How a bad Free Beacon piece about crack pipes triggered Fox News
Just Say No to scaremongering.
A story about the Biden administration spending millions of taxpayer dollars on crack pipes quickly expanded from fringe right-wing media to elected Republicans and Fox News, where it was brought up more than 30 times on Tuesday alone across almost all of the channel’s shows and became one of its biggest stories of the week.
There’s just one problem — it was wrong. The story was a house of lies built on a foundation of false and misleading reporting.
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The non-troversy was born in a Monday article at the Washington Free Beacon, written by Patrick Hauf with the headline, “Biden Admin To Fund Crack Pipe Distribution To Advance ‘Racial Equity.’” The headline alone is perfect right-wing outrage fodder, but there’s an obvious problem with the piece.
The basis of the entire story is a single quote from an unnamed HHS spokesperson who, according to the Free Beacon, told the publication that crack pipes would be included in safe smoking kits made available to people struggling with addiction via nonprofits and municipalities who receive a slice of $30 million in federal harm reduction funding.
Here’s a screengrab of how the article still appears on the Free Beacon’s website on Thursday evening (emphasis mine):
The paraphrased quote doesn’t leave any wiggle room — it says categorically that an HHS spokesperson said the federal government is spending money on crack pipes. But further down in the piece is a paragraph says the HHS “declined to specify what is included in the smoking kits.” (The kits typically include cleaning supplies as well as rubber mouthpieces meant to reduce the risk of burns and subsequent infection for heavy drug users.)
These two claims aren’t really consistent with each other. It can’t both be the case that HHS says the kits contain crack pipes and also declines to say what’s in them. But instead of doing any reporting of their own, Fox News not only ran wild with the idea that the federal government is doling out crack pipes but exaggerated it further.
“This morning we’re learning that HHS, Health and Human Services, is considering spending $30 million on crack pipes, handing out crack pipes to drug addicts,” Fox & Friends First co-host Carley Shimkus lied on Tuesday morning, as if the whole program is about crack pipes. (As Snopes details, safe smoking kits are “only a very small part” of it.)
By Tuesday evening, Fox News’s primetime hosts were running with egregiously exaggerated chyrons like “UNCLE SAM TO HAND OUT CRACK PIPES” and others that made it sound as though Biden was personally doling out drug paraphernalia.
While Fox News hammered Biden for allegedly overseeing America’s descent into a “country of drugs,” as Fox & Friends co-host Todd Piro put it, elected Republicans like Marsha Blackburn, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio also got in on the act.
Biden administration officials pushed back. On Wednesday, HHS and the Office of National Drug Control Policy on Wednesday released a statement declaring that no, Biden is not doling out crack pipes.
“HHS and ONDCP are focused on using our resources smartly to reduce harm and save lives,” it says. “Accordingly, no federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits.”
Jen Psaki was similarly categorical during Wednesday’s press briefing in response to a question from a Fox News reporter, saying crack pipes “were never part of the kit” and characterizing the Free Beacon’s piece and Fox News’s spin of it as “inaccurate reporting.”
But unsurprisingly, despite the unequivocal denials from multiple government agencies and the fact that the underlying 75-page grant document never once mentions the word “pipe,” Fox News continued to talk about “Biden crack pipes” on Wednesday evening and into Thursday.
So what happened? What explains the disconnect between an HHS spokesperson allegedly telling the Free Beacon that the federal government was funding smoking kits that included crack pipes, and then government officials spending the next day denying it as the story blew up in right-wing media and became a trending topic on Twitter?
The short answer is the Free Beacon misled people.
Roger Sollenberger of the Daily Beast got the bottom of it on Thursday in an article headlined, “‘Free Crack Pipes’ Myth Rooted in False Free Beacon Report.”
The report suggests that Hauf, the Free Beacon reporter, more or less made up the “will provide pipes” quote that launched this whole news cycle. And Sollenberger has convincing reporting of his own.
From his piece:
An HHS spokesperson told The Daily Beast that the agency never said the kits would provide pipes. The spokesperson provided the email chain with the reporter, which matches the agency’s account.
According to the emails, the reporter never mentioned pipes. The HHS representative confirmed that the reporter “never asked about pipes” in any communication.
In the exchange, the agency provides the Free Beacon with a statement, which does not mention pipes and clarifies that all kits must comply with the law.
The last paragraph is key. HHS told Hauf that while grant funds can be used for smoking kits, the kits must comply with any federal, state, and local laws that prohibits crack pipes — and there is a federal law against drug paraphernalia, as well as ones in a number of states. But that part of HHS’s statement didn’t make it into the Free Beacon’s report. Even worse, Hauf appears to have put words in the HHS spokesperson’s mouth by saying the government would provide crack pipes when, according to the email exchange, they in fact said no such thing.
To be clear, assuming doing so complied with the law, there would be nothing wrong with the federal government providing clean and safe gear to people struggling with addiction. Part of the grant funding in question actually does this in the form of clean syringes. While it would be nice believe that such people could just quit using drugs cold turkey, that’s oftentimes unrealistic, and the idea underpinning harm reduction programs is to keep users and their surrounding communities as safe and healthy as possible while they hopefully get the help they need to stay clean.
But instead of engaging a good faith discussion about how best to deal with drug abuse at a time when fatal overdoses are at an all time high in the US, Republicans and their media echo chamber pounced upon a false report and twisted it into exaggerated, bad faith rhetoric to undercut the federal government’s effort and take cheap shots at Hunter Biden, who of course has struggled with crack himself. And even after their preferred narrative was debunked, they just kept going with it anyway.
“It’s really disappointing that Republicans are trying to win political points by putting lives at risk and creating misinformation about harm reduction,” Jamie Favaro, executive director of NEXT Distro, a groups that applied for the grants, told the Washington Post.
It’s disappointing, but at this point, not at all surprising.