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Washington Post Writer Gets Tricked by the Drug Czar, Refuses to Accept Responsibility

Submitted by smorgan on
It all started when Washington Post's Ashley III Halsey claimed that 11-16% of weekend motorists are on drugs:

Feds: Watch out for drivers high on drugs

As you idled at that busy intersection Saturday night, there's a pretty good chance another driver waiting for the light to change was high on illegal drugs.

About 11 percent of motorists are high on the weekend, and the number creeps up past 16 percent once night falls on Friday and Saturday, according to federal drug czar Gil Kerlikowske and a national roadside survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The problem is, that's simply not what the drug czar or the survey said. The data reported on percentages of drivers who tested positive for having drugs in their system, which does not mean they were impaired behind the wheel. The NHTSA carefully explained this in their report:

The reader is cautioned that drug presence does not necessarily imply impairment. For many drug types, drug presence can be detected long after any impairment that might affect driving has passed. For example, traces of marijuana can be detected in blood samples several weeks after chronic users stop ingestion. Also, whereas the impairment effects for various concentration levels of alcohol is well understood, little evidence is available to link concentrations of other drug types to driver performance.

Now, in fairness to Halsey, it was almost certainly the drug czar's intention to blur that distinction and ONDCP shares the blame when their devious press releases lead to factual distortions in the press. Nevertheless, when Pete Guither sent an email correcting the error, Halsey jettisoned all credibility by getting pissed and spewing insults:

Your arrogance and ignorance are impressive.

Behold the unmatched maturity and professionalism of a staff writer at the venerable Washington Post. Confronted with a transparent and embarrassing error, he spits venom instead of attempting to correct or qualify his poor reporting. Halsey speaks of arrogance and ignorance even though he's the one refusing to admit mistakes and reporting on studies he hasn’t read and doesn’t understand.

As someone who's emailed corrections to a good number of journalists, I can honestly say I've never seen such a shameless and hostile response. Typically, a correction is made or not made and I get a "thanks for sharing" or I'm ignored. This, on the other hand, is so nasty that it would warrant managerial intervention even if Pete's suggestion weren't clearly correct. Seriously, whoever signs the checks at The Post should tell Ashley III Halsey not to act like this.

Other than that, the whole episode reminds me of basically every drug-related news story ever published prior to 2009. Maybe Halsey just missed the memo about drug reporting having to be accurate from now on. 

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