W. Joseph Campbell

‘Pharm parties’ and the tenacity of media myths

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths on January 26, 2010 at 6:25 am

Jack Shafer, editor-at-large at slate.com, recently revisited and re-debunked the media-driven myth of “pharm parties,” those purported gatherings at “which young people … dump the pills they’ve stolen from their parents’ medicine cabinets into a big bowl and then scoop out and swallow random handfuls.”

It’s a phenomenon, he says, that the news media “pretend [is] both real and ubiquitous.”

Shafer begins his take-down with a half-serious lament, writing:

“I regret to inform you that this column has failed to eradicate the ‘pharm party’ meme,” noting that he has written about this fanciful pastime on five other occasions.

Shafer appeals to common sense in deflating the myth, writing:

“There are at least two basic problems with the pharm-party scenario reported in the press. To begin with, if you were a young drug fiend and stole potent drugs, why would you deposit them in a communal bowl if there was a good chance that when your turn came to draw a drug at random, you might get an antihistamine? And second, I’ve yet to read a story in which a journalist actually attends such a gathering, interviews a participant, or cites a police report alleging such behavior.”

It’s an impressive debunking, but Shafer is under no illusions that his efforts will kill off the fantasy.

After all, he says, reports of “pharm parties” or their equivalent can be traced to the mid-1960s. “Any myth hearty enough to survive and thrive for 40-plus years in the media is probably unkillable,” Shafer writes.

And he’s probably right.

As I note in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, some media-driven myths are so tenacious, so debunking-resistant, because they seem too good, too delicious, not to be true.

That’s certainly the case with the hoary tale of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the nineteenth century. What story better captures Hearst the warmonger than that? What tale better signals the potential malignant effects of the news media, writ large?

The anecdote of the Hearstian vow lives on, shrugging off repeated efforts to uproot it.

Likewise, the notion of “pharm parties,” is too enticing, too delicious in a perverse way, not to be true.

Another factor explaining tenacity of media-driven myths is that they readily feed stereotypes. “Pharm parties” certainly do so, offering supposed evidence of the mindless, reckless ways of a younger generation.

One of the cases of stereotyping explored in Getting It Wrong is that of “crack babies,” a frightening and overstated phenomenon of the late 1970s and 1980s. Women who smoked crack cocaine during pregnancy were, it was feared, giving birth to a neurologically damaged “bio-underclass” that would forever be dependent on the state.

The “crack baby” phenomenon turned out to be a widely misreported pandemic. Even so, it seemed to confirm the worst pathologies associated with inner-city poor people. That stereotype was one reason the “crack baby” meme lived on.

And lives on still.

WJC

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  1. […] a Nov. 22 article about teenagers who abuse prescription drugs, a reference to ‘pharm parties‘ being a craze among teens did not sufficiently support that […]

  2. […] noted the durability of media myths in one of his periodic dismantlings of the “pharm party” phenomenon, which in some form has circulated for 40-some years. (The mythical “pharm […]

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