The third installment of the New York Times’ Retro Report video series (5/20/13), which aims to “re-examine the leading stories of decades past,” addressed the so-called “crack baby” phenomenon. In an editorial note, the Times (5/20/13) claimed the piece “lays out how limited scientific studies in the 1980s led to predictions that a generation of children would be damaged for life.” But to “lay out” how that happened would require more serious interrogation of corporate media’s own role than they are inclined to attempt, here or in previous “revisits” to the story (e.g., Washington Post, 4/18/10; New York Times, 1/27/09; see FAIR Blog, 1/30/09).
Some mid-’80s case studies, most famously one from University of Illinois’ Dr. Ira Chasnoff with just 23 subjects (9/85), suggested links between women’s cocaine use during pregnancy and very damaging effects on babies. What challengers said at the time, and has since been broadly acknowledged, is that while prenatal cocaine exposure is not harmless, the effects supposedly linked to it actually reflect an array of combined factors, including poverty, poor maternal health and access to care; considered in isolation, prenatal alcohol and tobacco exposure have far more demonstrable detrimental impacts.
But corporate media, already obsessed with crack—a cocaine derivative associated with cities and poor people of color—went for the “crack baby” idea in a big, ugly way, filling the air with alarm about millions of (did we mention? black) children with uniquely devastating physical and mental impairments, set to inflict catastrophic costs on society.
Here’s the Times’ summary (5/20/13):
Major newspapers and magazines, including Rolling Stone, Newsweek, the Washington Post and the New York Times ran articles and columns that went beyond the research. Network TV stars of that era, including Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, also bear responsibility for broadcasting uncritical reports.
Not good enough. Media didn’t so much exaggerate a phenomenon as package and propagate their own storyline, then fail to vigorously disarticulate it when it was shown to be a pernicious distortion.
The Washington Post’s Charles Kraut-hammer (7/30/89) wasn’t merely misreporting study findings when he decried “the newest horror: a bio-underclass, a generation of physically damaged cocaine babies whose biological inferiority is stamped at birth.” He let American Enterprise Institute’s Douglas Besharov spell it out: “This is not stuff that Head Start can fix. This is permanent brain damage. Whether it is 5 percent or 15 percent of the black community, it is there.”
Outlets weren’t just insufficiently skeptical when they circulated outlandish claims about how crack exposure “interferes with the central core of what it is to be human” (New York Times, 9/17/89), or stoked resentment over the overwhelming societal price that would be extracted by these wretched children—“Crack’s Tiniest, Costliest Victims,” as the Times (8/7/89) described them.
“Disaster in Making: Crack Babies Start to Grow Up” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 9/18/90); “A Time Bomb in Cocaine Babies” (Washington Post, 9/17/89); “Drug Babies Invade Schools” (San Diego Union Tribune, 2/2/92)—this wasn’t the work of a press corps that momentarily lost its way (Extra!, 9/98).
So a true re-examination would ask: What is it about media institutions that makes them so willing to write off millions of mainly black children? Why, when it was acknowledged that babies are equally or more affected by maternal use of tobacco and alcohol, was that not occasion for runaway condemnatory coverage of those phenomena?
A serious revisit would confront the effects of years of misleading coverage. Criminal prosecutions of women who used drugs while pregnant or whose newborns tested positive increased along with the scaremongering. The Times notes this, but the idea of punishing pregnant women as public policy is anything but an ’80s relic; a thorough look at “the true legacy of the crack baby era” (as this is described) would connect it to the present.
What of the effect on research? Katherine Greider (Mother Jones, 7–8/95) noted that researchers who found no or little effect from prenatal cocaine were stymied:
In a 1989 study published in the Lancet, Canadian researcher Gideon Koren showed that papers reporting a cocaine effect in child behavior were likely to be accepted over those showing no effect, for presentation at an annual meeting of the Society for Pediatric Research—even when the no-effect studies were of sounder design.
But the most corrosive impact of media’s mean-spirited juggernaut was on the lives of the children they labeled. Unsurprisingly, kids whom the nation’s papers of record blithely compared to “a race of (sub) human ...drones” (Washington Post, 7/30/89) met with lower expectations from teachers and parents, and were harder to place in foster care.
The Times seemed to understand this in 2009, reporting that society’s expectations of crack-exposed children are “completely guided not by the toxicity but by the social meaning” of the drug. They seem less clear on the point now, as they feel the need to show us a young woman born to an addicted mother, who “helps disprove the myth of what these infants would become” by raising a family, going to college, and not being an emotionless monster.
Greider put it well: “Headlines about crack babies have trumpeted the good news: They’ve beaten the odds! There’s new hope! But the odds should never have been laid so early, and those headlines should read, ‘Oh God, what have we done?’”
Even as the Retro Report is shaped by comments from Emory University’s Claire Coles, who recounts challenging the story at the time, the piece congratulates itself with a “now it can be told” tone, in which predictions “turned out to be wrong,” and the most prominent researcher “now says” his findings were misrepresented. In fact, Chasnoff (AP, 12/6/92) was lamenting misuse of his work as long ago as 1992: “It sells newspapers and it perpetuates the us-vs.-them idea.”
The Times concluded its video revisit with a similar remark from Coles, that the “crack baby” lie took better hold than the truth because “there are certain ideas people want to believe.” Those people include journalists first and foremost; they shouldn’t bother “revisiting” the “crack baby” story unless they’re willing to deal with that.