The Fame Debate

If you ask any random person on the street, chances are that he or she will recognize the name "James Holmes," or at least be able to identify a picture of him. With his name and face having been plastered all over the news after the infamous 2012 Aurora, CO movie theater shooting, its no surprise that he is so easily recognizable. But with Holmes back on the front pages this week due to his recent psychological evaluation, a long-debated question is raised: should mass-murderers, such as Holmes, be awarded the "fame" and publicity that they always receive as result of their attacks? Even when it could give the killer exactly what they wanted in the first place (the publicity), and humanize an individual who has committed an inhumane act?

Though this issue is very deep and certainly not black-and-white, one of the key arguments for why publicity of the killer should be limited is a comparison to the media's rules on coverage of suicide. According to an article in the Atlantic, to follow these rules "the mass media rarely reports on suicides, particularly teen suicides. When it does, the coverage is careful, understated, and dampened." Along with dulling the details, the media also avoids mentioning methods or other things of that nature because "we know from research in many fields that establishing a path of action -- a complete narrative in which you can visualize your steps and their effects -- is important in enabling follow-through" (this method proved successful in reducing suicides in the Vienna subway in the 1980s - providing evidence that if applied to mass shootings, it would likely be successful as well). This same reasoning can be applied to the media coverage of mass shootings. When every move of the killer is described in detail and a face is attached to these moves, a potential shooter is able to relate to the situation. And, much like in the case of a suicide, they are able to "visualize" themselves going through with those actions. If combined with only a few other factors, this could lead us to be hearing about yet another tragic shooting on the next day's news.

Along with the public safety concerns of poorly covering mass shooting cases, many also argue that when dealing with a mass-murder, the attention should be focused on honoring those who lost their lives and not rewarding the killer with (often desired) fame. One author suggests that the name of the killer should be withheld for some number of weeks. This delay can decrease the "spectacle effect" and won't allow the killer to get raised to the same level of hype that the victims and actual incident are. The author also states that even if the name is leaked somehow before the official reporting, it will be "very different from the full blast of attention that currently surrounds the perpetrators immediately after each incident." This way, the public will both be informed on the incident and will have more concern for the victims (in place of the killer).

"No Notoriety," a group that campaigns for decreasing mass-murderers' amount of publicity, challenges the media to do the following things in order to appropriately cover an incident:

Often times when people and groups such as "No Notoriety" speak out against this issue, two obstacles are met: human nature (to want to know all or many of these details that happen to give the killer his or her fame) and how media functions (the business is to produce stories and inform the public, and there is exponentially more information to give out when the killer can be included or their actions described). But what we need to do is figure out how to balance the public interest in learning about a mass shooting with the public interest in reducing copycat crime. Hopefully, even if it's maybe not through controlling media coverage, we will soon be able to find a way to shrink the role that mass shootings play in our country today.


"You Don't Belong Here"

For the past couple of weeks in our American Studies class, we have been discussing class structure and how classism affects American society. A point often brought up was how when a person or family of a non-white ethnicity moves into a primarily-white neighborhood, there can be (and often is) a feeling of a lack of acceptance. While these discussions have also often dealt with hypotheticals, a recent example of such rejection shows just how real this issue is.

This past Thursday, Ronica Copes of Lindenhurst, NY found this anonymous note (addressed to her family) inside her mailbox: 

The letter found in Copes' mailbox - originally inside an envelope with the return address, "The Community" - is riddled with racist remarks. 
It doesn't take much explanation to recognize the vile and racist nature of this letter, which clearly states that based solely on the color of their skin, Copes and her family are not welcome in (and are in fact, damaging to) the Lindenhurst community. Copes' mother, one of the family members currently living in the home, describes her reaction to it as going from “being fearful, protecting my family, to being totally confused, and wanted to know who and why... Today, it becomes even deeper: is it someone in the school district, is it the guy at the corner store, is it my neighbor down the street? Where?”

In the aftermath of the letter, many members of the community reached out to the Copeses to offer support and words of encouragement (obviously showing that the letter was not "coming from the Lindenhurst community"). The letter has been sent off for DNA testing, and hopefully, the perpetrator will be caught as soon as possible. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone mentioned in his statement, "To the coward who committed a hate crime against an innocent family in Lindenhurst -- There is no place for intolerance in Suffolk County. I know the Suffolk County Police Department will do everything possible to solve this hate crime, out you and see you punished."

While through this information we see that this is clearly not a matter of an entire community vs one family, but rather a matter of one or a few people with ignorant beliefs vs one family, that fact that anyone should have to receive this kind of hateful message in their own home is issue enough. The sender of this letter demonstrates just the kind of obstacles that African Americans in our society have to face everyday, even in something as simple as finding an accepting home and community.

What's interesting to take away from this situation is how the rigidity of the American class structure relates to ever-present racism in America. Since the Copeses have been living in Lindenhurst for years, there's no question that they belong there based on numerical values such as wealth. However, once looking at their race, some individuals feel that they don't belong in Lindenhurst, but rather where there are "more people like [them]," implying a lower-income, more racially segregated area. Although this incident is somewhat isolated and extreme, it highlights something that should exist in no quantity whatsoever. The steps to eliminating it could be extensive, but for now, Copes and her family are standing their ground: "You don't have a right to force us to go anywhere... And we have every right to stay."


Powerful Words

In class today, we had a deep discussion on how words and body language are used to indicate the more powerful side in a situation or relationship. By looking at specific examples from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, we found that power can be presented both physically (gestures, physical contact, etc.) and verbally (manipulative language, aggressive language, etc.). While these examples are from fictional characters, the use of words to create or perpetuate power has an interesting connection to today, and how the media often purposely chooses words that intend to alter the audience's perception of an incident.

Generally seen in reports of violence, these carefully chosen words aim to humanize white assailants and criminalize black victims. This can be very clearly seen in a comparison of headlines and images for mass-murderer James Holmes and police brutality victim Michael Brown:

Just by reading the headlines, it is clear to see that the focus on Brown is violence, and the focus on Holmes is previous academic success. Even though Holmes murdered 12 and injured 70 (and was captured alive), the media (in this case, CBS) chose to emphasize what a "brilliant" student he was. And even though Brown was a teenage victim of gun violence, the media still chose to make clear any violent tendencies that he had before he was shot multiple times and killed, for what seems to be very little reason at all.

The images paired with these headlines, while matching the chosen descriptions of their subjects, continue to perpetuate racist stereotypes that portray African American victims as chronically violent and white assailants as genuinely good-natured people that made some bad decisions here-and-there. However, some articles did use photos (such as the ones to the left and right) which seem to more accurately represent each incident. But what's important is that a multitude of articles that shifted perceptions, such as those above, were published by large and influential news sources such as CBS.

While some may argue that these articles describing two very different incidents and are isolated from one another, there are thousands of other examples displaying the same amount of racial biases in the media

Examples of biased reporting from the Huffington Post
article, "When the Media Treats White Suspects and
Killers Better than Black Victims"
All of these examples clearly demonstrate a specific selection of words (and images) that powerfully influence how one interprets a situation. Through these words, the media not only abuses, but increases its power. After all, as we've seen in The Great Gatsby, rumors and twisted stories have a very powerful effect on how the public perceives something/someone. However, now that we are recognizing the seemingly powerless position we, as the audience, are in, perhaps we can begin to shift it. The question we face now is, how? 


The Persuasive and Powerful Private Prison Industry

For my fourth and final blog post about my Junior Theme topic, I am choosing to write about a focus of my research, and specifically one study from it, that I have not yet described in detail: The Private Prison Industry.

The private prison industry's motive for influencing government funding for addiction treatment and prevention (i.e. my topic) can begin to be explained by the graphic below.

While this cycle is very interesting to pick apart and analyse, the step that I focused most closely on was how the private prisons sponsor lobbying groups, and do a number of other things, that pressure politicians into making certain decisions. These decisions then turn out to heavily benefit the private prison industry, over the needs of the American people. According to a 2011 study by the Justice Policy Institute, the private prison companies use direct campaign donations and strong networks and associations along with the lobbying in order to meet their end goal of higher profits, and it's worked. The same study, titled "Gaming the System," found that spending on corrections increased by 72% between 1997 and 2007. But how does this connect to addiction treatment and prevention funding? The answer to this question is largely based in how the private prisons fill their beds (also important to understand that filling beds = more profits).

Since the rise of the private prison industry can be largely attributed to the introduction of the War on Drugs, it makes sense that private prisons are primarily used to house low-level drug users. Without addiction, many of these users would not be in the position they are in, and would therefore not be sent to prison. Therefore, by focusing on eliminating addiction, the government would likely incite a decrease in the prison population, which is financially detrimental to private prison companies. Additionally, if more money is chosen to be allocated to one area, that means money must come out of another. This other area would likely be incarceration funds because, according to Shoveling Up II, this area is currently the second highest percentage of this particular allocation of funds (the highest being health care for substance abuse-related diseases, which is directly related to how damaging addiction and substance abuse is). And while I intend to leave these connections out of my paper (because the focus of my essay is on how the industry influences, not why), I feel it is crucial to understand the foundation of the situation. After all, the only way to fully comprehend an issue as complicated as this is to break it apart, piece by piece, to get to the root of everything, and then begin to make change from there.


The Evolution of Addiction

This week, I focused a majority of my research time to reading a book written by my interviewee, William White. The book, titled Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, gives a very detailed account of the societal and political evolution of addiction and alcoholism, all the way from the late 1700s to modern day America.

What I found the most interesting after all of my reading was that as decades passed, social and political action against alcoholism, and more so, addiction, did not improve, but actually worsened. Even as recently as 1978, Dr. Sheldon Zimberg noted that "'physicians, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals have been ineffective in the treatment of [addicts and alcoholics] and have lost interest in attempting to treat them'" (qtd. White 99). This disinterest in treatment coming from the physicians, accompanied by the government's extreme drug criminalization that was "driven by fear" (White 114), further ostracized alcoholics, and again, more so, addicts.

While this situation was bleak, the 20th century did come up with many different treatment techniques, some of which worked and some of which didn't. One of the most successful treatment methods was called "Aversion Therapy," which after being the strongest method for 60 years, paved the way for new approaches and treatments to be developed later in the 20th century. When in Aversion Therapy, the patient would be placed in a room void of anything except for a couple bottles of alcohol, a glass, and themselves. The patient was then giving a vomit-inducing drug so that when the patient drank the alcohol, the immediate reaction was to vomit. Additionally, administrators took great care to ensure that no positive feelings of intoxication reached the patient. So the patient would be in this room, alone with their thoughts, alcohol, and nausea. After repeating this for a set number of days, and repeated over a set number of months, the patient would naturally associate drinking with nausea and vomiting, which, in theory, cures the alcoholism.

While seemingly painful, this method yielded outstanding results. When followed-up with in the 1940s, aversion therapy patients reported recovery rates from 45% to 60%, substantially above the recovery rates for any other method in history. In his book, White mentions that this is likely because "all of the patients were voluntary and committed to the goal of permanently eliminating alcohol from their lives" (White 107), where in other methods, patients were often forced by family members or law officials.

Even though this is only the tip of the iceberg in the extensive history of addiction and alcoholism in America, it was a very interesting start, and I am intrigued to learn more as I continue to work on my Junior Theme.


"Big Bucks, Big Pharma"

As a part of my Junior Theme research this week, I was advised to watch something called "Big Bucks, Big Pharma: Marketing Disease and Pushing Drugs," an educational film that "examines how direct-to-consumer advertising of medications is a fairly recent innovation that has led to a sharp increase in the sales of prescription drugs." Although some parts of the film veered away from my "why" question, it definitely brought up many pertinent, interesting points that I had previously not seen. 

One of the strongest explanations it offered (for why such a large industry can get away with so much) was the relationship that the pharmaceutical industry, or Big Pharma, has with the FDA and the US Congress. According to the film, approximately 50% of the FDA's budget for approving drugs is funded by the very drug companies it's examining. Clearly, such a large amount of financial assistance would, and does, lead to a bias in the approval process. It also makes the FDA a "partner" of the industry it was formed to monitor, which greatly influences the integrity of the approval process. 

One speaker in the film also mentions how the "federal government has been coopted by the pharmaceutical industry." This makes sense, considering the FDA is a government organization under the US Department of Health and Human Services. But not only is Big Pharma directly involved with the FDA, it also "gives generously" to campaigns, and is the "largest lobby in Washington." All of this gave me a lot of insight into my topic, as it explains why the government would make the decisions they do when dealing with addiction treatment and prevention. Making a decision that would negatively affect Big Pharma (financially) would backfire on them, which is something no government or company wants to deal with. 

Since this film exhaustively analyzes what could be perceived as corruption in one of the largest industries in America, I hope to use this information in the section of my essay that explains/argues the financial impact or benefits of addiction treatment and prevention. 


America and Addiction

Throughout the course of this year, it feels like many of the topics we have studied in our American Studies class have been connected to the War on Drugs in some way or another. Whether the link was clear or vague, I thought it was interesting how significant a role this war played in current and past American society. Looking into it more, I wanted to find out what the government's role was, not just in arrests and incarceration (as we looked at in class), but in the more personal aspect of the Drug War: Addiction.

After a little bit of research, I came across a 2005 study that found this startling information: "Of the $373.9 billion spent by federal and state governments [on substance abuse], some 95.6 percent was spent to 'shovel up the consequences and human wreckage of substance abuse and addiction,' while only 1.9 percent was spent on prevention and treatment, 1.4 percent on taxation and regulation, and less than 1 percent on research and interdiction." 

Chart from the 2005 study, "Shoveling Up II: The Impact of
Substance Abuse on Federal, State, and Local Budgets"
This led me to wonder, why is this happening? Why is such a disproportionate amount of money being spent to "shovel up the consequences" of addiction, rather than actually treating the problem? (Especially considering States spend more on substance abuse and addiction than they spend on Medicaid, higher education, transportation or justice)

It turns out that there are many reasons (as would be expected), but probably the most significant is that addiction is lucrative. Much like how the lottery can profit off of gambling addicts, large pharmaceutical companies and doctors that specialize in addiction treatment profit off of substance abusers. And while there are many examples of this occurring, one of the strongest is the prescription and use of a drug called "buprenorphine" (also known as "bupe"). 

I plan to write a more in-depth blog on the controversy surrounding buprenorphine soon, but the gist of it is that buprenorphine is a "substitute opioid used to treat opioid addiction." Although there have been countless success stories showing how buprenorphine (often sold in a compound called Suboxone) was prescribed correctly and cured addictions (to drugs such as heroin), it still easily finds its way into corrupt, power-abusing hands. And once in those hands, we see doctors and research companies making thousands off of addicts (often by hiking up prices) who are only trying to find help. This benefits the government via the economy, which in the end, in why an insignificant amount of funds are allocated for combatting addiction (more addicts = more buprenorphine purchases = more money in more likely-to-be spender's pockets). This is only one reason for the disproportionality, but clearly, it plays a major role. 

As I continue my research, I hope to be able to really pick apart the government's reasoning for its decision-making. By the end and in the very least, I hope to be able to see a viable solution or improvement to an issue that has plagued America for far too long.