Monday, April 9, 2012

Mark Wilson: The Post-Star’s War on Underage Drinking

Ken Tingley is back in his bully pulpit. Two Sundays ago in his weekly column, the Editor of the Post-Star defended his newspaper’s policy of publishing the names of teenagers ticketed for violating underage drinking laws. In blunt and patronizing language, the crusading editor took on a recent South Glens Falls High graduate who had dared to leave a comment on the Post-Star‘s Facebook page objecting to the policy:

Mr. Mumblo was probably playing video games and reading comics when we reported the death of 17-year-old Jason Daniels in Warrensburg on May 18, 2003, and four months later, the death of 19-year-old Adam Baker, also in Warrensburg.

The policy was best described in a harsh editorial that ran on June 12, 2011, nearly eight years into the campaign:

Underage drinkers get their names in the paper. We publish the names of all kids arrested for consuming alcohol. We hope the embarrassment factor helps serve as a deterrent to parents and their kids. Not only does the kid’s name go in the paper, it goes on our website. And the Internet is permanent. So whatever they get caught doing today will follow them the rest of their lives.

From this it is hard to tell if the editorial board is angrier at the kids or their parents. The editorial proceeds to insult the children it hopes to protect:

Kids fib… Kids are lightweights… Kids are reckless… Kids are terrible drivers.

The final line of the editorial—A dead child is gone forever—reveals that the true target of the editorial (and the policy for that matter) is the parents; the humiliation of the children is merely a baseball bat to the gut to get their parents to pay closer attention.

Some History
On June 15, 2003, as New York State prepared to drop the DWI blood alcohol content standard from .1 to .08 percent, and after a succession of fatal underage drunk driving accidents in the region surrounding Glens Falls, Ken Tingley wrote a column outlining the Post-Star‘s policy on reporting crimes:

Here is what are (sic) policies are now:

• We don’t use the name of the child under age 16 charged with any offense – even if it is a felony – but we include the age, sex and town of residence. One exception: We will publish the name of any minor who is being prosecuted as an adult.

• We don’t use the name of the child age 16, 17 and 18 if they are only charged with misdemeanors or violations, but we include their age, sex and town of residence.

• We do use the name of minors age 16, 17 and 18 if they are charged with felonies.

• We do use the name of anyone 19 or older charged with any offense if the crime is deemed newsworthy because of unusual or interesting circumstances.

• We’ve also left it up to the discretion of the editor to print the name of a minor if major crimes or unusual circumstances are involved.

The column concluded with hints of transition:

With the recent debate over underage drinking in our communities, we debated recently whether it might do some good to start listing the names of teens arrested for underage drinking. We currently do not print those names unless there is a felony charge.One of our editors suggested that we should print the name of all teens arrested, that the embarrassment of arrest might be an appropriate deterrent for a young person, that it might even bring a weightier meaning to some parents who don’t seem to take the issue that seriously.It is something we will probably be looking at in the future.

The future arrived less than five weeks later when the Post-Star published the names and ages of six minors from Corinth who were charged with “the noncriminal violation of possession of alcohol by someone under 21.” The policy has remained in effect ever since.

According to data compiled by New York State, in 2003 the number of underage drivers involved in alcohol-related accidents in Saratoga, Warren and Washington Counties stood at 19. The number rose to 25 the following year and dropped to 17 in 2004. In both 2005 and 2006 the number of underage drunk drivers involved in accidents shot up to 42 and has been declining steadily toward the 2004 level since. 2010 is the latest year for which the state has compiled statistics.

In June 2008 after another cluster of alcohol-related traffic fatalities involving minors, the Post-Star ran an exasperated editorial under the headline “Message is not getting through.” It began:

We give up.

No one seems to be listening anyway.

Sanctimonious and preachy? Out of touch with reality? OK, we concede. You’re right. Underage drinking is a rite of passage. A tradition. We all did it as kids. There’s nothing that can be done to stop it. Kids are gonna do what kids are gonna do.So have it your way.

Naturally, the editorial does not give up and charges once more unto the breach to deliver the message. It ends with a poignant appeal to the reader not to let the newspaper abandon the crusade.

By this point, nearly five years along, the policy of outing teenagers charged with non-criminal alcohol violations —despite the absence of any evidence that it was doing any good— was so conflated with the broader cause of stopping underage DWI as to be inseparable. For all practical purposes, under guard of the sharp hyperbole of the Post-Star’s editorial position, unquestionable.

Next, Part 2: Questioning the Unquestionable

Related Stories


Mark Wilson's editorial cartoons - under the pen name MARQUIL - appear in newspapers and online across New York State. He also provides editorial illustrations and occasional commentary pieces for The Sunday Gazette of Schenectady and regularly chimes in here at the Almanack, particularly at election time and during the annual Adirondack Bracket. Mark lives in Saranac Lake.




3 Responses

  1. Pete Klein says:

    It is a bit of a fiction that publishing the names of underage drinkers will accomplish any measurable good and in some cases does permanent harm.
    The Post Star has a record of being a bit of a goody twoshoe when it comes to anything.
    Next thing you know, they’ll start publishing the names of those under 21 caught smoking.

  2. Brian says:

    Relax Mark: no one takes Ken Tingley too seriously… except for Tingley himself.

  3. Mich says:

    Adolescence is that developmental stage in people where they often seek the thrill of new risks. During these years, teens are more susceptible to irresponsible decision-making. And one of those wrong decisions they make is drinking too much alcohol.