Secret Drinking, Media Blackout
Booze is implicated in many more major news stories than the press ever acknowledges, from party politics to bloody mayhem. Why the silence?
‘Tis the season to be jolly, to go a-wassailing, to stay late at Christmas parties, to dress up like Santa Claus and to drink too much eggnog. Yet when it comes to public acknowledgement of the results of all this drinking, our national carol seems to be “Silent Night.” Almost every day, the media brings us another troubling or tragic story in which drinking or drugging plays a role—not necessarily the primary role, but one that typically goes unmentioned. When drinking is reported, it is often in celebrity scandal stories that make getting drunk seem like the privilege and the curse of being a star.
In politics, one example is the apparent intransigence of Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner and his inability to get along with President Obama. Boehner is known to be a heavy-drinking, hard-partying pol who likes bars so much that Joe Scarborough, the host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, has called him a bar fly. “Every Republican I talk to says John Boehner, by 5 or 6 p.m., you can see him at bars. He is not a hard worker,” said Scarborough, a fellow Republican who served with Boehner in the House. His drinking is such an open secret on Capitol Hill that it has inspired an online Boehner Booze watch. Boehner reportedly turned down President Obama’s offer of a Slurpee Summit because alcohol would not be served.
In New York a few weeks ago, the news was dominated by the death of Ti-Suck Han, a victim shown clinging to a station platform in the lights of an oncoming subway train. Han, unable to save himself, quickly became a media symbol of the “bystander effect”: the more people who witness a tragedy, the less likely it is that someone will react to stop it. Rarely reported in the dozens of stories about the incident was that Han was extremely drunk and possibly obstreperous. According to his wife, he had been drinking heavily, they had had a fight before he left home, and he was carrying a vodka bottle at the time of his death.
More recently, the senseless midtown shooting of a visitor from California had everyone baffled…until the victim turned out to be an alleged drug courier.
Drinking is hardly responsible for all of the evil in the news, but when it is, it should be acknowledged.
Drinking is hardly responsible for all of the evil in the news. The dreadful events at the Sandy Hook elementary school last week did not seem related to alcohol. But when drinking is responsible, the press should acknowledge it. Why is it kept under wraps? Perhaps recognizing the role of drinking in the bad things that happen to us—from healthcare expenses to domestic violence—might suggest that we should change our own drinking habits. Perhaps people who are uneducated on the subject of alcoholism—and this is extremely common—just don’t understand its effects.
Even when our drinking habits play a role in good news, it often doesn’t rate a mention. This week, the trend of silence continued in a new report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation showing that life expectancy has risen around the world. From 1990 to 2010, there has been a sharp decline in early mortality. According to the New York Times report, the improvement in life expectancy is due to better sanitation, medical services, access to food and public health initiatives.
Not revealed in these stories is the likelihood that we are living longer in part because we are drinking far less than we did 20 years ago. The French are drinking less wine; their 2010 consumption was about a third of what it was in 1960. The British are drinking less ale, according to the British Office for National Statistics. The Irish are drinking less whiskey, and the Australians are drinking less of everything. In the US we are also drinking less—a Gallup poll, for instance, shows that the percentage of people who say they drink too much has fallen to 22% in 2011 from 35% in 1990. The thousands of subjects in the Framingham heart study report less drinking, and alcohol-related traffic fatalities have fallen 26% since 1991, according to the Century Council.
As drinking slows down and health improves, as recovery becomes a mainstream phenomenon and understanding of addiction grows, it would make sense for alcohol’s effects to be more frequently reported in the news. That’s not happening. Alcoholism is still the unmentioned force behind many major stories. Alcoholism is also often a well-kept family secret; we seem to want to keep it a national secret.
Susan Cheever, a regular columnist at The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.