A January 27 New York Times story, "The Epidemic That Wasn't," brought the news that researchers following children prenatally exposed to cocaine have found "the long-term effects of such exposure on children's brain development and behavior appear relatively small" and are "less severe than those of alcohol and are comparable to those of tobacco."
Though the Times makes it sound like breaking news, the fact is many reputable people disbelieved the whole "crack baby" phenomenon from the beginning: Even Dr. Ira Chasnoff, whose 1985 study spurred much of the early coverage, was lamenting as long ago as 1992 that medical research was being misused: "It's interesting, it sells newspapers and it perpetuates the us-vs.-them idea."
Did it ever. The despicable role played by the press corps is why the Times story feels not just too late but too little. The paper reports "there were widespread fears that prenatal exposure to [crack cocaine] would produce a generation of severely damaged children," and goes on to cite inflammatory headlines as if they were merely reports onthose fears, rather than the means of their creation. The truth is there would be no "crack baby" storyline if not for the zeal with which many in the press corps seized upon limited, qualified medical research as an excuse to at least entertain the idea of writing off huge numbers of overwhelmingly black and poor children. (Though the research pertained to cocaine in all forms, the story was always about crack, wasn't it?)
It wasn't a medical researcher who wrote, "The inner-city crack epidemic is now giving birth to the newest horror: a bio-underclass, a generation of physically damaged cocaine babies whose biological inferiority is stamped at birth"; it was the Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post, 7/30/89). Krauthammer had American Enterprise Institute media darling Douglas Besharov to thank for the term "bio-underclass", and Besharov wasn't shy about spelling out the wished-for social repercussions: "This is not stuff that Head Start can fix…. Whether it is 5 percent or 15 percent of the black community, it is there." Being violently wrong doesn't appear to have dimmed Besharov's media star; nor should we hold our breath for any apologies from Krauthammer for telling readers, "The dead babies may be the lucky ones."
The saddest part: Early on, researchers recognized that the social stigma attached to being identified as a "crack baby" could far outweigh any biological impact. The Times piece underscores that, with a source who says, "Society's expectations of the children and reaction to the mothers are completely guided not by the toxicity but by the social meaning" of the drug.
But it seems as though journalists are no more likely now than they were then to examine what it is about their own practices that would drive them to perpetuate such a "social meaning" when it was not supported by science and when its potential effects were so devastating.