Stupid drug story of the week: A strange cocktail mixed by the Times.

Media criticism.
March 15 2007 6:21 PM

Stupid Drug Story of the Week

The New York Times mixes its intoxicants and gets stupid.

Is liquor spurring more crime in the military?
Is liquor spurring more crime in the military?

Not that long ago, every reporter knew his way around the bottle. He kept a pint in his bottom drawer at work, adjourned to bars for lunch, and as often as not, went to bed with a slight buzz on. But in today's puritanical newsroom, alcohol has become as verboten as methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana, cocaine, and MDMA. Reporters, who could once file dispassionate stories on the topic, have become as hysterical as 12-steppers falling off the wagon when assigned to write a booze story.

The New York Times whips itself and its readers into a tizzy about ol' demon rum this week in its Page One story "For U.S. Troops at War, Liquor Is Spur to Crime" (March 13). The story begins with three anecdotes about alcohol-fueled crimes committed in Iraq by U.S. solders—including the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the murder of her family by a liquored-up gang from the 101st Airborne Division—to illustrate the dangers of GIs and alcohol, before stating this thesis:

Alcohol, strictly forbidden by the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan, is involved in a growing number of crimes committed by troops deployed to those countries.

Then, in the next sentence, the bartender serving the article suddenly expands the scope of the article from just alcohol-related convictions of soldiers to alcohol- and drug-related convictions of soldiers:

Alcohol- and drug-related charges were involved in more than a third of all Army criminal prosecutions of soldiers in the two war zones—240 of the 665 cases resulting in convictions, according to records obtained by the New York Times through a Freedom of Information Act request.

About half of the convictions are alcohol-related and half are drug-related, which means the New York Times thinks it is news that there have been 120 alcohol-related convictions of soldiers over an unspecified interval in two combat theaters in which a total of 168,000 U.S. troops are stationed.

If you were the prosecutor in a U.S. county of 168,000, you'd count yourself pretty lucky if you convicted only 120 people of alcohol-related crimes in a year. If you were the prosecutor in a U.S. county of 168,000 men and women, the majority of whom were younger than 30, and you convicted only 120 in alcohol-related crimes, you'd probably dust off your tuxedo in anticipation of receiving the Prosecutor of the Century award from Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

This bad story only gets worse as it morphs into a survey piece about increased binge-drinking in the military, the stresses of life in a combat zone, and—I'm not kidding—the finding that chewing tobacco use has increased "during the past decade in service members who are considered overweight."

The article discusses drug-related crimes and illicit drug use without once naming the drugs troops are consuming. Heroin? Pot? Methamphetamine? Vicodin and OxyContin from the base pharmacy?

Among the other obvious questions the article doesn't ask:

  • What is the time interval over which the 240 convictions were recorded?
  • Is the incidence of drug- and alcohol-related crime among U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan higher than you would observe at a stateside U.S. base of 168,000 troops?
  • What is an alcohol-related crime? If a GI drinks one beer and then stomps a guy in his barracks, is that alcohol related?
  • Given that alcohol is forbidden by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, doesn't it stand to reason that troops who obtain a bottle will drink it all because they have no legal space to store the unconsumed contents? (When you, dear reader, were an underage drinker, didn't you and your pals binge on the case of Miller you scored?)
  • U.S. troops in Vietnam were allowed alcohol. Are the Vietnam crime statistics radically different from the ones recorded in Iraq and Afghanistan? Would alcohol-related crimes go down if troops could drink legally?
  • What nonalcohol drugs are being consumed? Which drugs are most popular? How do troops get them? Which psychoactive drugs are dispensed to combat soldiers?
  • The article states that 73 of the 240 convictions were for murder, rape, assault, and armed robbery, and that 12  convictions were for sex crimes. What other crimes brought convictions?
  • Of the approximately 120 drug-related convictions recorded, how many were for drug possession?

We learn from the article that "the rate of binge drinking in the Army shot up by 30 percent from 2002 to 2005." Isn't that a useless statistic unless we know how many binge drinkers were in the Army in 2002?

As you may have sensed, I've roiled myself to a point that can only be calmed by a Maker's Mark over ice. Cheers!

******

Why did the Times cover this story like a sobbing drunk? If you think the editors should lead the newsroom in a seminar of controlled drinking, what drinks should be served? Send your cocktail recipes and wine lists to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Please, no goofball drinks like coke, rum, and Coke. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 17 2014 12:27 PM Listen to Our Ultimate Holiday Playlist Holiday tracks for the season, exclusively for Slate Plus members.