Yellow journalism

Why are reporters, those vigilant guardians of constitutional freedoms, cravenly unzipping themselves for drug testing?

By Carol Lloyd
Published April 1, 1998 5:47PM (EST)

Fifteen years ago if you presented your prospective employer with a plastic cup brimming with your fresh, warm piss, chances are you might not land the job. Now such ritual offerings of bodily fluid are not only acceptable but practically mandatory as pre-employment drug testing spreads like a urine stain throughout our corporate culture.

It isn't difficult to imagine why a company like Exxon -- with a disaster like the Valdez oil spill tarnishing its history -- would institute a strict drug-screening policy among its safety-sensitive workers. Or even a traditional consumer company like Clorox, whose corporate culture tends to mirror its product: all-American, old-fashioned and homogeneous. But the fact that drug testing has become almost ubiquitous at newspapers -- those bastions of free speech and individual rights -- is pretty damn strange.

This month the Washington Post joined the ranks of other venerable newsrooms -- New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and all Knight-Ridder publications, to name just a few -- with its implementation of pre-employment drug testing. "We simply wanted to support a drug-free and alcohol-free workplace," said deputy editor Milton Coleman, explaining that the policy had been in place for some time but that the editorial offices had ignored it. When asked if the decision had been prompted by an incident -- say, two editors mainlining in a bathroom stall while deadlines flew by like hallucinations -- Coleman replied, "No. There was no precipitating event."

Although not all newspaper officials were as enthusiastic as Coleman, many of those surveyed by Salon gave their whole-hearted approval of the policy. Marianne Chin, director of editorial hiring at the San Francisco Chronicle, said the paper's two-year policy came from wanting "a drug-free workplace to insure the safety of our employees." Jim White, editor for hiring and development for the L.A. Times, said he has no qualms about the usefulness or appropriateness of drug testing, adding, "It just hasn't been an issue, and it doesn't seem to bother anybody." A moment before, however, he told me that a few applicants had refused to take the test, citing their principles. "But there's the assumption that they refuse because they fear they'll fail," he explained. Perhaps that is why objections to the test are so rare. Any protest may sully your reputation and paint you as an addict in denial.

Coleman was careful to add that the Washington Post maintains a "very compassionate policy" toward currently employed drug abusers and alcoholics. "Many of our newsroom employees have formed a network of their own and some of them have even committed journalism about their addictions," he said.

Coleman's comments imply that the Post has left behind the era of hard-drinking journalists for wholesome 12-step groups and first-person confessionals. That may be true at the Post, but elsewhere many editors and writers asserted that alcoholism is still pervasive in newsrooms. But, of course, the whiz quiz can't screen for alcohol abuse, since booze stays in your bloodstream for only a few hours.

Urine tests are leaky in other ways as well. Since they only detect levels of metabolites in the body, the tests often misread over-the-counter medication and food as illegal drugs. Ibuprofen has been known to show up as marijuana; poppy seeds as heroin; and Nyquil as amphetamines. Coleman assured me that individuals can inform the laboratory of any medications that might be mistaken as drug traces, but employees who want to keep their medical history private are out of luck. Once an employer has your urine, moreover, many states don't have laws limiting what they can do with it. For example, in 1988, the Washington, D.C., police admitted that they had used drug tests to screen female employees for pregnancy without their consent or knowledge.

With newspapers being bought out by big media conglomerates and newspaper chains' cookie-cutter journalism taking over newsrooms, maybe it's no surprise to see reporters becoming just another bunch of cogs in the corporate machine. But the fact that the press is submitting with barely a whimper to the drug-testing juggernaut has a seeping, insidious effect upon everyone's civil liberties. When the issue of workplace screening first hit the courts in the mid-1980s, no newspapers had drug-testing programs, and the practice was hotly debated in the press. Lately, however, criticism seems to have dwindled to a wee trickle, even though numerous cases are still being litigated and both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Newspaper Guild still argue that suspicionless drug testing constitutes an infringement of Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Drug-testing laws differ from state to state, and as of mid-1997, only Montana, Iowa, Vermont and Rhode Island had explicit bans against suspicionless testing.

"About seven years ago there was a lot of talk about drug-testing policy and laws," said Jeremy Gruber, legal director of the ACLU's task force on civil liberties in the workplace. "Since then the situation has partly solidified, giving the employers cart blanche. But it's true, there has not been a lot of attention to it from the press."

As director of the national office of the Newspaper Guild, Linda Foley has been fighting against the policy of pre-employment testing (and often losing) since 1988, when the union lost the right to bargain for job applicants at the Minneapolis Star. "Now virtually all major newspapers do pre-employment drug testing," Foley bemoaned. When asked if individual journalists had filed many court cases objecting to the practice, she hesitated. "I do get calls from people sometimes, but they rarely leave their names," Foley said. "I suppose they're afraid they won't get hired."

John True, a lawyer who has argued several ACLU cases against pre-employment screening, couldn't remember any cases brought by journalists either. High school athletes? Sure. Government workers? Yes. Even some technical writers -- but journalists? "I'm almost sure there hasn't been one," he said.

Slate's Michael Kinsley recently skewered the hypocrisy of the New York Times editorial page for criticizing the state of Georgia's recent attempt to compel political candidates to undergo drug testing, while staying quiet about the Times' own pre-employment drug screening policy. Such glaring contradictions between newspapers' editorial stances and corporate practices reinforce the image of a pathetically spineless and hypocritical press: willing to take others to task while ignoring its own stern counsel.

Little wonder then that many of the reporters and editors I contacted declined to comment on their experience on or off the record. Don't get me wrong -- if I truly needed (or even desperately wanted) a job, I might sacrifice my uric acid and my Fourth Amendment rights to the cause. But to do it and then be afraid to even talk about it? Journalists make their livings by asking -- and sometimes hounding -- others to stand up for their rights and reveal their secrets. But when it comes to their own companies' piss policies, journalists' lips are zipped.

"I completely caved on the issue," admitted Jim DeRogatis, Chicago Sun-Times rock critic and one of the few journalists brave enough to discuss his experience with pre-employment drug testing. "I'm totally against it, but did I piss in the cup for them? You betcha."

When DeRogatis first heard about the drug test, he wondered if the Sun-Times editors were testing the depth of his professional commitment. "Since I'd written a book about psychedelic drugs and rock music, I thought they would only hire me if I failed the test," he joked. He had "no reason to worry" the first time he took the test (he was hired by the newspaper twice), but "just in case" he drank a special detoxifying tea from the health food store. "It turned me green," DeRogatis told me, explaining that his candor stems in part from his assumption that the Sun-Times only cares about drug testing insofar as it affects the paper's insurance rates. "If there wasn't a tea, I suppose a lot more people would object to the testing," he said. "But as it is, it's more of a formality."

A New York Times reporter who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity recalled his pre-employment whiz quiz. He thought a colleague was joking when he told him to start "studying for your drug test." Then his prospective boss sat him down, told him how wonderful it was to work for the Times and added ominously: "If you fail the drug test, you can never work here as long as you live." Unexpectedly hired a month early, the reporter found an excuse to bow out of the first physical to let his system go clean, but a week later went in for his test. "You have to take off your clothes, then this nurse follows you into the bathroom and unscrews the handles of the sink so you can't dilute your urine. Then she stood outside the stall listening to me," he said. "It was oddly paramilitary.

"It's pretty mind-boggling," he added. "Because there's absolutely no relationship between me smoking marijuana on the weekend and my job performance."

Like DeRogatis, the Times reporter also believes the paper's policy stems from insurance company requirements. Many states have a "drug-free workplace program" that allows participating employers to get a 5 percent break on their workers' compensation insurance. This sounds relatively harmless, but there's a kicker. If a journalist was injured, say, while covering a riot at the World Cup, he would immediately be drug tested. If the pot he smoked six weeks earlier showed up on his urine test, he would lose his workers' compensation coverage and medical benefits.

While they tend to cower in silence, many journalists privately complain that the pass-fail drug test is absurd at best and fascist at worst. But Donald Lewis, president of Foley Laboratory Services in Connecticut, one of the country's largest drug testing companies, strongly disagrees. "I'd rather hire an alcoholic than an occasional marijuana smoker," he told me, explaining that he learned his lesson with a pot-smoking employee at his very own company. "He was rear-ended, then he was broad-sided, and then he ate a two-week old pizza in the back of his car and had to have his stomach pumped. I've seen how drugs can destroy a workplace."

Lewis estimates that drug testing is a $2 billion to $3 billion annual business. His industry's meteoric growth in the past decade is a testament to the political and rhetorical success of the nation's "drug war" -- a war that has now conscripted most newsrooms in America.

"The deeper issue here is that the media has been enlisted as soldiers in the drug war," said Jeff Cohen, executive director of the liberal media watchdog group, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting. "No one ever says anymore that the drug war is itself a controversy with legitimate points of view on both sides."

Indeed, the drug war has seeped into the fabric of our everyday lives, and even journalists who do still fight for their First Amendment free speech rights have quietly surrendered other rights. But what good is free speech, if the only way you have access to it is by forfeiting your right to privacy? Granted, when the Founding Fathers wrote the statute protecting unwarranted searches and seizures, they probably were thinking grain silos, not bladders -- but can there even be an argument about which one is the more private place?

And the drug testing craze may be only the beginning of aggressive workplace intrusions. In response to criticism that urine tests are inaccurate, companies are eagerly inventing new, more precisely intrusive products. Psychemedics Corp. in Boston holds the patent for a drug test in which a swath of hair roughly the size of a crayon can detect drugs taken 90 days before the test. If the person is bald, he must submit body hair. CERA, a Florida testing company, has developed the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory, a psychological test involving sophisticated questions designed to ferret out liars and defensive thinking. Some companies have even begun using tests meant for mental patients that delve into the sexual feelings and religious beliefs of the potential employee. When these perfected drug tests begin to screen for psychological eccentricity, independent thinking, hereditary diseases and political persuasions, then we will need the power of the press more than ever. The question is, will we have journalists with backbones enough for the job?

Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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