As part of its "Intoxication Nation" series, "a crazy land where Charlie Sheen is the mayor and Courtney Love is the sheriff" (according to actress Kristen Johnston, who's a recovered alcoholic) ABC's "20/20" warned viewers it would show them "what the kids are doing."
This, according to the conventions of television, could not be good. The only question really, was the degree of plausible depravity. Vodka-soaked tampons? Check. Eyeball shots? Check. Gobbling booze-infused Gummi Bears because they want to live in crazy land all the time? Check. Once upon a time, Nirvana's "Smells like Teen Spirit" demanded the world entertain us; now, according to "20/20," this generation of kids have found their entertainment in Katy Perry: they want to smell like minibars.
The horror. And it's all the alcohol industry's fault. As Koren Zailckas, the author of Smashed, a memoir of her blacked-out teen and college years, tells ABC: "I think the alcohol industry knows what the scientific community knows: the younger you are when you have your first drink, the more likely you are to become an alcoholic later on down the road."
To which Chris Cuomo of "20/20" responded, "The Distilled Spirits Council of the United (DISCUS) States denies Zailckas accusations and told '20/20' underage drinking is at historic lows but that's the industry talking. The CDC says any decrease is insignificant." This was accompanied by an on-air image of the DISCUS statement—but it passes by so fast you'd find it hard to see the line "according to U.S. Government data…"
So, intrepid citizen journalists, do you think there might be a gap between Katy Perry's anthem for doomed American youth ("It's a blacked-out blur/But I'm pretty sure it ruled") and the statistics? Let's Google!
I chose "Drinking historic decline," which produced this as the top-ranked search item: "Cigarette and alcohol use at historic low among teens," from the December 2011 National Institutes of Health News. How low? The lowest since the annual "Monitoring the Future" survey began polling teenagers in 1975. The survey was conducted by the University of Michigan under a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
But the joy of Googling doesn't just end there. At number five in the search results is this gem from… ABC News: "Teen Smoking, Drinking Down; Marijuana Use Up." For good measure, the network reported "binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks in a row within the two weeks the survey was conducted, was also down about a quarter since 1997."
In case you weren't sure what this meant, Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, explained to ABC News that "the decrease is very dramatic."
As the Monitoring the Future survey for this year is not yet out, this is its most recent data.
But wait, it's not the only government survey on alcohol abuse. Just this week, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) revealed its latest survey data. What they found:
So how could Chris Cuomo have construed DISCUS's statement as industry spin rather than government data? Either ABC's "20/20" didn't even bother with the most basic due diligence supposedly required by "professional" journalists, namely, checking stuff out—or they fudged the data because it spoiled the "industry bad/anti-industry crusader good" narrative that is such a reliable source of original "moral panic" journalism. Either way, as Katy Perry puts it so piquantly in "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)": “That was such an epic fail.”
Of course, this means whomever ABC spoke to at the Centers for Disease Control was either clueless or—given the CDC's recent reluctance to admit its own data shows moderate drinking to be a "healthy behavior"—spinning.
There's a serious point to this beyond fact checking. Is there any evidence that moral panic narratives actually induce kids to engage in less risky behavior? Or would stories that showed that most American kids are not in training to be John Belushi be more effective in reinforcing the idea that, actually, it's not so cool to marinate your eyeballs with vodka? We'll never know because as long as there's one kid out there ready to do something stupid and dangerous, it would be too risky to suggest that most kids don't do stupid and dangerous things.
Zailckas, for her part, is a former teen alcoholic, who wrote about her first sips of hard liquor (at 14 apparently) tasting "as hopeful and as heartbreaking as kissing a boy." Her second memoir—Fury—is about the anger she felt after quitting drinking. Both have happy endings according to reviews, although, clearly, the first was only temporary.
Trevor Butterworth is a contributor to Newsweek, The Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and other publications.