Devil’s Advocate: Should editorialists disclose political affiliations?

I wasn’t planning on writing another Devil’s Advocate so soon after the first one, but the combination of disgraced Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson‘s partisan lies about Obama making the cover of Newsweek as “editorial” and UC Berkeley’s own The Daily Californian publishing the anti-marijuana and anti-Rep. Barbara Lee lies of a non-expert named Roger Morgan (seemingly the author of Soros: The Drug Lord, a book repeating the false Glenn Beck charge that George Soros collaborated with Nazis at age 13) as “editorial” makes me wonder: Should editorialists disclose political affiliations?

Niall Ferguson, Harvard professor of history, and bona fide promoter of bias.
Niall Ferguson, Harvard professor of history. Source: The Guardian

Obviously, the cons of such a requirement are unsettling: How can the press be free if editorialists must disclose their political affiliations, and thus focus attention on the editorialists’ politics rather than the facts and arguments presented in the pieces? However, the label of “editorial” should not be enough to dismiss factual inaccuracies in pieces that would — if acknowledged by the media organizations publishing them — demand the label of “paid advertisement”, and, in fact, monetary compensation to the publishers from the writers for the use of the ad space.

As commensurate with the values expressed in the statement from my colleague, BPR National News Editor Luis Flores, I, too, am committed to engaging nonpartisanship. We must reject the false equivalence with which media organizations from The New York Times to The Daily Californian frame their editorials, and understand also that publishing one opinion one week does not require us to publish the opinion of someone on the “opposite side” of the debate without requiring that opinion to include factual evidence. While The New York Times is guilty only of framing even its editorial board’s anti-GOP opinion as a “both sides are wrong” article (when the article makes no mention of Democrats), Newsweek actively balances pro-Obama covers with anti-Obama covers, and pro-Romney covers with anti-Romney covers.

I’d say “it’s sickening”, but that’s too speculative. Instead, I’ll say “it sickens me“; editorialists should not be afraid to use first-person pronouns in the singular and specific rather than the plural or unspecific. Don’t claim to know what “we the people” think, but do tell us what “we as opinion writers” think, or what “we as nonpartisan analysts” should strive to achieve.

The Daily Californian unfortunately followed the Newsweek model this month. First, the student-run paper published a completely factual piece by Dan Rush— who willingly disclosed his credentials and affiliations as both the chair of the Berkeley Medical Cannabis Commission and national director of the Medical Cannabis and Hemp division at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union — based on the current event of Rep. Lee introducing H.R. 6335, a bill which would directly protect Alameda County residents’ access to medical marijuana. In publishing this piece, The Daily Californianbrought vital information to a concerned group (UC Berkeley students and other Berkeley residents) on a local issue, and — though I doubt the paper fact-checked the editorial — everything Rush wrote is easily confirmed by simple Google searches (yes, even his statements about the five-year-old with a rare form of epilepsy whose pain is eased only by a special cannabis tincture, a story that has been highlighted on and reported internationally, as well). This editorial is not an advertisement, and was necessary to inform the public. Papers and journals should feel free to accept or solicit such editorials.

But I wouldn’t have anything to complain about in this article if media organizations were content to publish facts without publishing “responses” from the “other side”. Roger Morgan’s piece contains no sources for his accusations about marjuana in general and medical marijuana in particular. Here’s a litany of Morgan’s lies:

1. “To suggest that shuttering pot shops is  depriving  a 5-year-old child of medicine is blasphemous.” Well, maybe that’s not technically a lie if we take blasphemous to mean “against the teachings of the Catholic Church”. But if we take it to mean “untrue”, then the statement is untrue. As I mentioned earlier, the fact that a father relied on a medical marijuana dispensary to provide medicine for his five-year-old son is documented factually in video from the Discovery Channel series Weed Wars, and was reported internationally.

2. “Marijuana is not medicine, and 98 percent of the patients aren’t suffering from serious illness. They just want to get high or are in it for the money.” With no statistics to back up his claims, Roger Morgan is obviously lying. I don’t need to say “it’s unclear whether his claims are true” because his failure to provide evidence proves absolutely that he lies. If I give him the benefit of a doubt and search Google, I can’t find anything that confirms his claims. In fact, other than links to the very Daily Cal article in which Morgan makes the claim, the only website with any claims about 98 percent of any patients is Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, which “treat 98 percent of children who need heart or lung transplants”. Unless Morgan found this fact about CMNH doing the supermajority of specialized surgical transplants on children and conflated it with a statistic on the percentage of medical marijuana patients who aren’t suffering from serious illness, then Morgan is just flat-out lying, and The Daily Cal should immediately apologize for publishing the lie (and consider retroactively charging Morgan for the ad space).

3. “America has declined in the world academically, with 1.2 million high school drop outs, more than 6.1 million kids being raised by grandparents or in foster homes and an annual cost to the nation for substance abuse of  more than $1 trillion.” The high school dropout rate annually is, indeed, 1.2 million (I guess Morgan decided to cite a fact among lies to make the lies seem more credible). But the 6.1 million kids being raised by grandparents or in foster homes? The product of Morgan’s mathematical magic. I assume Morgan misread his own source, which clearly says: “United States is reported to be home for 6.1 million of [sic] grandparents and 5.7 million children who live with their grandparents. (US Census 2006)”. Aside from the data being half a decade out of date (or maybe a full decade, since I don’t know if the US Census Bureau published new data in 2006, or if the data was extrapolated from the 2000 US Census), Morgan used the number “6.1 million” to refer to “kids being raised by grandparents or in foster homes”, while the only source mentioning grandparents actually said that 6.1 million of them collectively raised 5.7 million children. If he’s adding the number of kids in foster homes (the U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services Administration for Children and Families reports that “On September 30, 2010, there were an estimated 408,425 children in foster care”), then, indeed, we get a number slightly greater than 6.1 million. But you can’t just do that! It’s a lie! You can’t take numbers from two completely different sources taken at different points in time and add them together, then combine the description you give to the resulting statistic. It’s not “more than 6.1 million kids being raised by grandparents or in foster homes”, it’s 5.7 million kids living with grandparents, and an average of 408,000 kids in foster care on any given day. But the worst part of the lie is conflating all of these mashed-up numbers with the alleged “annual cost to the nation for substance abuse of  more than $1 trillion”. Former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano did claim that the cost of substance abuse had grown to $1 trillion annually. But how much of this abuse is directly attributable to marijuana rather than alcohol or other drugs? The only fact I could find that possibly relates to marijuana was, “of the $38 billion spent on corrections in 1996, more than $30 billion was spent incarcerating individuals who had alcohol or drug problems or committed alcohol or drug related crimes.” Overwhelmingly, the costs associated with the $1 trillion tally relate to alcohol specifically (fetal alcohol syndrome, underage drinking, and alcohol-related work injuries, to name a few), or to drugs far more harmful than marijuana. We can’t even be sure how much of those $30 billion in incarcerations (in 1996? Califano’s book was published in 2007, though, so I’m once again scratching my head) related to marijuana rather than alcohol and other drugs. The charge is a lie not because of the phrase itself (which a former cabinet secretary made in a book), but because of its context in an anti-medical marijuana piece and the lack of a period separating it from the lie that 6.1 million kids are “being raised by grandparents or in foster homes”, thereby implying that substance abuse — and marijuana “abuse”, if such a thing exists, in particular — is responsible for children being raised in non-traditional households. Parents being incarcerated for drug use or overdosing on drugs (unlikely to be marijuana) may be a reason that many children in foster care ultimately wind up there, but no sources have been cited, and none I can find independently through Internet searches imply marijuana rather than alcohol or other drugs as a potential cause.

4. “While isolated components of the marijuana may have medicinal value, the entire plant does not. Real medicines have known ingredients, dosage and potency and must be reproducible in consistent form, like pills. They must pass scrutiny of the Food and Drug Administration, and they are never dispensed by 21-year-old kids in retail pot shops whose only training comes from smoking pot. And smoking is never an acceptable delivery system.” Nothing in this paragraph holds up to scrutiny. First, it’s like saying broccoli has no medicinal value unless processed. Then, it ignores the fact that medical marijuana dispensaries, do, indeed, package and sell products with “known ingredients, dosage and potency [and are] reproducible in consistent form, like pills”. Next, the FDA is limited by the Controlled Substances Act, and, if marijuana were legalized but failed to be approved by the FDA, it could be sold as a nutritional supplement without FDA approval, and thus, 21-year-old kids in retail shops of any sort could sell it with no need for a pharmacist or doctor present. Finally, smoking is not the only way to ingest marijuana, but even if it were, no studies have linked smoking marijuana alone to adverse lung health. Smoking tobacco is universally acknowledged to cause cancer, but no studies have ever proved that marijuana alone will do it. So… while I in general agree that common sense would dictate smoking is not an acceptable delivery system, with no evidence backing up that claim with regard to marijuana, it would seem, perhaps, for this particular drug, smoking is an acceptable delivery system.

5. “Marijuana causes brain damage, particularly during adolescence, and is harmful until the brain is fully developed at age 25 or later. It can also lead to psychosis, including schizophrenia and paranoia, and suicidal depression, and 17 percent of those who start smoking before age 18 will become addicted to it.  Used alone, it doesn’t kill by overdose, but almost all of the 3,400 Americans who die monthly of overdose started their drug journey with marijuana. And overdose isn’t the only cause of death or only adverse outcome. Addiction alone will ruin one’s life and family.” Everything in this paragraph has already been debunked, and is recognized by the medical marijuana industry as propaganda. The generalities of the paragraph ring true in some cases: marijuanamight reduce short-term memory, especially during adolescence; it might lead to psychosis, if one is already at-risk; many teenage tokers develop a lifelong habit; people who die by overdose often do start their journey with marijuana; a pot habit might affect one’s job and relationship with one’s family. But none of the specifics of what’s written are factual in any way. No studies prove marijuana causes brain damage. Saying “it can also lead to psychosis” implies the substance, rather than the person taking it, is prone to psychosis, as opposed to the the fact that the substance is psychoactive and may therefore have different effects on different minds (the author also implies that “pot shops” don’t warn you about this, and that doctors who prescribe marijuana do so maliciously rather than after weighing the pros and cons). Marijuana has never been proven to be addict-forming, although many people use it daily (this distinction is important: being a pothead is physiologically different from being a tobacco smoker or an alcoholic because not using for a couple of days causes no withdrawals… potheads just don’t want to go that long without using). A supermajority of marijuana users never overdose on any drug (as evidenced by high rates of marijuana use and low rates of overdose in general), and many marijuana users do not use other drugs (a fact Morgan refuses even to acknowledge, although he at least admits that the drug itself has NEVER EVER directly killed anyone through overdose, unlike, say, ibuprofen, aspirin, or almost any other drug you can think of, legal or illegal). As for the “life and family” claim, it’s the worst of them all because Morgan says using WILL do this to you rather than “might, if you don’t handle yourself well and know your limits”.

6. “Scientific research has shown that because of the potency of today’s pot, a fetus can incur brain damage and physical harm only two weeks after conception, before many women even realize they are pregnant. Even if the  pregnant mother stops, it’s too late for the baby.” Again, what scientific research? All I found were studies in rats, which prove especially problematic when determining effects on humans in utero. Furthermore, what does the alleged “potency of today’s pot” have to do with this study? Does Morgan actually have a study somewhere about the potency of today’s pot inducing brain damage and physical harm within two weeks of conception? Also, how many women who are smoking pot and not intending to have a child aren’t on birth control? Moreover, who thinks medical marijuana dispensaries are promoting the use of marijuana while one is trying to get pregnant or when one is already pregnant? Do alcohol companies encourage pregnant women to drink? No, you say? But fetal alcohol syndrome is still a real problem documented in humans, you say? It’s like this man forgot he was railing against medical marijuana rather than alcoholism.

So, after all this fact-checking, you might think I’m really arguing that editorials should be factual. But if we need to actually argue that, we’re lost as a species. DUH “scientific research” should be citable, not imaginary. I’m just going to say that editorialists should disclose their full political affiliations. The ones that do — like Dan Rush — generally seem to like the fact that, at the end of an intelligent and factual piece that nonetheless argues for a strong opinion, they get to insert a free advertisement for their political affiliations. The ones that don’t — like Roger Morgan or Niall Ferguson (Ferguson discloses that he advised McCain in ’08) — are afraid to let media organizations know that they actually don’t rely on facts and that the pieces should really be published as paid advertisements. They’re also afraid to elicit the scorn of their friends for associating their causes with lies — be they concealment, fabrication or hybrid, make no mistake: they are lies. As long as media organizations continue to promote false equivalence, they should at least seek to ensure that the piece they present as the “other side” of the issue contains facts and not just smear slogans from campaign mouthpieces.

If we don’t demand this, before long, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney could be billed in op-eds as just a concerned citizen living and working in the capital. It might sound extreme, but since Niall Ferguson is already billed as just a concerned Harvard professor rather than as a professional conservative operative espousing Republican interests and saving the GOP some ad money, all sorts of false equivalence is possible.

Alex Kravitz is a nonpartisan interdisciplinary studies field student at UC Berkeley. He is not an adviser for any political campaigns and is a registered independent voter.