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The other meth crisis

The Willamette Week, like most alternative weeklies, usually takes only potshots at the community’s dominant medium – the long, in-depth pieces usually take off in their own independent directions. As perhaps they should.

This week, they did something different, pointing an extremely barbed arrow at the editorial heart of the Portland Oregonian. For no single story has been closer to the heart of that paper than the abuse of methamphetamine. And much of the paper’s reportage on that story, the Week says, has been badly flawed.

To back up for a moment: The O‘s coverage of this subject, led by reporter Steve Suo, has in many ways been remarkable. It has included some superb research – large portions of it reached a peak of journalism any newspaper would aspire to. And it has had substantial legislative effect, not only in Salem but also in Washington. For just one example, people won’t be getting their cold medicines the same way, because of these stories.

But we have for some months pointed to flaws in this coverage as well: Its conception of the meth story, as insular and central to a much broader social pathology, has been distortive. Its sense of causes is weak, and its direct argument for solutions fails under slight pressure.

The Willamette Week, which decided to fact-check and critically consider the paper’s meth coverage, covers some of those points and more besides. Consider its summary:

In its effort to convince the world of the threats posed by meth, The Oregonian has sacrificed accuracy. According to an analysis of the paper’s reporting, a review of drug-use data and conversations with addiction experts, The Oregonian has relied on bad statistics and a rhetoric of crisis, ultimately misleading its readers into believing they face a far greater scourge than the facts support.

Few local media watchers are willing to criticize The Oregonian‘s coverage of the meth problem. But skepticism about the growing frenzy has begun to appear in the pages of major papers across the country, from The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times, where columnist John Tierney recently wrote that politicians have become so meth-obsessed, “they’ve lost sight of their duties.”

Some of this apparently stung: The Week says that while the Oregonian originally cooperated with its review of the meth coverage, that cooperation ended partway through the research on the article. You have to wonder what prompted the change of heart.

The Oregonian has regularly described meth abuse as an exploding epidemic ripping apart communities, especially Portland. For most of us, that gets a little hard to see, at least at that level. The Week cited national studies showing that the number of meth users in recent years (roughly, this decade) has either been flat or (by one study) has fallen. Locally, it notes, “There is no good count of the total number of Oregon meth users, nor any clear measure of whether that number is growing.” Key point after key point, one oft-repeated (and seldom-questioned) statistic after another, the review disassembles the myth of the meth epidemic.

For anyone who has read the Oregonian on the subject over the last year and a half, this is absolutely essential reading.

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