Fact-checking Frontline’s Ass

So when I expressed skepticism over this piece on the meth “epidemic” on Frontline (in reality a video version of a series by The Oregonian), my friend Jason invited me to “fact-check Frontline’s ass” if I so desired. So I finally watched it online, rather than just reacting to the claims on its accompanying website.

Shoulda stuck with the website. Here are the sum total of factual claims related to the extent of methamphetamine drug abuse:

  • “A million different types of records” were collected by The Oregonian, and turned into maps to show the spread of the drug’s usage over time from west to east.
  • Meth “addicts” commit 85% of property crime in Oregon
  • “One puff off a pipe can keep you high all day”
  • 50% of children in foster care in Oregon “there because of meth”
  • # of people in programs rise and fall in unison across states
  • “Changes how brain operates”
  • “Most addictive drug there is”
  • Change in purity correlates with changes in usage
  • pseudoephedrine used as stimulant by people (I don’t personally find any stimulant effect, and many people claim that it puts them to sleep, but the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”)
  • In Western states, 50% of prison inmates are “meth addicts”
  • “As many addicts as Heroin and Cocaine combined” (UN claim)
  • “In America alone, there are 1.5 million addicts and rising”
  • America counts for the majority of world consumption of pseudoephedrine

It’s tough to fact-check somebody when they don’t provide the source for their numbers. Interestingly, I found one fact contested by their own website.

There are 1.4 million meth users in America, and the number is rising.

I’m prepared to be generous and overlook the inflation of the number by 100,000. But are they “users” or “addicts”? The two are very different. Nicotine is usually referred to as the most addictive drug, and even it does not have a 100% addiction rate. If the 1.4 million number refers to true addicts, the number of users is higher. If the number just includes “regular users”, whether or not they can be classified addicts, then we’re talking about less than 1/250th of the population. Cocaine, by contrast, was considered used by 3.7 million Americans (users, not addicts) in 1999. Even if 1.4 million of them switched exclusively from cocaine to methamphetamine use, cocaine has more users.

Why is this language important? Conflating two different things and fluffing over facts is a frequent tactic in a piece designed to appeal to emotions while hiding logical flaws. In other words, it’s a hallmark of a scare piece, not serious journalism.

Consider their claims of worldwide usage: if America is the primary consumer of pseudoephedrine, the remaining unregulated precursor chemical (and the primary claim of the documentary is that pharmaceutical companies have caused the meth “epidemic” by resisting efforts to regulate ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, the latter of which they have prevented being as heavily regulated), how can there be so many more addicts outside the US than inside? Why is usage so much heavier outside the country? Why are we not hearing reports of meth destroying, say, France or Bolivia?

Frontline’s website, in the only acknowledgment of skepticism of drug warrior claims in the piece (there are none on the televised piece) links to this Slate piece which makes many of the same points, and then dismisses it by saying that meth is worse on communities. The data they cite to support this claim? Self-reports by police agencies saying what is their “worst problem”. No hard numbers on arrests, no counter-criticism of the data Slate provides, just a hand-waving and counting subjective impressions to make them look like hard data. 50% of people guessing arriving at one answer does not constitute evidence of a problem, but evidence of a mentality about a problem.

There are more facts to check that I’ll try to get to later, but I have a life, and the central claim looks dubious already. So here are some non-fact-checking things I noticed:

The vast majority of production in the piece is blamed on foreigners. Indians, Canadians, Mexicans, and “immigrants” are all mentioned specifically, either as suppliers of ephedrine, as workers in “superlabs,” or as part of a cartel to import it. Domestic labs are mentioned but not explicitly identified as such, and the focus is clearly not on them any time major suppliers are mentioned.

The word “profit” is attached like a leech to each mention of a drug company, but the word “budget” is never attached to the various local and federal government agencies pushing for greater regulation and resources to “fight” the “epidemic” of meth abuse. I wouldn’t ever want to suggest that as overall rates of drug abuse and crime fall, these agencies need a new “crack baby” or “hepped up Negro on Marijuana” with which to scare the middle class into funding SWAT teams and ever-bigger budgets. I’d like to directly state it.

If overall rates of drug use are declining, then the meth “epidemic” isn’t an epidemic at all, it’s a slight shift in drug use from one form to another in a declining market. The next time you want to throw around a term like “epidemic”, consider what a horror a real epidemic is: 1 in 5 people on the island of Reunion is sick from “Chikungunya” fever as I type. That is an epidemic.

2 thoughts on “Fact-checking Frontline’s Ass

  1. I’ve been a supporter of Frontline in general, and many of their pieces are quite good, but I’ve certainly learned to view some with a critical eye.

    Their WalMart episode was especially weak. While they did do a good job of exposing WalMart’s business practices, and interviewing people who thought that they were bad, that’s all they did. They were almost totally uncritical of WalMart’s detractors. There were numerous WalMart insiders and outsiders who were critical. And there were WalMart spokesmen types who spoke the company line. But the only outside person they found that wasn’t directly critical of WalMart was one guy from the Cato institute, and the only soundbites of him they had were highly theoretical, and they made no attempt to flesh them out.

    Essentially they showed that WalMart plays hardball with thier suppliers, and buys a lot of stuff from Red China, and that there are US firms that are losing business and shutting down operations. They also showed a guy who was a former WalMart store-manager who made an unexamined claim that while the cheapest version of a thing was usually the cheapest in town, most people tended to decide to get the next step or two up their price range from the bottom, and that that was more expensive than other stores charged. No attempt was made to corroborate this claim. It was just left in the ether.

    I kept expecting each segment to end with the word ‘fnord’.


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