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Cracked Coverage: Television News, the Anti-Cocaine Crusade, and the Reagan Legacy


September-October 1994

by Jimmie L. Reeves and Richard Campbell. Duke University Press, 1994. 330 pages. $19.95.

Cracked Coverage is an insightful analysis of the "cocaine crisis" of the 1980s. Reeves and Campbell look at television coverage of that decade and tell a story about the public face of drug policy. This story, what the authors call the "cocaine narrative," is full of surprising plot turns and colorful characters.

The authors show how network coverage drew on myth, gender, and racial stereotyping to define the deviant drug abuser. They translate the meanings of such cultural rhetoric as the "pro-family agenda" and the "Just Say No" campaign within the socioeconomic context of Reaganism and Modernity (including such trends as social engineering to control populations and the increasingly dominating role of technology and science).

The authors state (but never support with evidence) that when faced with a bankrupt economic policy, Reagan and his handlers diverted American consciousness away from this failure to morality, defining "people in trouble as people who make trouble" (p. 73). TV coverage validated and enabled the "war on drugs," which in turn validated and enabled an

antiwelfare and antiaffirmative action backlash that Reaganism exploited to gain popular support for economic policies that favored the rich. Ultimately, we suggest that the moral panic generated by the crack crisis provided the New Right with an opportunity to mask the devastating impact of Reaganomics on America's inner cities by reframing economic distress in terms of the wages of racially coded sin (p. 73-4).

The remainder of the book is structured according to the phases of TV coverage. In Phase I (January 1981 to November 1985) TV news presents cocaine as a pollutant eerily seeping into middle- and upper-class communities from the lower classes. Users in these cautionary tales are defined as people with a sudden lapse in judgment, which can be corrected through therapy and medical attention. By mid-1986, the cocaine of TV news becomes the drug of the underclass and drug abuse becomes a problem for heavily armed law enforcement to tackle. The cocaine story turns to one of crack-heads beyond rehabilitation, crackhouses, crack babies, and cities under siege. The authors see the death of Len Bias as the turning point in cocaine coverage and their treatment of this event is particularly detailed and enlightening. In Phase III, 1987-1988, the press begins to be more critical of its own coverage and some of the unfortunate stereotypes prevalent in Phase II begin to fall away. Drug abusers, however, are still beyond rehabilitation and are now defined as pawns caught in the trap of fate.

This tale of the changing face of cocaine highlights journalists' dependance on those in power to define an issue -- they act as handmaidens to political elites, the "stenographers of power" (p. 169). The cocaine crisis provoked disgust and loathing in the hearts of middle America toward cocaine users and abusers, who became deviant half-humans:

television journalism ... was implicated deeply in orchestrating and legitimating the 'political operations, economic interventions, and ideological campaigns' of both the drug control establishment and the New Right. This crusading journalism not only facilitated the ascendancy of a punitive strategy on national drug control policy, but it has generated a 'new consensus' that attributed the many human troubles attending economic distress to 'individual deviance, immorality, or weakness'" (p. 250).

With TV news setting up the public in this way, politcians found it easy to justify draining funds out of treatment programs and into prisons to lock away and punish those who use cocaine.

One striking section of the book shows a convergence of TV spin and public opinion about drugs. As coverage reached a more frenzied pitch, the public responded in opinion polls by naming drugs as the most important problem facing the nation. Public opinion is really not easily manipulated, and a leap in response to the 1986 crack crisis is remarkable indeed. While the authors choose only to examine TV network coverage, they write that the avalanche of media messages helped to create this change. When Peter Jennings , Nancy Reagan, Cops, officials from the DEA, and the frying egg commercial on TV all seem to agree about drug policy, minds change.

Cracked Coverage is sometimes heavy in communication theory and the authors admit that most readers might want to skip over these sections. These passages are written in a clear, concise and understandable manner. Non-academics will find the theory sections intelligible and useful for interpreting some of the trends in TV coverage.

This book illustrates how the evening news is an important site to examine the battle for control of drug policy -- how it is fought and who wins and how. It will make you think about the role of TV, government officials, and public opinion in a new way.

 -- Sharon Jones