Last call is over for the hard-drinking journalist
Why more journalists today are kicking liquor to the curb
December 11, 2015, 9:30 am AST
George Duma describes it as one of the most beautiful Christmas turkeys ever served.
It’s a shame no one got to sink their teeth into it.
One year at the St. Catharines Standard’s annual Christmas party, a reporter Duma worked with got drunk — which happened often, inside and outside work. Someone at the party made a joke that didn’t sit well with this reporter, causing him to go red with fury. In between curse words and slurred insults, he picked up the turkey and whipped it against the wall. In this moment, both the turkey and his career at the Standard were destroyed.
Western culture has a historical love affair with alcohol. Its loyal drinking buddy is the journalist. Over centuries journalists have earned a reputation for being heavy drinkers. But should we be raising our glasses — or putting them down?
Difficult to prove
Brian Palmer says even though many writers claim alcohol enhances their work, it’s difficult to prove whether or not it’s actually true. In his 2011 article Does Alcohol Improve Your Writing? for Slate, he says, “According to one study, 71 percent of prominent 20th-century American writers at least flirted with alcoholism.” The article was published the day after the death of Christopher Hitchens, a Slate contributor and hard drinker.
In August 2015, Slate published another article about a study that found clocking in long hours at work influences the likelihood of excessive drinking. The study was originally published in the British Medical Journal and says working more than 48 hours per week (a figure common in journalism) raises the probability of “risky” alcohol consumption. For women, this means more than 14 alcoholic beverages a week and 21 for men.
“Journalists work hard, so they like to play hard,” says Duma, a Calgary Herald editor with more than 35 years of journalism experience. He says drinking on the job became less conventional starting in the 1980s, but worries there’s still a glamorized perception of the hard-drinking journalist.
“It’s dangerous to romanticize the idea of alcoholism. It’s all too familiar in journalism. With any reporter I’ve seen who drinks excessively, they may have claimed it made them a better writer, but it certainly didn’t make them a better person. Alcohol has the ability to ruin your family, career and ultimately your life.”
Jim Coyle couldn’t agree more. He spent 12 years as a reporter for the Canadian Press, mainly working at Queen’s Park and on Parliament Hill. For the past 18 years, he’s worked for the Toronto Star. After being sober for more than two decades, a Star editor asked him to write about his alcoholism. He politely declined, worried that one of his four sons might stumble across the article or that it would be referenced in his future obituary. Eventually, Coyle changed his mind, deciding the possibility of helping readers suffering from alcoholism outweighed these concerns.
“I decided to talk about my experience after the Rob Ford story came out,” says Coyle. His article explained what Ford could expect in recovery, based on Coyle’s experience in rehab. “I think people started thinking, ‘He’s not just a tourist – he’s walked that road.’”
Coyle says he received an avalanche of support from readers. When the Star began publishing ebooks, he wrote Hell and Back: Alcoholism, Addiction and the Lessons They Taught Me. The 12,000 word piece was nominated for a National Newspaper Award in 2014. He says writing it was “the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done.”
One Saturday morning soon afterwards, Coyle pulled into a No Frills parking lot in Toronto. As he turned off the engine, his phone rang. It was Brian Mulroney, congratulating and thanking him for Hell and Back. (Coyle had covered him during the 1988 election). “He told me a couple of stories of his escapades and we talked about how grateful we were that none of our kids remembered our drinking,” says Coyle.
“And as I’m talking to him, I’m thinking, ‘Jeez, you know, I’m the son of immigrants. My dad’s from Ireland and my mom’s from Scotland. I was the first person on either side of my family to go beyond high school, and here I’m sitting talking to a former prime minister of Canada and we’re telling drinking stories.’ And I thought, ‘Is this a great country or what?’”
It took a long time for Coyle to admit he had a problem. He says he would drink copious amounts of alcohol and believed his ability to drink all day meant he wasn’t an alcoholic. Before he knew it, he was tangled in alcoholism’s web and spinning intricate lies to loved ones.
“I remember people always making fun of the journalist who didn’t drink hard,” says Coyle. “They would say, ‘Why did he go into journalism when he wants to go home after two beers? Why didn’t he sell shoes or something instead?’”
Around Christmas 1990, Coyle decided to go to rehab – right before he was hired at the Ottawa Citizen. He panicked when they began negotiating a start date, fearing the loss of a job he hadn’t yet started because of a lie, or worse, because his workplace would know about his drinking problem. He decided to tell the truth. “The phone may as well have been about 100 pounds,” says Coyle. “It’s hard to ask for help.”
To his great surprise, the Citizen’s editor-in-chief told Coyle to take care of himself first. His job would be waiting for him when he was ready.
He remembers going to addiction meetings and running into people he knew, especially the time he wound up at the same meeting as a church minister. They looked at each other in horror before realizing there was no need to be embarrassed.
It took a long time for Sarah Allen Benton to realize the same thing. After working in production at CBS Denver and the Disney Channel in Los Angeles, she went on to become an addictions therapist and co-founded Benton BHC (Behavioral Health and Consulting) in Killingworth, Connecticut. She remembers drinking heavily as an intern at CBS and hiding it from her co-workers, even though some of them were rumoured alcoholics.
She says many journalists hide behind their external successes. “There’s two sides to this. The conscious side is, ‘If I’m doing well on the outside, people can’t question my drinking.’ The subconscious side is, ‘I can’t have a problem because people who are alcoholics live on the streets.’”
Just 22, she was working as a journalist when she wrote: “How many times did I have to wake up in the morning learning about my evil actions the night before from other people? How many close calls did I have to survive, how many mornings did I need to wake up with fragmented memories of the night before?” After this journal entry, it took another six years to quit drinking.
Western culture has a long, sometimes sloppy, love affair with alcohol.
Throughout Allen Benton’s journalism career, she says many people claimed alcohol fueled their creativity. Her own struggle with alcoholism inspired her to write Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic, which details how alcoholics can lead successful lives and careers without anyone realizing they have a problem.
“Addictions are deadly,” says Allen Benton. “It’s not like a broken foot.”
The blurred lines of alcohol in journalism
Steve Dunleavy, a retired New York Post columnist, is often referred to as the “Keith Richards of journalism.” His tightrope walk with alcohol became more public after an incident with a snowplow during a New York blizzard. After a night out drinking, Dunleavy was frolicking in a snowbank when his foot was run over by a city snowplow. Pete Hamill, a columnist for the New York Daily News, famously responded to the incident by saying, “I hope it wasn’t his writing foot.”
The snowplow incident was originally told in veteran television news producer Burt Kearns’ 1999 memoir Tabloid Baby. Dunleavy publicly responded, “Of course, I normally would have sued the son-of-a-gun for what he wrote about me, but I can’t – it’s all doggone true.”
While the story itself may be comical, Woody Giessmann sees nothing funny about alcohol’s presence in journalism. In 2012, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse reported that 3.2 per cent of Canadians abuse alcohol. Dr. Catherine Paradis, a research and policy analyst for the CCSA, says alcohol abuse can be categorized in a variety of ways. It typically includes “a strong desire to consume alcohol, a higher priority given to drinking than other activities and obligations, increased alcohol tolerance, and a physical withdrawal reaction when alcohol use is discontinued.” The numbers are even higher for our American neighbours. In 2013, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported 6.6 per cent of Americans abuse alcohol. Giessmann is proud to no longer be a part of that statistic.
He worked as a Warner Bros. producer in Los Angeles during the 1980s and played the drums in the Del Feugos, a garage-style rock band. “There are people who think they need to be an alcoholic to be the next great American writer,” says Giessmann. In 2003, his struggle with substance abuse inspired him to open a drug and alcohol rehab facility in Watertown, Massachusetts. While he can’t reveal how many journalists are in his program, he says a large number of the people who enter the rehab are writers.
Writing on the rocks
Jared Keever isn’t surprised. A reporter for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville he believes that, despite some exceptions, writing on the rocks can lead to serious consequences.
“From experience, booze does free up inhibitions enough to write and say things one might not write or say otherwise. Of course, that’s a double-edged sword. It can also lead to overreaching, errors and general sloppiness.”
He believes the “age of lawsuits and enforced workplace decorum” have contributed to the decline of journalists who drink heavily. Keever says this doesn’t mean the connection between journalism and alcohol is extinct. One of his favourite examples is Mike Royko, a Chicago newspaper columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner who was “hard-drinking, hard-smoking, but damn good” to “every other celebrity rehab visitor.”
Another Chicago journalist, Roger Ebert, worked as a film critic from 1967 until his death in 2013. Four years before his death, he published an article on his website called My Name is Roger, and I’m an alcoholic. He said that he remained sober for the last 34 years of his life.
He wrote, “In those days I was on a 10 p.m. newscast on one of the local stations. The anchor was an A.A. member. So was one of the reporters. After we got off work, we went to the 11 p.m. meeting at the Mustard Seed (an alcoholism treatment program in Chicago). There were maybe a dozen others. The chairperson asked if anyone was attending their first meeting. A guy said, ‘I am. But I should be in a psych ward. I was just watching the news, and right now I’m hallucinating that three of those people are in this room’.”
In October 2015, Coyle was on the northbound Yonge line on his way home from work when he saw his son’s former hockey coach. Every five years or so, they cross paths when they’re lucky. They talked about everyday things and then the coach mentioned he had read Hell and Back. To Coyle’s surprise, the coach said he too was an alcoholic, and decided to get sober after reading the ebook. “I remember wondering what any riders nearby would make of the conversation if they overheard,” says Coyle. They got off together before parting ways. The hockey coach said, “Keep writing. It’s important.”
“I had one of those moments of gratification,” Coyle said. “We file an awful lot of words and tell a lot of stories in a career. I felt like some of mine, the lessons learned from my experience, had mattered. They made everything worthwhile.”
If you or someone you know is suffering from alcohol dependency, help is available at www.aa.org.