Olympian Smokes Weed, Bored Media Have a Field Day

Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps offered a classic celeb apology: Admit behaving badly while really not admitting he smoked marijuana. Blame youth/inexperience/Satan. Promise to reform. Something short of "I didn't inhale." His semipublic embrace of

Feb 17, 2009 at 2:06 pm

American swimmer Michael Phelps was photographed apparently drawing on a marijuana pipe some weeks after winning an historic eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics. It matters because:

• Omnipresent camera phones and the cult of celebrity mean that no moment is private.

• Someone will pursue a bidding war for an embarrassing cell phone celebrity image.

• Camera phone voyeurs give paparazzi a bad name.

London’s Sunday News of the World recently published the photo. It was the kind of exclusive that Brits do best.

God knows what News of the World paid for the photo, but everyone in the newsroom must be giving thumbs up since Phelps admits it’s authentic. But I ask: Why should we care even if this twentysomething smokes marijuana at a campus party?

News of the World, which rarely lets the risk of libel or invasion of privacy litigation spoil a scoop, doesn’t say he’s smoking marijuana, only that he “draws from a bong” that is typically used for that purpose.

News of the World is a tabloid’s tabloid. It runs photos of celebs appearing to use drugs, sting operations that embarrass public figures and officials and salacious kiss-and-tell stories about sports, politics and entertainment figures. For a recent example, Google “Max Mosley” and News of the World.

Think of it as National Enquirer on Viagra.

First editions brightened late Saturday shifts at UPI in London. News of the World reporters cloistered or interviewed call girls who cavorted with overheated cabinet ministers in a country house pool; I rewrote Cold War stories about Soviet soldiers harassing GIs trying to travel from West Germany to West Berlin by Jeep.

Enough about me. Back to Phelps. He concedes the photo’s authenticity without admitting smoking marijuana. His statement, released to the Associated Press, says: "I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. I'm 23 years old and despite the successes I've had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again."

Classic celeb apology. Admit behaving badly while really not admitting he smoked marijuana. Blame youth/inexperience/Satan. Promise to reform. Something short of “I didn’t inhale.”

His semipublic embrace of a bong is news if he presents himself as the anti-drug athlete. Otherwise, no, it isn’t.

However, the aftermath is news: renewed and canceled endorsements, suspension from competitive swimming and Mayberry cops investigating whether to charge him with a crime (they ended up not charging him).

Phelps had the bad luck to draw attention after the Super Bowl and before Spring Training; nothing anywhere near so titillating since pinups from Australian beaches (summer down there) became politically incorrect for sports pages. Celebrity obsessed editors and audiences hate a vacuum unless it involves their thought processes. News of the World's timing was perfect.

So should Phelps have known that someone would photograph him when he showed up to see a female friend? Absolutely.

Should fame have alerted him to the risks of exposure? I don’t know. However, anyone who earns millions in endorsements must/should have agents, advisers and parents saying, “Don’t fuck up.”

If they did, he didn’t listen. Dumb.

But it doesn’t end there. His entourage also wins its gold for Olympian Dumb. As reported by News of the World: “Phelps’ aides went into a panic over our story and offered us a raft of extraordinary incentives not to run the bong picture. Phelps is represented by marketing giant Octagon, which works with huge brands such as Mastercard and HSBC. They admitted proven cannabis use would be ‘a major taint’ on Phelps’ character. Spokesman Clifford Bloxham offered us an extraordinary deal not to publish our story, saying Phelps would become our columnist for three years, host events and get his sponsors to advertise with us. In return, he asked that we kill Phelps’ bong picture. Bloxham said: ‘It’s seeing if something potentially very negative for Michael could turn into something very positive for the News of the World.’”

I love it. Nothing rivals stupidity for entertainment value. Certainly beats the Red Army blocking Allied access to beleaguered West Berlin. That was real news.

Curmudgeon Notes

• But stupidity as prime time entertainment doesn’t end with Michael Phelps. Think of this: You’re a Washington Post reporter covering Obama’s first White House press conference. The president calls on you from among all of the journalists vying for career-enhancing face time on global TV, and you ask about A-Rod’s forced admission of drug use? Granted, it was the only unexpected question and the president, a jock and ethical bellwether, responded. So are A-Rod’s lying denial and subsequent mea culpa news? Yes, because A-Rod is too big to fail.

• With her usual clarity of thought and expression, Enquirer editorial writer Krista Ramsey drew a bright line linking the creation and coverage of faux celebrity (Nadya Suleman, already mom of six, has octuplets) to newsroom intellectual sloth. This story has gone from medical miracle (admirable) to wacko single mom (awful) to medical news (doc who implanted so many embryos in a woman with six kids) to celebrity (mom of 14 without income has an agent and bidding war for her story). In the Good Old (pre-Pill) Days, Mother of the Year was married with lots of kids. Now big families increasingly are associated with public housing, welfare, teen violence, babies having babies and other social pathologies. So, as Ramsey wisely asks, do we really want to hear Suleman’s thoughts and hopes? And I’d add, should we punish broadcasters and publishers who pay Suleman for her story by reducing to their audiences to ... 14?

• It’s time for The Enquirer to rethink ads that look like news. One ad was so deceptive on Feb. 9 that I had to check to see if the world’s tiniest type said “advertisement.” It didn’t. There was the headline, the mug shot, the type faces so similar to the news stories nearby that it breaches journalism tradition and ethics. Other large ads also almost perfectly mimic the layout and type faces of news stories.

Advertisers create this confusion because it gives their pitch the cachet of news. But why has The Enquirer abandoned its historic practice of distinctive typography that signals “this isn’t news”? Has self-esteem declined to where The Enquirer hopes its readers will confuse news with ads?

• Next times someone damns The Enquirer’s shrinking size and staff and belittles the content, ask, “Do you read the paper daily?” Is it too wild to wager a dollar for each “yes” against a nickel for every “no?"

• Stephanie Dunlap’s interview with Georgine Getty is reason to spent $1 for Streetvibes this month. Writer and subject are saucy, tart and smart. Getty is leaving the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless as executive director at the end of the month for a similar job at the Interfaith Hospitality Network.

• Why did Channel 19 use the same video on two nights to illustrate downed trees and power lines in Kentucky? It’s bad enough when local stations loop a video repeatedly throughout a report, but to have the same guardsmen and local officials without anything new? That’s lazy. Fox could have asked why that utility’s lines are so vulnerable and why it can’t put more people in the field to restore power. To not have power for two weeks is Mogadishu on the Ohio.

• The first snow of February did not cause “gridlock” as claimed by near hysterical reporting on local TV. Gridlock means no one moves in any direction (think "grid" and "lock"). Video showed traffic on freeways stalled or moving slowly. Then there was Channel 12 reporter who drove to West Chester to see how long it would take in evening rush hour. I couldn’t stand it any longer, and I didn’t try other stations, fearing I’d channel the hammer-thrower in the iconic 1984 Macintosh Super Bowl commercial and smash the screen.

• Further evidence of sloth involves coverage of Evolution/Creationism and the MMR/autism. Only the truly dim argue that all sides must be treated with equal credulity when one is talking nonsense. For instance, no sentient editor would run a story on moon exploration and give equal space or time to the assertion that Neil Armstrong’s moon walk occurred in a TV studio.

Similarly, too many reporters are afraid to say to Creationists, “Hey, wait! It’s not science if it can’t be wrong.” Anyone can believe the literal creation stories in Hebrew Scriptures are true, accurate and infallible, but that doesn’t make either Creation story science. That’s religion. Belief can’t be disproved, and it doesn’t need real or pseudo-science to prove its truth for a believer. Unlike a religious dogma, the Theory of Evolution can be challenged by evidence.

Similarly, clinical epidemiological studies continue to find no causal link between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) shot given to infants and autism. Coincidence means some children who get the MMR shot also will be autistic. Some also will be retarded, gifted, left-handed or whatever. Coincidence is not cause, no matter how passionately argued by a believer. Still, news media cover parents who blame MMR for their child’s autism and frighten some parents into refusing or delaying immunizations. Sad stories don’t establish science any more than religious faith.

• A recent London Sunday Times probe knocked a hole in the MMR = autism equation. It said data were fiddled by the British physician “who sparked the scare over the safety of the MMR vaccine for children” in 1998. It said Andrew Wakefield changed and misreported results in his research into 12 cases, creating or confirming the belief in a possible link with autism. The paper says confidential medical documents and interviews with witnesses established that Wakefield manipulated patients’ data. The Sunday Times says there's a resurgence of potentially lethal measles as the percentage of British infants vaccinated falls.

This week, the newspaper says Wakefield is the subject of a disciplinary inquiry by Britain’s General Medical Council but he is “unrepentant about his theory linking the combined MMR vaccine to bowel disorders and autism.” The paper says that in an interview he appears “to distance himself from his infamous Lancet paper on MMR, instead suggesting that his theory stemmed from his own analysis of ‘safety studies’ – a review that has never been peer-reviewed or published.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Special Court of Federal Claims rejected allegations that MMR vaccine contributed to autism, saying the claims were "speculative and unpersuasive." The court said "the weight of scientific research and authority" was "simply more persuasive on nearly every point in contention.”

• Barack Obama’s first prime time press conference was a presidential classic: He made his points regardless of what was asked. For a change, many questions came from young reporters and a Huffington Post blogger — maybe the first legitimate blogger to be called on at a primetime presidential press conference. And Obama had the grace to take a question from Helen Thomas, the grande dame of the White House press corps. Obama treated her famous persistence as a rite of passage, saying, “All right. Helen? This is my inaugural moment here.” When the laughter subsided, he told her, “I’m really excited.”

• I’ve never been a fan of Juan Williams, the resident wise man at NPR on black political/community issues. Now NPR’s ombudsman is calling Williams two-faced because he also appears with Fox News rightwinger Bill O’Reilly. “Williams tends to speak one way on NPR and another on Fox,” ombud Alicia Shepard says after a barrage of complaints about Williams being identified with NPR when he’s on Fox. “NPR’s vice president of news, Ellen Weiss, has asked Williams to ask Fox (to) remove his NPR identification whenever he is on O’Reilly.” Better yet, why retain him on NPR? Let Fox have him.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]