Pubdate:  Sep/Oct 1998
Source: Extra! The Magazine of FAIR
Author:  Janine Jackson
Section: page 9


Despite Research, Media Won't Give Up Idea Of "Bio-Underclass"

There have been numerous instances when media have seized on a
supposed medical "phenomenon" and hyped it beyond recognition,
distorting facts irresponsibly or simply getting them wrong. But few
media fabrications have been as invidious, persistent or politically
devastating as that of the so-called "crack baby."

Mid-1980s case studies cuggested a possible link between women's
cocaine use during pregnancy and a range of damaging effects on
babies. Already obsessed with the use of the cocaine derivative crack
among the urban poor, mainstream media used these limited, qualified
findings as grounds for an astonishing spree of sloppy, alarmist
reorting and racial and economic scapegoating that still echoes today.

The hysteria and sheer meanness of the initial assault are captured by
a 1989 Washington Post column by Charles Drauthammer (7/30/89), which
begins: "The inner-city crack epidemic is now giving birth to the
newest horro: a bio-underclass, a generation of physically damaged
cocaine babies whose bilogical inferiority is stamped at birth."

Krauthammer cited the American Enterprise Institute's Douglas
Besharove (the man to thank for the blood-chilling term
"bio-underclass"), who says: "This is not stuff that Head Start can
fix. This is permanent brain damage. Whether it is 5 percent or 15
percent of the black community, it is there." Krauthammer compared
cocaine-exposed children to "a race of (sub)human drones" described in
Huxley's Brave New World., and pronounced that their "future is closed
to them from day one. Their Will be a life of certain suffering, of
probable deviance, of permanent inferiority. At best, a medial life of
severe deprivations." In his opinion, "the dead babies may be the
lucky ones."

Looking back, one could rejoin that such outrageous, racist
misinformation is not the kind of stuff corrections can fix, even had
one been offered. But though his bias is particularly overt,
Krauthammer was not alone in his essential argument - that children
whose mothers used cocaine during pregnancy are scientifically
identifiable as "crack babies," with permanent, catastrophic
biological damage that leaves them incapable of being anything but
menaces to society.

Veneer of Sympathy
"Crack baby" stories typically had an anecdotal focus and a veneer of
sympathy for the "tiny victims," like "three-month-old Sabrina," described
in the St. Petersburg Times (11/19/89). She "appears to be a normal baby,"
but "Sabrina's life has been  a  three-month  trip through hell, and the
trip isn't over."  More  urgency  was reserved,  though,  for  the
unimaginable  dangers  these babies were supposedly destined to wreak on
the world: The Washington Post  (9/17/89) warned of "A Time Bomb in Cocaine
Babies," while the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (9/ 15/90) declared  flatly,
"Disaster In Making: Crack Babies Start to Grow Up."

Such inflammatory rhetoric drowned out any real-life complexities reporting
might have revealed. For example, in  "Crack's Toll Among Babies: A Joyless
Vew, Even  of Toys" (New York Times, 9/17/59), the final paragraph
describes a dlay care pro-gram where crack-exposed children, given
individual attention, are improved greatly. Readers, howwever, are much
more likely to remember the article's second paragraph, in which a
psychologist claims that prenatal use of crack interferes "with the central
core of what it is to be human."

Likewise  for Time  Magazine ( 10/ 1 /90) , where what in a more
reasoned debate would be crucial information - the finding that "few
drug treatment programs ...accept pregnant addicts" - is buried amid
emotional filler like the reporter's assertion that "maternity wards
around the country ring with the high-pitched 'cat cries' of crack

One San Diego Union-Tribune article (2/2/92) even gave space to a
prominent medical researcher's plaintive statement that, "These
children are not prenatally doomed. They are not the little terrors
that everyone says they are." But the paper's headline spoke louder:
"Drug Babies Invade Schools."

The emphasis may have varied, from pity for the children ("Crack
Babies Born to Life of Suffering," USA Today, 6/8/59) to disgust for
the mothers ("For Pregnant Addict, Crack Comes First," Washington
Post, 12/T5/59) to the unfathomable amount "their" problems might wind
up costing "us" ("Crack's Tiniest, Costliest Victims," New York Times,
5/7/59). But overall, commercial media found the premise - a coming
onslaught of affectless genetic deviants - utterly persuasive.

Hanging on to the Myth The premise, however, was false. The
inadvisability of using cocaine during pregnancy is not disputed. But
subsequent research on cocaine-exposed children found that many of the
dangers mentioned in initial studies are simply not borne out.

A retrospective survey (or "meta-analysis") of 1980s research found
seri-ous methodological flaws, from a failure to distinguish cocaine
exposure from exposure to other drugs, to a lack of control groups
(Teratology, 1 991; 44:405-414).  Health-care providers working with
infants exposed  to cocaine in utero found them indistinguishable from
other children. Much medical research pointed to other fac-tors - such
as the lack of good prenatal care, use of alcohol and tobacco, and,
simply enough, poverty - as more primary factors in poor fetal
development among pregnant cocaine users than cocaine itself.

Proponents of a revised view included Dr. Ira Chasnoff, whose initial
1985 study launched much of the media juggernaut. By 1992, Chasnoff
was saying, "poverty is the worst thing that can happen to a child,"
and expressing dismay at the press' misuse of medical research. "It's
sexy," he suggested of the "crack baby" story (AP, 12/6/92). "It's
interesting, it sells newspapers and it perpetuates the us-vs.-them

Not  surprising, then, that the new medical consensus fail-ing to
support a link between    prenatal cocaine exposure and catastrophic
biological or developmental problems garnered a tiny fraction of the
media attention devoted to the idea that "Parents Who Can't Say 'No'
Are Creating a Generation of Misery" (LA. Times, 9/21/89). What
coverage there was suggested media found the tale of a
"bio-underclass" too compelling to abandon. To hang on to it, some
reports constructed absurd straw men, as when Newsweek (9/29/97)
explained that, if predictions of cocaine's "sledge-hammer" impact on
the fetal brain were unfounded, "neither is it a prenatal vitamin."

Or reporters might tuck in a paren-thetical admission like, "experts
are quick to point out that legal drugs such as alcohol and nicotine
can produce far more drastic effects than cocaine, lowering birth
weight and sometimes causing severe physical deformities" (Chicago
Tribune, 7/12/98) - without explaining why this information hasn't
provoked a flood of reporting on the terrible suffering of "liquor
kids," or the exorbitant social costs of caring for "smoke babies."
Despite undermining the very premises of the previous discussion, the
new research still did not fundamentally redirect the media debate.

Re-Airing Misinformation Such a sustained media assault was not
without real world effects, of course. Years of accusatory coverage
contributed to a shift to more punitivelv focused public policy, which
was, in turn, welcomed bv the press. In 1994, 60 Minutes aired a show
(11/20/94) celebrating one such policy: a South Carolina law under
which women who used cocaine while pregnant were arrested and jailed
under child abuse statutes. "Cracking Down," the segment was called.

Fast forward to 1998: Despite an amicus curiae letter signed by 15
leading medical and social service organizations condemning the
policy, the Supreme Court declines to hear an appeal in the
convictions of two South Carolina women. Cornelia Whitner and Malissa
Crawley, both mothers of healthv chil-dren, are serving prison terms
for prenatally  "abusing"  them  by using cocaine. And 60 Minutes
announces plans to re-air its 1994 segment on the policy that sent
them to jail.

For Lynn Paltrow, one of the attorneys representing Whitner and
Crawley, the 60 Minutes rerun was a very depress mg idea. Paltrow told
CounterSpin (6/19/95): "I wrote a letter saying please don't
rebroadcast information that's inaccurate, or that suggested that this
was a policy that worked."

The "Cracking Down" segmen focused on the Medical University of South
Carolina Hospital, in downtown Charleston. It showcased Nurse Shirley
Brown, who host Steve Kroft explained "thought something had to be
done, about pregnant drug addicts, and so "working with the police and
the social service agencies and the local prosecutor," developed the
program of arresting them, sometimes out of their bed." The
prosecutor, Charlie Condon, is shown declaring, "It worked like charm."

"And then," Kroft intones, "Lynn Paltrow came to town." Identified as
"a feminist lawyer with The Center for Reproductive Law & Policv in
New York City, an offshoot of the American Civil Liberties Union,"
Paltrow was pretty clearly supposed to be the villain of the piece,
but it wasn't the depiction of her-self that riled her. She objected
to the show's underlying presumption of a causal link between prenatal
crack exposure and the sickly babies in the intensive care unit, whose
fragile, heart-breaking images recurred throughout the segment, and
whose "chances of survival," Nurse Brown told viewers, "are real slim."

"This Isn't a Racist Policy" "The idea that a neonatal intensive care
unit in general would be the right image of what a baby exposed
prenatally to cocaine was [like], was extremely inaccurate"' says
Paltrow. But she'd expected it. "In fact, I talked to [producer L.
Franklin Devine] and said, I bet they're going to take you to the
neonatal intensive care unit and say, 'These are crack babies,' and I
beg you to say, 'How do you know?' The truth is, they can't tell."

Indeed, she asked, if children exposed to crack are so "uniquely
harmed, so particularly devastated, why doesn't the hospital have a
special program to even track them?" Again, the answer is that they
are not uniquely harmed, a point Paltrow says she heard repeated often
by frustrated medical staff. "Many of the people who are actually
working with the women and children were saying, 'These are poverty
babies, and nobody wants to address that. So we call them crack babies."'

Paltrow also protested the selective enforcement of the program,
pointing out that of 23 prosecutions, 22 were of African-American
women, and the one white woman was married to a black man. 60 Minutes'
way of addressing this concern was having Kroft question Charleston's
chief of police, who is black: "This isn't a racist policy?" "No," the
police chief assures him. "No question about it."

Paltrow knew the 60 Minutes segment painted her as unsympathetic to
children. But she is joined by leading medical groups like the
American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the
American Academy of Pediatrics and the March of Dimes in saying, "If
you want to help children, don't arrest their mothers." Despite Steve
Kroft's claim that "the state's position is the only thing it's trying
to do is to have these women stop using crack cocaine. . . . That
doesn't seem to be asking a lot. That doesn't seem particularly
coercive," no prominent medical organizations seem to think it's good
policy to, in Paltrow's words, "threaten a pregnant woman who's coming
for prenatal care or substance abuse treatment with arrest - because
either she's not going to come at all or she's not going to reveal a
problem that we can help her with, if we can provide confidential care."

Powerful Labels Unfortunately, a label need not be true to be
powerful. Research can't demon-strate that babies exposed to crack in
the womb will have any specific devel-opmental problems, but we do
know that babies so labeled meet with lower expectations from teachers
and parents, and are harder to place in foster care. Media appear
uninterested in tracking that particular "phenomenon," however.

Despite the concerns of Paltrow and others, 60 Minutes went ahead and
re-aired its 1994 show (5/3l/98), making no mention of the changes in
medical research and opinion, or the growing outcry among social
service groups protesting turning mothers of cocaine-exposed babies
over to the criminal justice system. The program certainly didn't note
that their story's main source on South Carolina's racially
contentious policy, Nurse Shirley Brown, had testified in court that
she objects to interracial marriage.

One change it did make: It added an afterword that claimed Lynn
Paltrow "started a letter-writing campaign to try and pressure us into
not rebroadcasting this story." The obvious implication, that
Paltrow's pleas for them to reconsider perpetuating discredited and
damaging claims were an attempt at censorship, led to a protracted
attack on the lawyer the following day (6/1/98) by none other than
Rush Limbaugh. Actually, it's fitting for this story to have wound up
in the repertoire of the factually challenged radio pundit: Amid
absurdities like IQ/ breast-size correlation and biodegrad-able
styrofoam, the media's "crack baby" looks right at home.
- ---
Checked-by: Patrick Henry