If you have not been on Twitter in the last few hours, congratulations, you are probably doing something useful with your life. And you have probably not seen everyone absolutely DRAGGING a local St. Louis news reporter who tweeted a picture of a conference room half-heartedly dressed to look like a bedroom, with the caption, “Looks like a normal teen’s bedroom, right? Think again.”
Setting aside the fact that no, it does not look like a normal teen’s bedroom, it looks like a conference room with a bed in it, the tweet goes on, “Coming up on @KMOV, we’ll show you what parents should be looking for so they can identify signs of drug use. I was shocked at what I found in this room!!!”
The whole situation is very stupid and funny — “I was shocked,” lol, sure you were. (One of the props is literally a sign that says “420.”) But behind all the jokes at the expense of today’s Main Character of Twitter are some less-funny concerns about the victims of the war on drugs, and how easy it is to plant news stories.
So, how does something like this happen?
I have no particular insight into the operation of KMOV’s newsroom, but I’m sure that they (like us) are constantly drowning in press releases from companies and organizations trying desperately to justify their own existence. I just took a glance at the “Pitches” folder that I set up to automatically filter any mail addressed to the editor, and there are currently 37,628 emails going back to the start of the year.
A random sampling from the top of the mailbox: Someone who wants me to write about his QAnon conspiracy-tracking website; someone at the Department of Justice who wants me to write about how they fight credit card fraud; someone who wants me to write about how their company does very good political consulting, etc etc etc. And these are just half of the pitches I got in the last five minutes.
Paige Hulsey, the unlucky reporter who wound up with this assignment, tweeted later that the “bedroom” was set up by the Drug Enforcement Agency and the nonprofit Addiction is Real. When I read that, the pieces started falling into place; government agencies and nonprofits often stage photo-ops to try to score free publicity from reporters — “earned media,” it’s called. In my previous life, working at a nonprofit, we’d often brainstorm ways to lure journalists into giving us attention; the organization I worked for even made arrangements with a New York Times reporter to be embedded with the team, so she could write a book about our very important work.
There are, obviously, problems with this phenomenon. As a reporter, it is extremely easy to just do a rewrite of whatever press release your source hands you. Getting multiple sources with different perspectives, on the other hand, is hard work and can often take days — especially if you’re producing a video package! When someone hands you a ready-made news story with a gimmick and a hook, oh man, it's like they're saying, "Hello, would you like me to do most of your job for you?" And you know, in the back of your head, that if you ask them "but is what you're telling me true?" they might stop being so helpful.
Another problem with this report is that Hulsey’s tweet made it look like a moral-panic drug report straight out of the Reagan era — with the tie-dyed sheet taped to the wall, the 420 sign, and what looked like soda-can bongs scattered around the DEA conference room, many people assumed that the “signs of drug use” referred to weed. You’d never know that the report is about fentanyl, a much more dangerous substance.
So the tweet was easy to misinterpret; making things worse, her actual report is impossible to find because local TV news station websites are all catastrophically unusable. The station tweeted a picture of the report, but not the video. Did she just regurgitate DEA talking points, or did she ask tough skeptical questions? We may never know! (Actually, you can find a preview video on Facebook. There are no skeptical questions, it’s just a list of ways for parents to search their kid’s bedroom for pills.)
Every single one of those thirty-thousand emails in my pitch folder is written by a person with an agenda, and that agenda is to use me to get to you. Sometimes that’s not such a bad thing, as with the email I just got about how Kitsap County has a burn ban this weekend. Okay, sure, that’s news you can use! I don’t need to interview someone who thinks that actually Kitsap County needs more wildfires.
And to be clear, fentanyl abuse is a big problem. But so is uncritically repeating talking points from a government agency that’s been waging a racist war on drugs since the Nixon administration.
At the end of the day, the DEA and Addiction is Real got exactly what they wanted out of this whole affair, which is that they appeared as champions in the eyes of KMOV’s viewers. KMOV got what they wanted, which was giving terrified parents a reason to watch the evening news. And Hulsey endured a stream of vitriol on Twitter, which is probably not at all what she wanted.
Are any of those outcomes going to help teenagers who are addicted to painkillers?