Cracked Coverage: Television News, The Anti-Cocaine Crusade, and the Reagan Legacy / Edition 1

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Carefully documenting the deceptions and excesses of television news coverage of the so-called cocaine epidemic, Cracked Coverage stands as a bold indictment of the backlash politics of the Reagan coalition and its implicit racism, the mercenary outlook of the drug control establishment, and the enterprising reporting of crusading journalism. Blending theoretical and empirical analyses, Jimmie L. Reeves and Richard Campbell explore how TV news not only interprets "reality" in ways that reflect prevailing ideologies, but is in many respects responsible for constructing that reality. Their examination of the complexity of television and its role in American social, cultural, and political conflict is focused specifically on the ways in which American television during the Reagan years helped stage and legitimate the "war on drugs," one of the great moral panics of the postwar era.
The authors persuasively argue, for example, that powder cocaine in the early Reagan years was understood and treated very differently on television and by the state than was crack cocaine, which was discovered by the news media in late 1985. In their critical analysis of 270 news stories broadcast between 1981 and 1988, Reeves and Campbell demonstrate a disturbing disparity between the earlier presentation of the middle- and upper-class "white" drug offender, for whom therapeutic recovery was an available option, and the subsequent news treatment of the inner-city "black" drug delinquent, often described as beyond rehabilitation and subject only to intensified strategies of law and order. Enlivened by provocative discussions of Nancy Reagan’s antidrug activism, the dramatic death of basketball star Len Bias, and the myth of the crack baby, the book argues that Reagan’s war on drugs was at heart a political spectacle that advanced the reactionary agenda of the New and Religious Right—an agenda that dismissed social problems grounded in economic devastation as individual moral problems that could simply be remedied by just saying "no."
Wide ranging and authoritative, Cracked Coverage: Television News, the Anti-Cocaine Crusade, and the Reagan Legacy is a truly interdisciplinary work that will attract readers across the humanities and social sciences in addition to students, scholars, journalists, and policy makers interested in the media and drug-related issues.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Cracked Coverage is more than a brilliant and provocative study of televised discourse on cocaine in American society during the 1980s. Campbell and Reeves take what could have been another narrow study of the way network news represents the current drug crisis and turn it into a remarkable examination of race, class, and gender under the Reagan years."—Robin D. G. Kelley, University of Michigan

"Cracked Coverage weaves together an impressive range of social and cultural developments in order to reconstruct the political context of 1980s America and the place of television within it. By starting with and focusing on television news’ coverage of the ‘drug crisis’ and the ‘war on drugs,’ the book is able to draw into the argument everything from debates over modernity and new economic developments to questions of surveillance and spectacle, from narrative theory to Foucault, from the nuclear family and feminism to Nancy Reagan. The result is one of the most compelling and original analyses of the rise of the New Right and of the role of the media in this campaign."—Lawrence Grossberg, University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign

"This is a pathbreaking, often brilliant book that every journalist, ‘drug expert,’ and elected and unelected policy maker in the U. S. should be forced to read."—Craig Reinarman, University of California, Santa Cruz

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822314912
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/1994
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 344
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

Jimmie L. Reeves is Associate Professor of Mass Communication at Texas Tech University.

Richard Campbell is Director of the Journalism Program and Miami University and the author of 60 Minutes and the News.

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Read an Excerpt

Cracked Coverage

Television News, the Anti-Cocaine Crusade, and the Reagan Legacy

By Jimmie L. Reeves, Richard Campbell

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9645-1


The Cocaine Narrative: A Thoroughly Modern Morality Tale

[William] Bennett, who has been secretary of education without solving the problems of education and drug czar without solving the problems of drugs, now wants to write books about how to solve the problems of both. In America, this is what we call "expertise."—Roger Simon, Baltimore Sun

Re-Covering the Cocaine Narrative

In documenting and analyzing the continuities and disruptions of the latest struggle over the meaning of cocaine, this study examines the representations of drug culture in 270 television news reports broadcast between 1981 and 1988. Collectively, these reports form a kind of grand mosaic that we call the cocaine narrative—a narrative that took shape around social conflicts and cultural distinctions related to the contemporary politics of race, class, gender, sexuality, region, religion, age, and taste. At various moments during the narrative the meaning of cocaine would be inflected by gender issues, it would take on racial overtones, and it would even animate myths about the sanctity of small-town life in middle America. Therefore, like other major cultural controversies associated with AIDS, abortion rights, television evangelism, and environmental protection, the cocaine narrative expressed many of the prominent themes and antagonisms of the Reagan era. Ultimately, we demonstrate how, in constructing and reaffirming cocaine use as a moral disease or a criminal pathology, the network news also facilitated the staging and legitimating of Reagan's war on drugs as a major political spectacle.

Slicing Through the Coverage To help make our study more manageable, we systematically identified a group of stories appearing on the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC that captures the main thrust and illustrates the main trends of drug coverage during the 1980s. First, we screened all the news items between 1981 and 1988 (the Reagan era) listed under the subject heading of "Cocaine" in the Vanderbilt Television News Index: 528 items listed. As figure 1 indicates, the yearly number of cocaine stories rose dramatically during the decade before peaking in 1986. In 1987 the coverage dwindled a bit, only to rise again in the following presidential election year.

In this screening we eliminated most news items that were not reporter packages (especially 15—20-second studio "readers" presented by anchors). Because our study focuses on drugs as a domestic social problem, we eliminated all the "foreign intrigue" stories that dealt chiefly with international drug trafficking. Figure 1 also shows how the remaining 228 stories were distributed over time, and Appendix A lists these stories chronologically.

Using abstracts published in the Vanderbilt Index, we coded each of the stories for sourcing and genre. After eliminating routine arrest, criminal investigation, and prosecution stories, we were left with 147 news stories that specifically treated cocaine as a domestic social problem. Videotapes of this collection of stories were then ordered from Vanderbilt University's News Archive for close critical analysis. In Appendix A these stories are listed.

In addition to the cocaine stories we also ordered and analyzed videotapes of forty-two other reporter packages that a general screening of the news index identified as relevant to our study. This smaller and highly selective sample (listed in Appendix B) includes stories on the dangers of other drugs (Marijuana, Heroin, PCP, "Ts and Blues," and "Wack"), stories on drug use by youngsters, stories on the link between AIDS and heroin Addiction, and stories on Nancy Reagan's role in the war on drugs.

Figures 2 and 3 illustrate how the 270 stories are distributed over time and how they break down according to analytic categories. We are confident that these reports afford a comprehensive portrait of the network news treatment of cocaine as a social problem during the Reagan administration. Thanks to the forty-two noncocaine stories included in the study, we have at least a rough sketch of how other drug issues were related to the anti-cocaine crusade.

Phases of Coverage Our frame analysis of these 270 news stories suggests that the cocaine crusade of the 1980s took shape in three distinct phases. In the initial stage (Phase I), running roughly from January 1981 to November 1985, cocaine would be defined according to a "trickle-down" paradigm in which what was once a decadent "glamor" drug became increasingly available and abused by middle-class Americans. As we discuss in chapter 5, this trickle-down framing of the drug news was largely governed by discourses of recovery in which white offenders were able to be purified of the shame of cocaine transgression by way of therapeutic intercession. Soon after the journalistic discovery of crack, the coverage reached a crisis level (Phase II) that lasted from December 1985 to November 1986. During this crisis, race and class dimensions of the cocaine problem established during Phase I coverage are almost completely inverted as the trickle-down formulation is displaced by a siege paradigm accentuated by disturbing images of chaos in the streets. Often featuring an Us vs. Them orientation toward a color-coded "enemy within," this siege paradigm activated discourses of discrimination that were distinct from recovery operations prominent during Phase I coverage. The final "aftermath" or "postcrisis" period (Phase III), November 1986 to December 1988, would culminate in the war on drugs emerging as the major issue of the 1988 presidential campaign. Although the siege paradigm would continue to prevail during this Phase III coverage, the discourse of discrimination was somewhat softened by a growing sense of doom as reporters reacted to criticism from without about the crusading Phase II coverage and to self-doubt from within about the continued failures of the war on drugs to solve the drug problem.

In drawing on narrative theory to mark out these phases we treat the chain of events that appear in the 1980s' cocaine story as a "change from one state of affairs to another." Arranged in chronological order according to the logic of cause and effect, story events conventionally move from an initial "equilibrium state" (which typically represents normalcy) through a period of disequilibrium (which generally represents a disruption of normalcy) to a new equilibrium (which often represents the restoration of normalcy). In the cocaine narrative the disturbance of normalcy is generally defined in terms of pollution. Cocaine, the pollutant, threatens the purity of some vulnerable group (children, teenagers, mothers), some important segment of the economy (the stock market, professional sports, the trucking industry), or some culturally charged setting (Hollywood, small-town America, the college campus). The period of disequilibrium generally foregrounds a struggle for purification that almost always involves the operation of some agency affiliated with the drug control establishment. While Phase I featured therapeutic intervention as the approved solution to the drug pollution (see chapter 5), Phases II and III would place more emphasis on surveillance mechanisms, punitive disciplinary operations, and partisan political maneuvers (see chapters 6, 7, and 8). For various reasons associated with modern journalism's orientation toward "bad news," the cocaine reports dealt almost exclusively with disruption and disequilibrium. The restoration of normalcy, according to most journalists' view of the reported world, is simply not "newsworthy."

But there is an even more insidious reason that the restoration of normalcy in drug news is an event that is only anticipated and never realized—the journalistic reliance on experts who make their living off the cocaine problem. Although journalism rarely explores this conflict of interest, a substantial part of the therapeutic, surveillance, disciplinary, enforcement, judicial, penal, and political components of the drug control establishment is devoted to and sustained by the production and reproduction of drug delinquency. As Howard S. Becker observes in his classic study of what he terms "moral entrepreneurs," the agent of control—especially the "rule enforcer"—is often caught in a double bind:

On the one hand, he must demonstrate to others that the problem still exists; the rules he is supposed to enforce have some point, because infractions occur. On the other hand, he must show that his attempts at enforcement are effective and worthwhile, that the evil he is supposed to deal with is in fact being dealt with adequately. Therefore, enforcement organizations, particularly when they are seeking funds, typically oscillate between two kinds of claims. First, they say that by reason of their efforts the problem they deal with is approaching solution. But, in the same breath, they say the problem is perhaps worse than ever (though through no fault of their own) and requires renewed and increased effort to keep it under control. Enforcement officials can be more vehement than anyone else in their insistence that the problem they are supposed to deal with is still with us, in fact is more with us than ever before. In making these claims, enforcement officials provide good reason for continuing the existence of the position that they occupy.

Consequently, with nothing to gain and everything to lose from declaring a victory in the war on drugs, the drug control establishment's networks of power, knowledge, and discipline have a vested interest in maintaining a perpetual sense of urgency, even a sense of hysteria, about cocaine pollution.

Kernel Events In approaching the cocaine news drama and hysteria through the lens of narrative theory, we make a distinction between two kinds of events: Kernels and Satellites. Kernels are those crucial events that actively contribute to the story's progression. Appendix C presents a chronology of the events that we have identified as crucial to the development of the cocaine narrative. In Phase I, for instance, the most important kernel event occurred on October 14,1982, when President Reagan, in a speech delivered at the Justice Department, declared war on crime and pledged an "unshakable" commitment to do "what is necessary to end the drug menace." Many point to this moment as the official commencement of the latest war on drugs.

The overdose deaths of actor-comedian John Belushi and Robert Kennedy's son David Kennedy, the arrest of failed auto tycoon John DeLorean, two cycles of professional sports scandals (the first in 1983, the second in 1985), and Hollywood scandals involving the highly publicized drug trials of musician John Phillips, and actors Richard Dreyfuss and Stacy Keach—all of these events also constitute defining moments in Phase I that situate cocaine as a decadent taboo and a dangerous substance. But these troubling developments would pale in symbolic magnitude when compared to the cultural trauma of the back-to-back deaths of athletes Len Bias and Don Rogers in the summer of 1986. In chapter 6 we devote a considerable amount of attention to the role these last two deaths played in authorizing the drug hysteria that swept the nation during 1986.

Satellite Events In contrast to the gravity of kernel events, satellite events are less significant moments that are more routine and not as central to the cause-effect chain of the unfolding story. The bulk of the cocaine stories fit into the satellite category. These satellite stories steadily increased in number from 1981 through 1986 before sharply declining in 1987 during the beginning of Phase III. In Phase I the satellite stories often took shape in the form of "status reports" couched as warnings about the consequences of cocaine abuse and its spread from the privileged to the middle classes (see chapter 5). With the rising sense of urgency and hysteria of Phase II, the satellite stories took the form of "crisis updates" that often featured the campaigning voices of crusading journalists (see chapters 6 and 7). In Phase III many satellite stories expressed second thoughts as news organizations responded to criticism of their "hyping" the crack crisis (see chapter 9).

Reflections on the Cocaine Narrative

The Bounty Hunter's Angle In focusing on the meaning of the drug news, in examining the linkages between expert knowledge and state power, and in interrogating the hypocrisies of the journalistic ideal of objectivity, this study represents a drastic departure from much traditional quantitative news research that is not without risks. As Steve Fore maintains: "As long as the realm of common sense belief holds that there is a more or less direct correlation between media content and audience behavior, and that this relationship may be verified and usefully scrutinized through the comforting solidity of hard numbers and controlled scientific experiments, other modes of explanation will not be accepted or sought." Based on an information-oriented view of the communication process, such modern orthodox news research, like orthodox news, is often informed by the kind of no-nonsense positivism summed up in Jack Webb's laconic dictum, "Just the facts, ma'am." According to this view, reality is something concrete, unitary, and natural—a maze of facts, figures, opinions, confidential sources, and eyewitnesses that can be discovered, perceived, surveyed, quantified, and reported "objectively." Generally speaking, research inspired by this view of communication attempts to evaluate the news in terms of its fidelity to the facts.

In framing journalistic practice in terms of a "reflection" or "mirror" analogy, traditional news research conceives of the deviation between the journalistic account and this mythical reality as an index of something bad or negative called "bias." Take, for instance, John Merriam's analysis of national media coverage of drug issues between 1983 and 1987. Dusting off the mirror model, Merriam concludes that in this coverage "the media have reflected the public's attitude at large": "In the business of producing and selling news, large media organizations are generally in the business of reporting back to the public what it needs to know and is willing to pay for. The management skill of news organizations is to be able to recognize stories that fit this test. Drug issues have generally ranked fairly well, but they have not proved as durable as many people, knowing the seriousness of the problem, would like them to be." Notice how Reaganesque assumptions about the virtues of the so-called free market are naturalized in Merriam's assessment of the news industry's performance in reflecting what the public "needs to know and is willing to pay for."

Such social-scientific research tends to provide what is best described as a "top-down," administrator's picture of the news. Framed and composed from the point of view of a power bloc vying for the attention of a sluggish public, this research is often inspired by the idea of using the news media to achieve "civic mobilization." Indeed, Donald Shaw and Maxwell McCombs, leading practitioners of agenda-setting research, are surprisingly straightforward in pledging their allegiances to this power bloc. In their article, "Dealing with Illicit Drugs: The Power—and Limits—of Mass Media Agenda Setting," they argue that understanding the dynamics of agenda-building is important "both to communication scholars and to policymakers." It is important to communication scholars because it provides a theoretical way of explaining "how ideas and information are disseminated." But Shaw and McCombs are careful to suggest that this research is equally worthwhile because of its "practical implications for policymakers concerned with arousing public concern over drugs and with maintaining public support for government programs designed to combat the problem."

Clearly, so-called value-neutral agenda-setting research is far from neutral in its application to the media's construction of the drug problem. In the tradition of mercenary social scientific expertise, the concluding paragraph of Shaw and McCombs's article reads like promotional literature for a consulting operation:

In the research presented here, we have learned a great deal about the press and public agendas in regard to drugs. Most importantly, we have gained additional insights into the dynamics of agenda building. There is excellent guidance here for those leaders and interest groups who wish to maintain public and governmental attention on drugs. There is an opportunity to be seized, but only a thoughtful policy extending beyond the publicity of the moment will ameliorate the drug problem. The press and the public agendas can be shaped by transitory events. But if the drug problem is to be reduced, neither the press nor the public must be diverted by news events at the periphery of the issue. Using the knowledge presented here, a thoughtful leadership —in the press, government, and public—must frame the drug issue for the national agenda in such a way that ameliorating actions are possible. [Our emphasis]


Excerpted from Cracked Coverage by Jimmie L. Reeves, Richard Campbell. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

A Note to Our Readers
Introduction 1
Pt. I Re-Covering the War on Drugs 13
1 The Cocaine Narrative: A Thoroughly Modern Morality Tale 15
2 Merchants of Modern Discipline: The Drug Control Establishment 35
3 Visualizing the Drug News: Journalistic Surveillance/Spectacle 48
4 Reaganism: The Packaging of Backlash Politics 73
Pt. II Interrogating the Cocaine Narrative 105
5 The Trickle-Down Paradigm: White Pow(d)er and Therapeutic Recovery 107
6 The Siege Paradigm: Rewriting the Cocaine Narrative 129
7 Captivating Public Opinion: The Ventriloquist Turn 162
8 Family Matters: Nurturing Normalcy/Reproducing Delinquency 184
9 Denouement: Second Thoughts 218
Epilogue: Spin-Offs 255
Appendix A: Cocaine Stories 263
Appendix B: Noncocaine Stories 270
Appendix C: Chronology of Kernel Events in the Cocaine Narrative 272
Notes 277
Index 315
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