August, 2005 piece by Joseph Rose on meth and child welfare  which ignored and undercut all the good work Denson and his colleagues had done several months earlier. (The Children of Meth,” August 28, 2005).

Every cliche that turns up in bad meth coverage can be found in this story, including the term meth orphans,” which, if anything, is even worse than that notorious term from the 1980s, crack babies.”

The story accepted as fact the claim that Oregons astoundingly high rate of child removal is all because of meth. But Timothy, that child at the center of the Bryan Denson piece, was not an orphan in any sense. He had a mother recovering from addiction and a father who was not abusing drugs. And, of course, when Rose accepted at face value claims that 2,750 children in foster care were taken away because of meth, that includes Timothy.

Roses piece also contains a huge, fundamental error of fact, which he has refused to correct. The story claims that the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act requires states to terminate parental rights if a child has spent 15 of the past 22 months in foster care. Not true. ASFA often requires states to ask a court to terminate parental rights under these circumstances and even then, there are several major exceptions, including one that covers cases in which parents are doing well in drug treatment.

I wrote to Rose and asked him where he got this misinformation. In an e-mail Rose said it came from  “various sources” apparently including grandparents caring for grandchildren taken from meth-addicted parents. His sources did not include the crystal-clear text of the law itself.

Hmmm. Which source to choose for what a law requires? Second-hand impressions of well-meaning grandparents or the actual text?

But my biggest concern with the story was its toxic mix of horror stories and advocacy numbers.

The story begins with Sadie, a child whose experience is atypical even for meth cases. Most children do not, in fact, live in meth labs and most do not have parents whose behavior crosses the line from neglect to sadism. Then come the numbers alleging huge proportions of cases involve meth. Then back to Sadie. By the time the reader is done, he is left with the impression not only that almost every foster care case is a meth case but that almost every parent in such a case is like Sadies sadistic dad.

The misimpression is reinforced by Roses claim, toward the top of the story that “roughly 2,750 children” were taken from parents using or making the potent drug [emphasis added].

Only much later in the story it is noted that of those 2,750 children, fewer than four percent were found in labs. (Even if you double or triple that number to account for the children in school, clearly labs are not the heart of the problem). Even a top Oregon Department of Human Services official told the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare that the number of times that [child protective] workers confronted actual manufacturing was rare in their practice compared to the number of families affected by methamphetamine abuse and dependence.

And, of course the story ignored the most fundamental fact of Oregon child welfare: That state has been taking children at an absurdly high rate since at least 1985, long before it could be blamed on meth.

When I wrote to Rose I offered to meet with him the following month while in Portland for the annual convention of the National Conference of Editorial Writers. Unlike Denson, editorial writer Mary Kitch and several colleagues whod met with me on a previous trip, Rose declined.

Clearly the WW piece hit a nerve. The day after the piece ran, and was noted in Jim Romeneskos media news column, Engelberg, the Oregonian managing editor for enterprise, sent a long e-mail to WW and Romenesko - -which both published on their websites.

Unlike the WW story, which was measured in tone, Engelberg lashed out, calling the WW story: “a one-sided, intellectually dishonest, fake expose built on anecdotal comments that ignore the facts of The Oregonian's coverage. It meets no acceptable journalistic standard and is filled with hyperbole, sloppy reporting and the use of intentionally misleading statistics.”

And the WW story may explain why, starting last month, the Oregonian editorial page got nasty with any of us who question anything the Oregonian says about meth.

On June 6, an editorial declared that All those people now chattering about whether the meth epidemic is little more than media hype ought to visit with some of those abused and neglected kids carrying their few belongings into Oregon foster homes.”  This appears to be a shot not only at Willamette Week, but also at an excellent Youth Today story on the hype surrounding meth and child welfare -- and its off-base about both.

First, the statement is an example of a disturbing habit on the Oregonian editorial page: setting up straw men. If you dont believe everything the Oregonian says about meth you must believe there is nothing to the problem at all but media hype. No in-between options are allowed.

Second, the Oregonian is particularly unqualified to criticize anyone else for not talking to abused and neglected kids. Until late 2004, Oregon was a “black hole” for coverage of child welfare. The states largest newspaper appeared unaware of the fact that the state had a child welfare system. The papers own public editor” took it to task for lacking “sustained coverage” of the topic.

In contrast, the author of the Youth Today story is Martha Shirk, the journalist who practically invented the childrens beat during a long, distinguished career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Her most recent projects include co-authoring a book about the problems of children aging out of the foster-care system.

In short, she has almost certainly talked to more foster children than all the reporters writing about the topic on the Oregonian news and editorial page staff combined.

Then came yesterdays editorial attacking the tinny little chorus of media critics and drug control skeptics” who dont accept every word about meth in the Oregonian as Holy Writ. The editorial continues in a nasty, personal vein, explaining that theyd previously resisted deigning to dignify criticism of their coverage with a reply because, after all, its hard to argue with anyone who can look seriously at Oregon and much of rural America, at meth use and addiction, at meth-related crime and child abuse and still insist that the problem is a myth.”

Once again, a straw man. The Willamette Week story never uses the word myth nor does it imply that the problem is a myth. Ive used the word, but to describe things like the claim that meth is more difficult to treat than other drugs - -which is, in fact, a myth - not to claim that meth is not a problem.

Mostly, the editorial regurgitates Engelbergs e-mail to Romenesko nearly four months earlier; in particular the way Engelberg hid behind Steve Suos original series. According to the editorial:

[F]rom the beginning of Suo's initial meth series, "Unnecessary Epidemic," published in October 2004, The Oregonian has consistently called for international, national and state steps to control access to ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, the legal chemicals used in cold medicines and the central ingredients in meth. Virtually all the world's pseudoephedrine, Suo found, is produced by a few Asian manufacturers. That makes meth far more vulnerable to interdiction and control than drugs produced from poppy and coca fields around the globe. Suo used drug treatment statistics and other data to show that past efforts to control ephedrine and pseudoephedrine had been successful, before they were abandoned or subverted.

O.K. So according to the editorial, this 351,000-circulation newspaper, which can explain itself at whatever length it chooses every single day, has been misunderstood. Or victimized by a conspiracy of media critics albeit one too small even to notice. According to the editorial, “those few scattered critics” (who now are worth an entire editorial in the Sunday paper) “keep trying to twist our meth coverage.”

Or maybe, if your coverage is so misunderstood, you haven’t always written about the topic all that well.

The editorial goes on to note that the Oregonian has advocated only enlightened solutions, such as control at the source and treatment. But the hype in the editorials themselves and stories like Rose’s meth orphans” piece drown out that reasonable message.

And the hype about meth and child welfare makes meth the perfect all-purpose excuse for any decision to remove any child from any home under any circumstances.  No one need look at Oregon’s absurdly high rate of removal going all the way back to 1985, if state child welfare officials can reply to every criticism just by crying meth.”

When I wrote to Joseph Rose, I began the letter this way: “Can a major social problem be serious, real and hyped? Yes.  And thats what’s been happening in the case of methamphetamine and child welfare.

 Why do so many at the Oregonian find that so hard to understand?