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Media Outlets Weigh Importance Of Mexican Drug Legalization Story

(CBS)
It's hard to come across this headline and not be a little taken aback: "Mexico To Legalize Cocaine, Heroin Use."

That's right – according to yesterday's stories, "Mexican President Vicente Fox will sign into law a measure that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other drugs for personal use." ("Other drugs include LSD and methamphetamines.) The specifics of the measure are complex – this story gets into it pretty well – but considering the peg, it struck me as a pretty huge story. After all, think of the implications: A possible rise in casual drug use in the US and Mexico, not to mention an upswing in Mexican "drug tourism." And let's not even get into what it means for spring break.

I wasn't alone in thinking the story was big: It was the most e-mailed story at the Los Angeles Times Web site. But it did not get a ton of play in general. Sure, those hippies over at the Huffington Post were all over it, but the story was either buried or nowhere to be found on most of the news sites I checked in the early afternoon yesterday. On CBSNews.com, according to Senior Producer Dan Collins, the story was on the home page for most of the morning, and was ranked No. 1 in the "World" section, before eventually being cycled off the home page. That's more play than it seemed to get elsewhere, but it still didn't strike me as a lot.

As for the nightly newscasts, CBS and ABC ignored the story, but the NBC "Nightly News" featured it in their "in depth" segment. (The death of Tiger Woods' dad, by contrast, made all three newscasts; the CBS "Evening News" spent more than two minutes on the story of a girl who raised money to save libraries and got to meet the first lady.) Here's a bit of the NBC story:

PETER ALEXANDER: Critics warn if passed, this law would send thousands of Americans heading over the border to experiment with the same illegal drugs this country has vowed to fight.

General BARRY McCAFFREY (Retired, Clinton Administration Drug Czar): This is going to have a huge impact on cross-border drug tourism out of the United States to include in particular college kids who will go to Mexico, buy and consume.

ALEXANDER: While border cities like Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, have become ground zero for an increasingly violent drug trade, Mexico's proposed law would be among the most permissive in the world.

Unidentified Woman: Now I can go across the border and buy heroin out in the open...

ALEXANDER: At the San Diego Drug Clinic, counselors fear they will be swamped by a new audience of addicts.

It was tough to tell exactly how serious the implications of the measure would ultimately be – the Mexican Consul General in San Diego rather confusingly said "we have to be very clear that doesn't mean at all that we are legalizing drugs in any form" – but it sure seemed like a pretty big deal. And since when ware media outlets models of restraint when it comes to stories like this? When Natalee Holloway was in the news daily, we got a spate of stories about the dangers of spring break for young women. I was surprised that the prospect of legal heroin in Cancun didn't seem to at least be generating the same kinds of stories.

The only reason I could think of yesterday for the story not getting massive attention was that Fox had yet to sign the law – he had just said he would sign it. And, in fact, media outlets might have been right to hold off: Fox flip-flopped under US pressure, refusing to sign the bill and sending it back to Congress. According to the CBS/AP story, "Fox said he will ask 'Congress to make the needed corrections to make it absolutely clear in our country, the possession of drugs and their consumption are, and will continue to be, a criminal offense.'"

Such a development suggest that outlets may have been right in holding off on reporting the story or giving it too much play. But, then again, media outlets engage in speculation all the time, on everything from what might happen with bird flu to whom a candidate might pick as a running mate. To operate on the assumption that the bill would be signed doesn't seem like too much of a stretch, considering that Fox vowed to sign it. News outlets have to make judgments about the viability of stories all the time, and folks at the NBC "Nightly News" seem to have decided that the importance of the story outweighed the possibility that it would fall apart. The story may have turned out to be less than they thought, but does that mean they were wrong to run with it in the first place?

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