When Pat Robertson said on his show recently that he supported the legalization of marijuana, some of us didn't blink twice. He has said things like this before, so it didn't seem like news. But when the New York Times picked it up, people treat it like breaking news.
For a few minutes, we need to be willing to separate our own feelings about the issue of legalizing marijuana to consider how a story like this should be told. So put the issue itself aside and take a look at who's quoted, what's quoted, and who's not quoted to evaluate whether or not the piece covers the story adequately.
Of the many roles Pat Robertson has assumed over his five-decade-long career as an evangelical leader — including presidential candidate and provocative voice of the right wing — his newest guise may perhaps surprise his followers the most: marijuana legalization advocate.
“I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol,” Mr. Robertson said in an interview on Wednesday. “I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded.”
Who was surprised by his stance besides this reporter?
“I love him, man, I really do,” said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of current and former law enforcement officials who oppose the drug war. “He’s singing my song.”
We get some predictably positive reaction from from the executive director of an organization that supports marijuana legalization. Then we get more glowing opinion from another pro-drug-legalization group.
“Pat Robertson still has an audience of millions of people, and they respect what he has to say,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for more liberal drug laws. “And he’s not backtracking. He’s doubling down.”
The piece goes back to Robertson, quoting beliefs as facts.
“It’s completely out of control,” Mr. Robertson said. “Prisons are being overcrowded with juvenile offenders having to do with drugs. And the penalties, the maximums, some of them could get 10 years for possession of a joint of marijuana. It makes no sense at all.”
Did the reporter fact check to confirm or deny this claim? Why not look at some data to see whether this is indeed the case (or at least put it in context of state laws)?
Then we get a few paragraphs the Chicago-area leader of black clergy members who personally says she supports marijuana legalization.
“I would hope and think that it would move the needle for the large constituencies of evangelicals he represents,” Dr. Carruthers added.
At some point in this piece of marijuana-legalization-supporters, you would think that the reporter would check to see if Robertson's views go over well among other evangelicals. For instance, it wouldn't hurt to look at some Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life data to get a sense of whether he's among the majority who hold his view. Guess what: Just 25 percent of white evangelicals said marijuana should be made legal.
In the 19th paragraph, we get a quick explanation that one Christian organization, Focus on the Family, declined to comment on Robertson's statements, except to say that it does not support the use of marijuana for either recreational or medicinal purposes. Really? Only one organization could be found? Was everyone else unavailable for comment? The reporter then repeats Robertson's argument that there's no difference between smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol.
“If people can go into a liquor store and buy a bottle of alcohol and drink it at home legally, then why do we say that the use of this other substance is somehow criminal?” he said.
I don't know, perhaps a physician or two could weigh in on these ideas?
Keeping up this one-sided piece, we get more quotes from the pro-legalization leader quoted at the beginning who appears to have no formal training in Christian theology or ministry but is quoted as saying that Robertson's position "is in line with the Gospel." Jesus, he says, would not "condone the imprisoning of people for nonviolent offenses."
The final section of the article grants more space to Robertson to tell us more about Jesus and how he's been "assailed" by those who disagree with him. Man, if people are really assailing him right and left, you would think they would be available for comment.