Uncracking Crack Coverage

— Janice Peck

Cracked Coverage:
Television News, The Anti-Cocaine Crusade,
And the Reagan Legacy
by Jimmie L. Reeves and Richard Campbel
Duke University Press, 1994, 330 pages, $19.95.

IN MODERN SOCIETY, Stuart Hall argues, the mass media play a decisive role in constructing social knowledge. By “ruling in and ruling out certain realities,” the media provide frameworks of intelligibility, helping us “not simply to know more about the world, but to make sense of it,” and drawing the line “between preferred and excluded explanations and rationales, between permitted and deviant behaviors, between the `meaningful’ and the `meaningless.’”

Cracked Coverage: Television News, the Anti-Cocaine Crusade, and the Reagan Legacy, an analysis of network television news coverage of cocaine and the “war on drugs” in the 1980s, is a study of that line in the making. Written by Jimmie Reeves and Richard Campbell, the book is also an examination of the socio-political context—the triumph of Reaganism and the backlash politics of the New Right—within which TV news fashioned its “cocaine narrative.”

In its aims, approach and arguments, Cracked Coverage joins a larger body of critical media analyses. These include Todd Gitlin’s study of the media and the New Left (The Whole World is Watching), Hall and colleagues’ analysis of “law and order” news under Thatcher’s reign (Policing the Crisis), Robert Goldman and Arvind Rajagopal’s study of TV news coverage of industrial conflict (Mapping Hegemony), and Daniel Hallin’s critique of U.S. television journalism (We Keep America on Top of the World).

These and other studies aim to identify the “ideological work” of the news media. Following in this critical tradition, Cracked Coverage asks what is at stake—for all of us—when television news succeeds in endorsing as “common sense” the New Right’s definition of the “cocaine problem.” Reeves and Campbell characterize their study as an “indictment” of Reaganism, the drug control establishment and mainstream journalism.

The authors suggest that together with the ever-increasing ranks of drug “experts,” network news was fully implicated in advancing the “backlash politics of the New Right” that helped sustain Reaganism in the `80s. As they argue in their introduction:

“[T]he journalistic recruitment in the anti-cocaine crusade was absolutely crucial to converting the war on drugs into a political spectacle that depicted social problems grounded on economic transformations as individual moral or behavioral problems that could be remedied by simply embracing family values, modifying bad habits, policing mean streets, and incarcerating the fiendish “enemies within.”

Through an analysis of some 270 network news “packages” dealing with cocaine from 1981 through 1988, Reeves and Campbell identify what they call a “cocaine narrative” and its organization into three stages of coverage: Phase I, the “trickle-down paradigm” (January 1981 to November 1985); Phase II, the “siege paradigm” (December `85 to November `86); and the “postcrisis” Phase III (December `86 to December `88).

In the first phase, cocaine is represented as a “glamor” drug once associated with the rich and famous, but now becoming available for use and abuse by middle-class Americans. Here the coverage employs a “discourse of recovery” based on therapeutic intervention.

Phase two, the siege paradigm, reverses that interpretation, framing cocaine as a crisis originating in the inner-city “underclass” that is now encroaching on middle-class safety and ways of life. This phase of coverage is characterized by an “us versus them” mentality that “activates discourses of [racial] discrimination.”

The third, final phase marks mainstream journalism’s response to criticism of its role in “hyping” the war on drugs and signals its “growing sense of doom” that the battle against cocaine is failing.

The authors’ analysis is guided by their contention that “mainstream television journalism” is “a spectacle of surveillance that is actively engaged in representing authority, visualizing deviance, and publicizing common sense.” In its coverage of cocaine, TV news carried out this surveillance function by “enacting rites of inclusion and exclusion” that draw the line between us and them.

Intervention, Punishment, Demonization

The authors illustrate this boundary-making process at work in an analysis of the shift from “trickle-down” to “siege” frames in relationship to the “soft” and “hard” branches of the drug control establishment.

The “soft domain of correction” includes the extensive network of therapeutic intervention, including counseling, in and out-patient treatment centers, drug hotlines, medication, and so on that are part of what authors term the “medical-industrial complex.”

This domain is organized around “rites of inclusion” that are “devoted generally to the edification and internal discipline of those who are within the fold.” Framed through a “discourse of recovery,” soft correction is “applied primarily to transgressing members of the middle and professional classes.”

In Phase I coverage, this framework figured prominently in stories about reformed/reforming addicts (sports stars, corporate executives, celebrities, white middle-class citizens).

The hard sector of the correction process, in contrast, is aimed not at those of “us” who “have strayed from the fold,” but at “delinquents” in need of punishment and ostracism. As the authors note, “where disciplinary modes of inclusion treat the drug offender as a diseased soul in need of therapeutic transformation, modes of exclusion stigmatize the transgressor as a pathological Other—a delinquent beyond rehabilitation.”

Such Others then become the object of surveillance and detention under the auspices of the hard sector of the correction process (e.g. the police and the prison). Reeves and Campbell trace the historical development of what they call the “narco-carceral complex,” devoted to policing the line between us and them and to segregating the drug abuser from the drug criminal.

Not surprisingly, the hard sector of drug correction became a prominent feature in Phase II coverage when the “siege paradigm” was in full play. Here the discourse of recovery is usurped by a “discourse of discrimination” as drug delinquency is articulated along racial lines.

As the authors argue, through the Reagan administration’s war on drugs, with the compliance of “crusading” network journalism, “the pathology of delinquency was literally inscribed on the body of the young, poor, urban black male whose very life was a punishable offense requiring disciplinary modes of exclusion.”

The War on Drugs in Context

One of the book’s chief strengths is that its detailed analysis of the coverage is grounded in an equally careful look at broader social and political-economic conditions. In the chapter “Reaganism: the Packaging of Backlash Politics,” they connect the war on drugs to the rise of the political-religious right in the 1970s.

Reaganism’s success, they contend, is that it tapped the discontent and mounting insecurity of working- and middle-class citizens stemming from changing economic conditions—the collapse of a Fordist economic order (i.e. an economy based on high levels of working-class consumer consumption—ed.) and the rapid deindustrialization of the U.S. economy. The right attached these anxieties to single-issue politics (e.g. drugs, crime, property taxes, abortion, school prayer) that helped obscure those same economic processes.

Mike Davis’ excellent study of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, makes a similar argument about the middle-class property tax revolts in California in the 1980s. Like Davis, Reeves and Campbell argue that the backlash politics of Reaganism (of which the war on drugs was a part) “helped mask the economic devastation of deindustrialization, aggravated white-black tensions in the electorate, and, ultimately, helped solidify middle-class support for policies that favored the rich over the poor.”

Race and the War on Drugs

A key consequence of the war on drugs was its ability to shift attention (and tension) away from issues of class to issues of race, in line with the political agenda of Reaganism.

Although they do not use the term, what Reeves and Campbell have identified in the “cocaine narrative” is a process of racialization. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, in Racial Formation, describe racialization as “the extension of racial meaning to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice or group.”

In Phase I coverage, when cocaine is viewed as a “elite” habit that has trickled down to the middle classes, it has not yet been racialized. The “transgressors” depicted in this phase, most of whom are white, are individualized, their drug problems associated with individual weakness or lapses of judgment unconnected to race.

As Richard Dyer points out in his essay “White,” “whiteness” operates as an unspoken, “invisible” norm in the absence of its Other and is not seen in racial terms until it encounters those who are “not white.” Because “whiteness” has also been historically linked with individuality, non-whites are typically seen not as individuals, but as representatives of a collective racial Other.

Thus, the trickle-down paradigm sometimes explores reasons for transgressors’ cocaine use (decadent lifestyles, too much money or too little self-restraint or self-esteem), but their drug abuse is not linked to race (e.g. whites don’t use cocaine because they are white). Only when the coverage enters the Phase II siege paradigm does cocaine become “color-coded”—where explanations of individual lapses are replaced by “cultural” (i.e. racial) explanations.

It is here that “cocaine” is displaced by “crack” and drug “offenders” become drug “delinquents.” This racialization of the cocaine narrative not only draws the line between “permitted and deviant behaviors,” it also distinguishes between permitted and deviant people.

This shift in the coverage also reconfigure the relationship of cause and effect. Within the siege paradigm, race becomes an organizing theme—where smoking/ selling crack and being Black are implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, linked. The effect is to imply some kind of racial causality, whether in its “hard” form (African Americans are somehow culturally prone to drug “delinquency”) or its “soft” version (Blacks are somehow more culturally susceptible to drug problems than are whites).

This racialization of the televised cocaine narrative thus helped legitimize Reaganism’s economic agenda and its strategy of racial polarization. As Reeves and Campbell argue:

“[T]he crack crisis provided the Reagan administration with an opportunity to tighten controls on [what it perceived to be] the drone population by demonizing a disposable fragment of the peripheral labor market (impoverished, black, urban youth) while it hypocritically pursued a policy of loosening controls on the entrepreneurial class.”

The practical success of this strategy can be seen in statistics on incarceration cited in the book. Under Reagan, the U.S. prison population nearly doubled (from 329,821 in 1980 to 627,402 in 1989). The number of drug arrests jumped from 471,000 in 1980 to 1,247,000 in 1989.

By 1990, the United States had the highest incarceration rate in the world (426 per 100,000). In that same year, some 50 percent of prison inmates were there for drug offenses and African-Americans comprised nearly half of the national prison population.

Reeves and Campbell also note the racialized dimensions of sentencing. They cite a study in Minnesota where, following a 1989 law, first-time crack users received a four-year prison sentence compared to first-time cocaine offenders who received probation; ninety-five percent of the former were Black, eighty percent of the latter were white.

Family-Values and Moral Panic

Racialization also enters the coverage through the trope of “the family.” In an intriguing chapter titled “Family Matters: Nurturing Normalcy/Reproducing Delinquency,” the authors analyze the mediated redemption of Nancy Reagan (long an object of New Right animosity) via her recruitment into the “Just Say No” campaign, and the demonization of the “crack mother” (the latest twist in the right’s historical hostility to the “welfare mother”).

In keeping with the shift from Phase I to Phase II coverage, the predominantly white “cocaine mothers” in the first phase were presented within a therapeutic frame, while the “crack mothers” of the siege paradigm (predominantly women of color) were “cast ... in the role of the monster.”

The already “raced” drug delinquent is thereby gendered as well. This demonization is further extended in the news treatment of children of “crack mothers.” Portrayed as permanently damaged and a perpetual drain on public resources, these children are defined as “tomorrow’s delinquents.”

The deficiencies of mainstream journalism identified in Cracked Coverage echo those cited in other critical analyses of news: the press’ unquestioned dependence on “expert” and “official” sources that privileges established definitions of reality; journalists’ willingness to become “crusaders” on issues that appear to enjoy wide consensus (e.g., “family values,” crime, etc.); television news’ penchant for sensational stories, “good pictures, and personalization at the expense of in-depth analysis and attention to underlying causes of issues.

To support their argument that network news helped create a “moral panic” by “hyping the crack scare,” the authors trace the connection between the rapid increase in drug stories in 1986 and a corresponding rise in public perception of a national drug “epidemic.”

For example, in April 1986, a New York Times/CBS news poll found that only two percent of respondents saw drugs as the nation’s biggest problem. After four months of intensive coverage by various media, an ABC news poll found that 80 percent of respondents believed the United States was facing a national drug crisis.

Here the authors explore how government-supported research was used to create a governmental anti-drug campaign (the “Just Say No” campaign launched by the National Institute on Drug Abuse) that would form the basis for subsequent news coverage and for media-sponsored polls that served to reinforce the “reality” of a national, drug-driven “crime wave.”

Once this moral panic had been cultivated, the authors argue, the public was more inclined to accept, without significant opposition, the “need” for extensive deployment of mandatory employee drug testing, as well as for expanded police powers, especially in inner cities overrun with “drug delinquents.”

Who’s Responsible?

As Cracked Coverage indicates, central to the “war on drugs,” and to Reaganism generally, is the translation of structural, political issues into individual, moral defects—or a reversal of cause and effect. Thus, socio-political problems are the result of individuals’ failure to control their behavior, manage their families, and succeed in the marketplace.

The solution is equally individualized. Hence the New Right’s mantra of “personal responsibility,” which is deployed not only in the war on drugs but in attacks on welfare, affirmative action and health care reform.

Network news coverage endorsed and circulated this inversion of cause and effect, and in so doing failed to examine the relationship between socio-economic transformations that have made the drug economy one of the few sources of income in devastated urban cores, or that have fostered the extraordinary growth of the therapy industry.

Surely the fact that the number of psychiatric hospitals doubled between 1984 and 1991, and that one million prescriptions are being written each month for the anti-depressant Prozac suggests some kind of social, rather than purely individual malaise.

In an interesting twist, Reeves and Campbell turn the right’s call for personal responsibility on a cast of characters they believe should be held “accountable for profiting from drug hysteria:” the “drug warriors on the Right” (both Reagans, George Bush, William Bennett, the infamous LA police chief Darryl Gates, Pete Wilson, etc.); the major players in the drug control industry; and the network anchors and reporters who aided these “moral entrepreneurs.”

Seeking an Alternative

Cracked Coverage is an intelligent, well-written, thoroughly-researched, timely and important piece of work. It serves as a powerful antidote to the nightly parade of crime and crisis that constitutes television news, not to mention the proliferation of “reality programming: (Cops, Top Cops, American’s Most Wanted) that routinely validate law enforcement’s definitions of reality.

In their conclusion, Reeves and Campbell express the hope that their book will incite a “righteous anger.” They appeal to “thoughtful journalists,” in particular, to consider the social implications of institutionalized practices that play into the hands of the powerful and stigmatize some of the most powerless sectors of the population as “beyond rehabilitation.”

This appeal reflects the authors’ desire to find paths of corrective action; and undoubtedly there are journalists for whom this call to conscience will resonate. Such invocations to professional journalism to reform itself are not new; they speak to a notion deeply embedded in the history of the press that journalism should be a governmental “watchdog” and adversary acting on behalf of “the people.”

Such a view, however, coexists uneasily with the fact of the press’ subservient relationship to the very institutions it is supposed to monitor. Nor should we forget that network news divisions operate at the behest of their owners—privately-held and increasingly transnational communications conglomerates, which like other such corporate entities benefitted directly from the political-economic policies of Reaganism.

The authors’ appeal to journalistic conscience may be particularly problematic in the case of TV news, which as Hallin notes “is increasingly seen as a subgenre of television programming, rather than as a branch of journalism.”

I also wonder whether generously paid network anchors and reporters will be moved by Reeves’ and Campbell’s reminder of journalism’s “often-stated mission to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” As members of a small economic elite, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, et al. are the “comfortable.”

As a former journalist myself, I share the authors’ desire for a new kind of journalism that is “more self-conscious, more overtly interpretive, more honest, and much less debilitated by its `quasi-objectivity.’” Ultimately, though, I believe their hope is better placed with the vast majority of us who receive the news—not the few who create it.

The authors’ vision of a more self-conscious and overtly interpretive journalism, moreover, already exists—outside the mainstream media in independent newspapers and opinion journals, public access television, community-supported radio, alternative news associations like Pacifica Network News, and so on.

In News, the Politics of Illusion, Lance Bennett suggests that the public, not professional journalists, has the most to gain from critical analyses of the news. He encourages us to become less dependent on the mainstream commercial press, to acquire the skills necessary to identify for ourselves the media’s ideological work, and to seek out a variety of sources of information.

It is exactly such a public for whom Cracked Coverage is most valuable, by providing the essential subtext missing from the network definition of the cocaine problem and an alternative frame of intelligibility that de-stabilizes the common sense constructed nightly on television.

As someone who teaches courses on the mass media at a large public university, I will enthusiastically recommend Cracked Coverage to students for its ability to foster media literacy, just as I encourage and often assign students to search out alternative sources of information against which to compare main<->stream, commercial journalism. Far from becoming cynical and resigned, those students say they find it liberating to be offered the tools and resources to critically “read” and evaluate the messages of the mass media.

Sources Cited

Bennett, W. Lance. News, the Politics of Illusion, 2nd ed. (New York: Longman, 1988).

Dyer, Richard. “White.” Screen, 29(4): 44-65.

Gitlin, Todd. The Whole World is Watching: The Media in the Making and the Unmaking of the New Left (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).

Goldman, Robert and Arvind Rajagopal. Mapping Hegemony: Television News Coverage of Industrial Conflict (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1991).

Hall, Stuart. “Culture, the Media and the `Ideological Effect’.” In James Curran et al. (eds.), Mass Communication and Society (Newbury Park: Sage, 1979).

Hall, Stuart et al. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (London: Macmillan, 1979).

Hallin, Daniel. We Keep America on Top of the World: Television Journalism and the Public Sphere<D>. (New York: Routledge, 1994.)

Miles, Robert. <MI>Racism<D> (New York & London: Routledge, 1989).

Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States (New York: Routledge, 1994).

November/December 1995