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Hard to watch? Yes.

A still from “Intervention.” It may be over, but the problem isn’t.

It’s a sad day in TV land, at least for me. Today marks the first of the five final episodes of A&E’s reality show Intervention. Since the show debuted in 2005, I can honestly say I’ve seen every single one of the two hundred or so episodes, some more than once.

A&E made the announcement about a month ago that Intervention was coming to a close this summer, but didn’t give a reason. True, the show’s premise (in which a documentary crew follows an addict around for a few days to chronicle the horrifying extent of his or her illness, then rounds up friends and family to stage an intervention and hopefully sends them to rehab) is unrelenting in its depressing documentation of its participants’ downward spiral from week to week. So perhaps formula fatigue was setting in for the network and crew. Perhaps declining ratings were an issue as well.

But given skyrocketing rates of overdoses, drug-related crime, and the critical need for addiction treatment in the U.S., I think the show should be kept on as a public service (though of course, such a thing doesn’t exist in television, “The More You Know” nonwithstanding). As an MSW student in addictions and mental health, spreading awareness about the topic and reducing stigma is something I feel passionately about.

I was just reading today, in a recent South Bend Tribune series, that heroin and opiate prescription drug-related arrests increased by 600 percent between 2008 and 2010 in LaPorte County, Indiana.

Did you catch that? SIX HUNDRED PERCENT.

Here’s an excerpt from the series, which has appeared in various incarnations in just about every single regional newspaper in this country over the past few years. (Here’s a link to the Denver Post‘s amazing contribution, which recently earned an Edward R. Murrow award.)

Just a few years ago, perhaps one or two heroin addicts per year walked through the doors of Life Treatment Centers, 1402 S. Michigan St., looking for help, said Deborah Smith, vice president for clinical services. About five years ago, the visits by heroin addicts increased to one or two per week, she said.

“In the last couple years, at least the last year and a half, we’re seeing about one (heroin addict) a day,” Smith said. “We probably serve about 1,000 people a year. I believe the epidemic with heroin and opiates is really taking over.”

John Horsley, director of addiction services at Oaklawn, said heroin addicts were a rarity at Oaklawn’s South Bend location when he started with the organization in May 2011. So rare, in fact, that some staff members would become uncomfortable when they encountered a heroin user who took the drug intravenously using a syringe, Horsley said. But in the past two years, heroin users have become so common that they now account for about 25 percent of the clients enrolled in substance abuse programs at Oaklawn, he said.

Horsley said he has seen weeks in which as many as four clients died of heroin overdoses while enrolled in Oaklawn treatment programs.

One could also make the argument, as I did in this paper I wrote for a media ethics class back in 2009, that Intervention exploits the privacy of its participants, all of whom are undoubtedly in a compromised mental state at the height of their addiction. On the flip side, though, there’s an awful lot of good that comes from documenting successful interventions (and there are many!) as well.

On a related note, this New York Times profile from last Sunday about Dr. Drew and his well-intentioned but poorly executed attempts to bring addiction into the forefront, via reality television, is definitely worth a read.

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verdictThe New York Times continued its uncharacteristic coverage of the Jodi Arias trial today with an interesting piece by Fernanda Santos on the emotional difficulty jurors face in deciding whether to sentence someone to the death penalty.

Santos quotes a former Florida juror named Alison Ward on the admittedly “bizarre” phenomenon of imposing a death sentence on someone who is being punished for… putting someone to death (i.e., murder).

“Reality is nothing like you see on TV,” Ms. Ward said, describing the experience of serving on the jury, which agreed on a death penalty sentence, as a lonely, painful quest to decide whether to impose what she called “a measure of justice that is bizarre” — a death as a sentence for a killing.

Yes, it is bizarre, but just look at the bloodthirsty crowds who gathered at the Maricopa County Courthouse to hear the verdict (see NYT photo above) — many of whom would doubtless insist that the gruesome first-degree murder of Travis Alexander merits capital punishment for the now-convicted Arias. Perhaps they gleaned this lynch-mob mentality from watching HLN, where indignant anchors like Nancy Grace served as jury, judge, and executioner long before the verdict was read on May 8.

Yesterday, the trial hit another snag during its first day of the aggravation phase; court was abruptly cancelled until Wednesday of next week and no explanation was given. Meanwhile, Arias was placed on suicide watch and is currently undergoing some sort of psychiatric evaluation.

I have put off posting about the Jodi Arias case until a verdict came in. And yesterday, finally, more than four months after this absolute circus of a trial began, a jury of twelve (infinitely patient) people handed Ms. Arias a first-degree murder conviction for killing her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander, in June 2008. (Why on earth this case took so long to go to trial is something I have never heard explained in the media — was it because Arias changed her story so many times?)

Okay. I have lots of thoughts about this trial and what it says about how the public perceives (take your pick) women/sex/violence/the criminal justice system/the death penalty. But for now, I’ll focus on immediate media coverage of the verdict.

Let’s begin with HLN, since the cable news-lite network has made the Arias trial its raison d’etre, carrying out near 24-hour coverage of the spectacle since it began in January, even going so far as to create a three-dimensional model of the crime scene and assembling a mock jury every night to weigh in on the day’s evidence.

Not surprisingly, I was greeted by this on the HLN homepage today, front and center, or what used to be deemed in ancient newspaper days as “above the fold:”

verdict

Because the Arias case has all along been a tabloid trial–that is, covered breathlessly by what we might think of as the trashy/sensationalistic/if-it-bleeds-it-leads news media–it’s no surprise that the classy Daily News also delivered the verdict above the fold in its second slot. (I can only imagine it would have been first had the bombshell Cleveland kidnapping rescue not happened his week.) The News also had a scoop: that Arias, ever the narcissistic wannabe-media-darling, is now declaring in trademark dramatic fashion that she would rather be put to death than spend the rest of her life in prison. (My question: who gave her the lipgloss for her first post-verdict interview? And don’t they, like, carry a convicted first-degree murderer directly off to jail at that point? As in, do not pass go, do not sit down for a soft-focus television interview?)

halfway verdict

Next let’s head over to the New York Times, which has studiously ignored the trial up until now. The Grey Lady conceded some coverage today, but only alluded to it in the most generic of terms, and waaaaay far down the page at that, in its “U.S.” section. (I had to add a red circle around it ’cause it’s pretty tiny.)

small verdict

Moving on! The liberal intellectuals over at NPR, to my surprise, did carry an Arias headline, albeit without a photo, right on their homepage, but not without a fight from its highbrow readers, some of whom were just plain disgusted that public media would stoop so low. Here’s an excerpt from the article’s comment section:

who cares verdict

More thoughts on the trial later.

sheff

David Sheff is the parent of an addict and the author of Beautiful Boy, a memoir about his son’s addiction to meth. (That son, Nic, wrote a couple of books about his addiction, too.) Sheff’s latest book, Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, was just released and is reviewed in the New York Times today by Dr. Abigail Zuger.

Dr. Zuger’s review is somewhat mixed. She agrees with Sheff’s thesis:

Addiction must be considered a disease, as devoid of moral overtones as diabetes or coronary artery disease, just as amenable as they are to scientific analysis, and just as treatable with data-supported interventions, not hope, prayer or hocus-pocus.

… but she points out that the author “bludgeons” his readers with it. Still, she concedes, there’s a definite need to reinforce the addicts-as-chronically-ill-patients attitude, given that a number of people in this country apparently still regard addicts as merely weak-willed losers.

Wrapping the mind around this formulation requires an enormous act of will, and it is Mr. Sheff’s foremost achievement that his arguments are likely to influence even the angriest and most judgmental reader.

She’s not kidding, either. Yesterday, Sheff published an op-ed in the NYT titled “Calling 911 Shouldn’t Lead to Jail,” and what struck me most wasn’t its argument (that those who report overdoses of their friends/peers to 911 shouldn’t have to decide between saving a life and potentially going to jail themselves), but rather, the comment section of the page. Here’s an example:

If someone reported an accidental shooting, they would be subject to prosecution for gun possession. Why should the law be different for drug use?

Oh, wait. It gets better. Here’s another comment:

The best thing is NOT becoming an addict. Some members of our species, however, are unable to do so, especially in the atmosphere of forgivness [sic] and tendency to ‘explain’ the addiction.

And then, my personal fave:

a get-out-of-jail-free card for their enablers – now way… no how.
If their basic moral compass is so askew – better they reside in prison or far away from me and my family.

So, I guess that what I (and Dr. Zuger) are saying is that yes, while Sheff’s “manifesto” blasting the war on drugs and advocating for the serious and comprehensive treatment of addicts may be redundant and self-evident for those whose lives have already been upended by addiction or who work with addicts as a career, there are still many, many ignoramuses out there who would benefit from sitting down with a copy of this book. As Dr. Zuger concludes,

“Clean” is a reference work and a manifesto, an annotated map of the same frightening territory where dragons still lurk at the edges.

I have it out from the library right now, but haven’t read it yet. I’ll be sure to update this post when I do.

knox

Amanda Knox’s memoir, “Waiting to Be Heard,” is set to be released next week, and I will not read it, at least partly because I am not altogether convinced she is totally blameless in the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in Italy the fall of 2007. I won’t bother to rehash the facts of the case because I’m pretty sure you already know them.

Now, I know Knox already scored a $4 million advance on the book, but the thought of her profiting further from “her side of the story,” which could potentially be total bullshit, makes me sick to my stomach.

I bring this up because the New York Times’ usually astute Michiko Kakutani has a review of the book this week, though I hesitate to call it a real review because it doesn’t say anything substantial about the book’s merits. Of course, it’s not Kakutani’s job to decide Knox’s guilt or innocence. But I do think this so-called memoir is trashy tabloid shit pretty much unworthy of Times coverage, to say nothing of the fact that it’s framed in even faintly glowing praise:

She spent a lot of time in prison writing journals, poems, stories, letters, even lists of what she would do with her life (i.e., things she would do if she got out immediately, or things she would do if she were 46 when she were released). All that practice and all that introspection have given her an ability to convey her emotions with considerable visceral power — the shock of feeling the supremely ordinary morph into the utterly surreal, the vulnerability of being on trial in a foreign country in a language she had not completely mastered, the isolation of being in prison and at the center of a swirling media storm… In the end her book is not only an effort to make a case for her innocence but it’s also a kind of bildungsroman.

But let’s entertain the notion that Knox did have anything to do with Kercher’s murder. (Which would practically be blasphemy to the press here in the U.S.!) Does Kakutani’s critique hold up if the book is in fact a work of fiction? I think it would have been worthwhile — or at the very least, amusing — for the reviewer to wonder aloud about that possibility.

NB: Another thoughtful writer, the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead, has now also weighed in on Knox’s memoir — but, like Kakutani, she seems less interested in Knox’s version of “truth” than in the college student’s attitudes towards casual sex. Okay…?

bronx 1

The New York Times has an absolutely sickening series this week by William Glaberson on the outrageous situation that’s being perpetrated in the Bronx‘s criminal justice system. (Injustice system is more like it, I’d say.) Defendants languish indefinitely in jails while judges deal–or choose not to deal, as the case may be–with a backlog of cases going back, in some instances, six or seven years. Meanwhile, witnesses forget important details, defense attorneys capitalize on the long delays, district attorneys shrug their shoulders at their abysmally low prosecution rates, and anguished families of both victims and defendants live in protracted misery.

Ugh.