by Park MacDougald
Thursday, 10
February 2022
Factcheck
15:10

Fact-checkers wrongly label ‘crack pipe’ story false

After a signal from the Biden administration, the censorship machine kicked in
by Park MacDougald
Press Secretary Jen Psaki denounced the Free Beacon’s “inaccurate reporting.”

Another day, another wave of “misinformation” from those designated to fight it. 

On Feb. 7, the Washington Free Beacon published a story with the provocative title “Biden Admin To Fund Crack Pipe Distribution To Advance ‘Racial Equity.’” The nub of it was this:

[A] $30 million grant program… will provide funds to nonprofits and local governments to help make drug use safer for addicts. Included in the grant, which is overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, are funds for “smoking kits/supplies.” A spokesman for the agency told the Washington Free Beacon that these kits will provide pipes for users to smoke crack cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, and “any illicit substance.”
- Washington Free Beacon

The story also noted that the programme would prioritise “underserved communities,” as defined in a Biden executive order from last January — hence the equity angle. 

This was not a particularly implausible story. “Safe smoking kit” is a term of art in harm reduction. These kits include clean glass pipes used for smoking crack and meth, as well as other paraphernalia such as mouth guards and filters. An April 2021 story from Annapolis, Maryland, for instance, refers to a city health department programme to distribute “clean crack pipes” to addicts, which was abandoned in the face of backlash from the city’s black community. The same article noted that other Maryland needle exchanges offered “safe smoking kits” featuring glass pipes. 

Screengrab from the Washington Free Beacon story

The story went viral, much to the annoyance of HHS and the Biden administration. The day after the article was published, a department spokeswoman tweeted, in response to a video by Marco Rubio, that the Free Beacon story was “blatant misinformation.” In the current media environment, this was, in effect, a call for the story to be suppressed.  

The fact-checkers dutifully fell in line. Snopes rated the story “mostly false” on the grounds that the smoking kits, which could contain crack pipes, were “just one of around 20 components of the grant program.” Facebook partner Lead Stories, the organisation behind the fake debunking of an article in the British Medical Journal, released a “hoax alert,” which categorically stated the story was “not true.” Their reasoning was that the smoking kits were “just a few of the many materials that grantees can utilize.”

Although neither of these fact-checks actually debunked the original reporting, they were enough to prompt Facebook to slap a misinformation tag on the article, which directed users attempting to share the story to the Lead Stories fact-check. Jen Psaki appeared later in the day to denounce the Free Beacon’s “inaccurate reporting.”

Apparently, however, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra considered the reporting accurate enough to issue a press release clarifying that going forward, no pipes would be included in the grant programme. The Drug Policy Alliance responded by releasing a statement lamenting that the government would “no longer” be providing funding for the pipes. Snopes, in response to the government’s new guidance,  updated its rating from “mostly false” to “outdated,” in the process conceding that the original story was correct.

When I emailed HHS for comment on the accuracy of the story, a spokesperson for the agency provided me with what they claimed was the statement given to the Free Beacon reporter. It referred to “safe smoking kits” but contained no reference to crack and no language about “any illicit substance,” which had appeared as a direct quote in the article. The implication was that the reporter had invented this element of the story. 

However, when I asked if there had been any other communications between HHS and the reporter, and if it was the agency’s position that the reporter had fabricated the quote about “any illicit substance,” the spokesperson provided me with the following email exchange between the reporter and an agency employee, which read:

Reporter: Just to confirm, these kits [are] intended to help users reduce risk when smoking crack and meth? 

HHS: I wouldn’t limit [it] to those two substances. It would reference “any illicit substance.”

According to the spokesperson, the story was inaccurate because the reporter had not specifically asked about pipes — merely confirmed funding for “safe smoking kits” that almost always include pipes — and had not included language that funded programmes must comply with federal, state, and local laws. This, at the end of the day, was the “misinformation” that had justified the story’s suppression by Facebook. 

One expects government flaks, when forced to defend an embarrassing policy, to do as much as they can to mislead the public without technically lying. The problem is when “fact-checkers” and tech giants, rather than acting as neutral arbiters, try to help do this job for them.

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George Glashan
George Glashan
4 months ago

I’ve just fact checked the term fact-checker. It’s false. The correct term is propagandist.

Last edited 4 months ago by George Glashan
Philip L
Philip L
4 months ago
Reply to  George Glashan

For fact’s sake! I’ve just fact checked your fact checking of the term fact checker and the fact is, checking facts is quite factually a sign the facts as originally presented are facts.

George Glashan
George Glashan
4 months ago
Reply to  Philip L

Fact off, Facter !

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
4 months ago

And people wonder why no-one trusts the media or the govt and are willing to listen to ‘alternative’ media’ and ‘conspiracy theorists’?

Warren T
Warren T
4 months ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

It’s a sign of the end times.

James Joyce
James Joyce
4 months ago

Vile calumny! Distributing crack pipes in the black community–sorry for the racism, I mean Black community–is part of Biden’s grand scheme: Build Back Better.
Don’t these right wing extremists get it: crack pipes are infrastructure. They are just as valuable to America as roads and bridges. This is where America’s tax dollars go….up in smoke.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
4 months ago

Insert your favorite Hunter Biden joke here!

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
4 months ago

Who fact-checks fact-checkers? More fact-checkers? And who fact-checks them? The answer is, “fact-checker” is merely a label slapped onto a “journalist”, who now is supposedly more clever, honest, and right-thinking than an ordinary, run-of-the-mill journalist. It’s a scam, and a shameless one.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
4 months ago

From the above article it seems that the Free Beacon did not print misinformation, in that what they said was indeed true, however, it doesn’t seem to be the WHOLE truth. There is a tendency for news media reporting, on all sides, to resort to missing out part of the story, and it is only by knowing all the details that readers/listeners/viewers can make up their minds.

David George
David George
4 months ago

Surely this is a long way from the worst example of selective reporting we’ve seen, Linda.
News media report the juicy bits for obvious reasons; likely no one will read screeds of additional but uninteresting information. Perhaps, in this case, they could have included a link to what else is in the government program that no one will read either.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
4 months ago
Reply to  David George

Absolutely, I’ve seen much worse. I started to realise this game many years ago when there was a report in the Telegraph concerning something about which I knew all the details, and I was shocked at what they did. By leaving out vital information anyone reading the report would have been completely led astray. This was the first time I realised this happened; of course, it was only because I knew the details of the story that I was able to know, and I was young and naive and didn’t realise that this happened.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
4 months ago

What like “everything we know about Omicron is bad…”?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
4 months ago

Somehow I saw a tweet by D. Trump Junior liked by someone else: crack pipes better than hydroxychloroquine. Something like that.

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
4 months ago

Fact checking, if you want to call it that, is done by other journalists, a vocation as mistrusted as used car salesmen used to be.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
4 months ago

I do remember watching an old comedy (1930s? 1940?) in which one character speaking of journalists said something like – the hand of God reaching down from heaven couldn’t raise one of them to the.depths of depravity. I have often thought it very apposite.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
4 months ago

Great follow-up reporting in the service of REAL journalism. You are doing your job, unlike these partisan tools at Snopes CNN and elsewhere.
You should be proud of yourself, Park.

Warren T
Warren T
4 months ago

What a wonderful chuckle this morning. Can’t make this stuff up.