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Whitney Houston and the Media's Celebrity Death Watch

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Illustration by Danny Jock

By Maer Roshan

02/20/12

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The fact is, while most major causes of preventable death in the US are in decline, drugs—especially pharmaceutical drugs—remain a dramatic exception. A 2010 national survey by the Department of Health and Human Services found that over 22 million Americans suffer from alcohol or drug dependency. Drug overdose rates have more than tripled since 1999, claiming a life every 14 minutes. In fact, it's hard to imagine a single person in the whole country who hasn’t been directly or indirectly affected. Rehabs and sober livings around the country have become a vast $20 billion business, many of them operating under woefully inadequate oversight. Many Americans under the age of 30 have become hooked on opiate painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin, buying them on the street for prices as high as $80 a pill. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the abuse of these painkillers was responsible for close to half a million emergency room visits in 2009, a number that has nearly doubled in just the past five years.

Our nation's seemingly ravenous appetite for drugs also raises problematic questions about the larger culture the media has helped create. Why is it that a nation that enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world also suffers one of the highest rates of drug abuse? Why are so many of us driven to substances to obliterate reality? What does this continuing scourge say about the values and morals that underlie our society?



Given the expensive impact of drugs and alcohol on our medical and prison system and addiction's massive impact on workplace productivity, the continued lack of serious discourse on the issue remains surprising. Certainly it's not just reporters who are to blame. Though the Obama administration recently doled out extra funding for drug prevention programs, it still spends several billion more on a drug war than seems as unwinnable as Vietnam. To its credit, starting in 2014, Obama’s historic new health plan will mandate insurers for the first time ever to treat addicts the way they treat victims of other diseases, putting an end to decades in which desperately ill addicts were denied life-and-death treatment.

For their part, however, the Republicans have been uncharacteristically more restrained on the subject. Not long ago they could dismiss the drug epidemic as symptoms of urban permissiveness and decaying inner-city neighborhoods. But as drugs intrude deeper and deeper into the leafy middle class suburbs and the wide-open ranges of America's heartland, the law and order types at the GOP have become tongue-tied.  During the season's endless series of GOP debates, not a single candidate was quizzed about their policies on drugs or treatment. While Ron Paul has been an articulate advocate of drug legalization, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum’s websites devote not a word to their drug policies, even though Bain Capital, once run by Mitt Romney, is one of the leading owners of the nation’s 20,000 rehabs and sober living facilities. Newt Gingrich, a one-time pot smoker who has lately taken to extolling the virtues of AA’s Big Book, has maintained a hardline anti-drug stance, even though he's backed down on his former pledge to put drug dealers to death. Last year, in Florida, newly-elected Tea Party Governor Rick Scott mounted a crazy and ultimately doomed campaign against an effort to regulate the state's pill mills, which produce the vast majority of the country's illegal prescription painkillers. Not to be outdone, the Tallahassee Republicans recently voted for a bill that would dramatically slash funding for drug prevention in a state that has one of the highest percentages of drug abusers in the country.

In short, there’s no lack of important, compelling stories out there that could benefit from a little media attention. And while some enterprising reporters and bloggers have risen to the challenge, they're the exception rather than the rule. What's responsible for their continued reluctance? The continuing stigma around addiction undoubtedly has something to do with it. Even though decades of research proves addiction is a condition with complicated genetic and chemical roots, far too many journalists continue to see it as a sort of moral weakness. Their failure to actively report on the issue represents both a lack of initiative and funding. After all, covering Whitney’s last moments is a lot easier (and less expensive) than going up against the wrath of formidable lawyers and lobbyists employed by corrupt pharmaceutical behemoths. It's also a lot more comfortable than venturing into the ravaged small towns of Iowa and Montana to witness first-hand the devastation wrought by poverty and crystal meth.

The senseless death of one of America's most outsized talents is undoubtedly a cause for mourning. But tragic as her death may be, Houston is just another person lost to an epidemic that has also killed thousands more in just the path month. It would be a fitting coda to her impressive legacy if her death ended up provide a genuine 'teaching moment' for America: one that would encourage the media and public to look beyond the scandals and personalities to the complicated causes and consequences of this miserable disease. But that's probably wishful thinking. More likely, in a couple of weeks the hysterical pundits and satellite trucks will roll on to the scene of the next tragedy. As Truman Capote famously noted, "The dogs bark and the caravan moves on." Meanwhile the 22 million people affected by this disease will stay exactly where they are.

Maer Roshan is Founder and Editor of Thefix.com. Previously he served as Founder and Editor-in-Chief Radar Magazine and Radaronline.com, Editorial Director at Talk, Deputy Editor of New York, and Senior Editor of Interview. He is also Founding Editor of the forthcoming I-Pad publication, Punch!

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