CBS's Alfonsi Shakes Up Audience with Drinking Survey

     In about the time it might take a seasoned bartender to whip up a Manhattan, New York-based reporter Sharyn Alfonsi concocted an intoxicating mix of hype and government statistics. Yet the CBS reporter left out some sobering details from her January 2 “Evening News” report about the main ingredients to her story, the sources she consulted for comment.

     Reporting on a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study on binge drinking, Alfonsi began with a frightening story of teenage alcoholism.

    “She looked too young, but at 14, Koren Zailckas took her first sip of Southern Comfort” and soon the sips “turned to shots” noted Alfonsi, and eventually spiraled downward until one night “she was so gone, she had to have her stomach pumped.”

     That chilling episode is but one of many found in the pages of Zailckas’s best-selling memoir “Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood,” Alfonsi noted, before shaking the at-home audience with statistics from a new CDC survey. Yet what Alfonsi strained out of her story was any reference to Zailckas’s role as an alcohol industry critic.

     In an Aug. 11, 2005, Boston Globe article the former binge drinker blamed “alcopops” like Smirnoff Ice “for the rise in underage girls’ drinking.” Her personal Web site, links to regulation-friendly anti-alcohol groups such as Georgetown University’s Center on Alcohol Marketing to Youth (CAMY).

     Aside from Zailckas, Alfonsi turned to Joseph Califano of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) who complained that teenage binge drinking was a gateway to adult alcoholism. Alfonsi left out any hint that Califano’s group, unlike the CDC, might be centered more on activism than scholarly research.

     Noting that Califano once described his “establishing and building CASA” as “doing the Lord’s work.” SUNY-Potsdam sociologist David J. Hanson quipped that “activism rather than research is more characteristic of religious missions” rather than research institutions, before adding that “CASA has virtually always refused to submit its reports to peer review, which is not the way real science operates.”