W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Pharm parties’

Cinematic treatments can solidify media myths

In Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 14, 2010 at 7:12 am

In this, the last of three installments drawn from an interview with Newsbusters about Getting It Wrong, the discussion turns to whether new media are effective in thwarting the spread of media-driven myths.

I express doubts about that prospect.

The Newsbusters interview was conducted by Lachlan Markay, who described Getting It Wrong as “exhaustively researched and painstakingly even-handed.” The interview transcript is accessible here.

NEWSBUSTERS: Looking forward, do new media present an opportunity to debunk these myths, before they get started?

CAMPBELL: You would think that it would, and I think there has been some evidence that that’s the case, but then there are other myths that just seem to defy debunking newer myths.

Jack Shafer at Slate.com has done some interesting work in looking at the so-called … “pharm parties” in which young people would raid their medicine cabinets of their parents and just take whatever medication they could find, bring them to a party, and then dump them in a communal bowl, and sort of play Russian roulette with these drugs–by the handful take them, and see what kind of effect that they have.

And it seems to be an urban legend that’s just taken hold, and it’s appeared in newspapers, periodically, around the country–San Francisco to DC–and there seems to be no evidence to support this other than the notion that police have heard that this kind of stuff goes on. And Shafer’s written a number of columns at Slate that insist that no one has ever seen this happen, no one has ever attended a pharm party, there’s never been any kind of first person documentation.

And yet, the story is too good not to be true, and it lives on.

So you would think that the Internet would have been more effective by now in knocking down that kind of story. It hasn’t.

NB: So these myths, then, get started because newspapers have disregarded their own–or not just newspapers, but any media has disregarded its own standards of journalism.

CAMPBELL: You could see that in some cases, yeah, I suppose that’s true. [But] I don’t think they’re going at this whole hog and saying, we’re just going to forget about our standards and go at this story just because it sounds so good.

NB: Or, put differently, if those standards were followed to a T, some of these myths might never have taken shape.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, that’s probably true.

NB: A lot of these myths are ingrained in our culture. They’re part of American history, included in textbooks. The Woodward and Bernstein example comes to mind. You have movies, for instance, All the President’sMen , or Good Night, and Good Luck with Edward R. Murrow–does pop culture, or culture in general, play a larger part in perpetuating these myths? Is this something that journalists create on their own, or is it out of their hands and American culture sees these magnificent stories, and sort of adopts them as their own?

CAMPBELL: I think the dynamic that leads to the solidification of media myths is a very interesting one. It’s kind of complex, but I think that some of the points that you’ve mentioned are very central to that process of solidifying a myth–sort of the national consciousness. Cinema does a very good job of doing that.

Cinematic treatments help solidify in the minds of people the supposed reality of some of these exchanges, of some of these encounters, of some of these moments.

…. the cinematic treatment of Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men I think really helped solidify the notion that those two guys were central to bringing down Richard Nixon. In fact, the movie, as clever and well-done as it is, leads to no other interpretation but that. It had to be those guys. …

As a nation we do tend to remember things cinematically. I’m not the first one to say that. Others have looked at it more closely than I have and have made that determination. It’s a fair statement. Good Night, and Good Luck introduced a whole new generation of Americans to the notion that Edward R. Murrow was the one who did in Joe McCarthy, with his 30-minute television program.

NB: Do you have students who come in and say, “I saw Good Night and Good Luck and it inspired me to pursue a career in journalism”?

CAMPBELL: You know, I haven’t heard it said quite that way. But they do think that that movie is well done.

NB: The romanticism of journalism appeals to the students.

CAMPBELL: Exactly. And more students have seen All the President’s Men than have read the book, by far. … But cinema really is a factor that propels and solidifies these myths.

End of part three

Advance pub for ‘Getting It Wrong’

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on April 28, 2010 at 3:47 pm

The online site of the School of Communication here at American University posts today a Q-and-A with me about Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book that debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

Topics addressed include the Remington-Hearst/furnish the war anecdote; the War of the Worlds/mass hysteria myth, and the “Cronkite moment“/”I’ve lost Middle America” meme.

And while the topic is not considered in Getting It Wrong, I also mention the “pharm parties” myth, in which young people are said to take pills of any kind from their parents’ medicine cabinets. They supposedly show up at a party and dump the purloined pills into a large, common bowl. Then they are purported to take turns scooping out and swallowing handfuls of the medications, not knowing what they’re taking, in the supposed pursuit of a drug-induced high.

Jack Shafer, media critic for slate.com, has done fine work in knocking down the “pharm party” meme.

Here are excerpts from the Q-and-A:

Q: “Myth busting” can upset people who have accepted, or even benefited from, the myth. Have you gotten any negative feedback?

A:  Not really. Not so far. I do know that some people wonder “who cares?” about some of the myths debunked in Getting It Wrong. The Hearst—”furnish the war” myth, after all, is more than 100 years old. But I emphasize in the book that media-driven myths are neither innocuous nor trivial. They can, and do, promote stereotypes. They can deflect attention or blame away from the makers of flawed policies. They can, and often do, offer an exaggerated sense of the power and influence of the news media. Plus, debunking myths is a pursuit that’s aligned with a fundamental objective of mainstream American journalism—that of getting it right.

Q: What’s next?

A: I’d like to think there’s a sequel to Getting It Wrong. The universe of media-driven myths isn’t confined to 10, after all. There are more to confront. Also, in fall 2010, I’ll be teaching a “wild card” course in the University’s General Education program titled “Media Myth and Power.” The course will consider several of the myths debunked in Getting It Wrong.

A tip of the chapeau to Michael Wargo of the School of Communication for putting together the Q-and-A, which follows the writeup about the book that appeared April 11 in the “Outlook” section of the Washington Post.


‘Pharm patries’ and the howler-correction of the month

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers on March 21, 2010 at 8:36 pm

The once-great Chicago Tribune offered up the howler-correction of the month the other day, saying this about a story it published nearly four months ago:

“In a Nov. 22 article about teenagers who abuse prescription drugs, a reference to ‘pharm parties‘ being a craze among teens did not sufficiently support that assertion.”


That, no doubt, was the reaction of many people who read and puzzled over that correction: It befuddled more than it clarified.

Here’s what the Tribune said about “pharm parties” back in the fall:

“‘Pharm parties’ are a disturbing craze in which teens steal prescription medicine from home, take the pills to a gathering, and dump the load into a bowl. The partygoers then pop the pills and wait for a reaction.”

The “pharm party” meme is a media-driven myth, one of remarkable tenacity. The myth’s most energetic debunker, Jack Shafer of slate.com, has traced the meme to 1966, when, he says, “pharm parties” were known as “fruit salad parties.”

“There are at least two basic problems with the pharm-party scenario reported in the press,” Shafer has written.

“To begin with, if you were a young drug fiend and stole potent drugs, why would you deposit them in a communal bowl if there was a good chance that when your turn came to draw a drug at random, you might get an antihistamine? And second, I’ve yet to read a story in which a journalist actually attends such a gathering, interviews a participant, or cites a police report alleging such behavior.”

More recently, Shafer deliciously excoriated the San Francisco Chronicle for its front-page report a week ago about “pharm parties,” which declared–on the basis of few if any statistics–that  “the phenomenon is getting worse.”

The headline over Shafer’s column described the Chronicle account as “the worst ‘pharm party’ story ever.”

He pointed out:

“To my knowledge, no journalist has ever witnessed such random consumption of drugs by young people in a party setting, yet the story continues to get major play as if these affairs are common.”

So why has the “pharm party” myth demonstrated such tenacty? Why does it seem to defy the most thorough of debunkings?

An important factor, no doubt, is stereotyping–a ready willingness to believe that teens readily indulge in mindlessly dangerous conduct.

To that end, a graduate student of mine recently called attention to passage in 1988 film Heathers in which the protagonist, J.D., says:

“Your society nods its head at any horror the American teenager can think to bring upon itself.”

Like many media-driven myths–including those addressed and debunked in my forthcoming book Getting It Wrong–the “pharm party” meme is a delicious tale. Like the dubious story about William Randolph Hearst’s vowing to “furnish the war” with Spain, it’s just too good not to be true.

Or retold.

(Hearst’s famous vow has achieved status as an all-purpose anecdote, one useful in illustrating any number of media sins and shortcomings. It has been invoked to illustrate the media’s willingness to compromise impartiality, promote political agendas, and indulge in sensationalism. It has been used, more broadly, to suggest the media’s capacity to inject malign influence into international affairs.)

So what to do about these nasty and persistent media myths?

I believe that pounding away at them–directing attention to them whenever they arise– is the only effective way to address them and thus begin to alter the narrative.

The Tribune‘s correction suggests that Shafer’s debunking is having an effect.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center, moreover, has demonstrated that some myths can be curbed or contained. Over the past 10 years, Phildelphia-based Annenberg Center has endeavored to debunk the notion that suicides rise during the year-end holidays.

They don’t.

The Annenberg Center hasn’t buried this media myth. But to its credit, it has begun to tame it.


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