Media Matters

Apologies Accepted (By the Media)

Taking a dive for Michael Phelps.

By 2.5.09

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That photo. You know right away which one. The one of swimming star Michael Phelps sucking on a tube known popularly as a "bong" at a party at the University of South Carolina. Published in a British tabloid, the photo has made more passes around the world than the last space shuttle. Well, almost. One local newscast for a major network in the District of Columbia explained as the week-of-Phelps began that it couldn't show the photo because of copyright protection! It was being shown around the world and on all the other network locals. And perhaps on some asteroids.

Something else was inchoate about the coverage. Anchors more often than not sort of winked at the story, and/or at one another. Their dismissive take on it was confirmed in print when the Washington Post's superior sportswriter Sally Jenkins tried her hand in the Tuesday edition. She filled her narration of Phelps's mistake with personal asides; e.g., "not that I would ever make such a staggering misstep myself." She cites a study in one magazine claiming 42 percent of Americans have at one time or another gotten "sweetly baked on hay." (The magazine's phrase or, more likely, Sally's)? She recounts Phelps's arrest for drunk driving following his triumph in Athens in 2004. "What did we think he was going to binge on this time," she asks, "after winning an all-time-record eight medals in Beijing? Triscuits?"

The Jenkins defense insists America's swim boy shouldn't face the loss of his hundred million dollar endorsements, declaring all he did was behave in an "uncalculated way and suffer the bad luck to be photographed doing it."

The backers of legalizing marijuana for medical and/or recreational use must feel encouraged by such a general media wink. It is blurred, however, by another Post article by sportswriter Michael Wilbon, who responds to Sally by name. One of his graphs "Everybody does it, so it must be okay. (No, Sally, all of us haven't done it, and didn't do it in college, either.) Wilbon takes Phelps to task. He quotes the Jenkins lead in her column: Is anybody surprised that Phelps dived headfirst into the bong water?

In addition to siding with propriety, Wilbon has won over some grammarians, if there are any left, by his proper use of the past tense of "dive." Sally had written Phelps "dove headfirst into the bong water."

Law enforcement officials in South Carolina say the locals are reviewing the case, with a view to filing charges against Phelps who was so publicly breaking the law. Considering the media reaction, whoever files had better be able to hold his breath.

There is this that stands aside and alone. Drug Enforcement officials, doctors among them, tell us that hard addicts captured by heroin and/or cocaine almost uniformly got their drug introduction via marijuana. Or should I say "hay"?

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.