Beware the headline-writer!

An editor at Bloomberg makes me look even more of a fool than is usually the case.

Bloomberg is now running its own op-ed section, called Bloomberg View. The editors there asked me for a short essay on the California marijuana legalization question, and I wrote what I hoped was a careful, analytical piece outlining the case for straight repeal of California criminal laws rather than some cockamamie tax-and-regulation scheme that couldn’t possibly operate in the face of Federal prohibition.

Among the risks I had to acknowledge: a big upsurge cannabis production in California for export to other states, leading to massive Federal enforcement action and the risk of violence:

Under repeal, California could easily supplant Mexico as the primary source of marijuana for North America, leading to a price collapse and a surge in cannabis use nationwide. We couldn’t expect Washington to just stand back and let cheap California marijuana flood the national market. As California police stepped back, we’d probably see a surge in federal enforcement. With volume and sales rising, it’s likely that some of the resulting conflicts among growers and dealers, and between them and the law, would be violent; that’s the nature of large-scale criminal enterprise.

So repeal is no free lunch, but it’s still better than the status quo.

After moderately tough negotiations, in which the Bloomberg folks wanted me to make my views less nuanced, we agreed on a text. Today there was a last-minute flurry of fact-checking. On balance, op-ed writing is a less rewarding activity than blogging, but the promise of a big audience seemed too good to pass up.

Just now I got an email from the manager of a pro-pot list-serv, congratulating me on my excellent work: “From your lips to God’s ears.” This seemed puzzling, until I clicked through and saw the headline Bloomberg had attached to my piece:


Mark Kleiman:
Let California Become
U.S. Pot Bread Basket

Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.

Of course I can’t get anyone in New York on the phone at this hour, and my attempt to put up a comment disowning the headline is “held for moderation.” Color me frustrated.

Now, I’m pretty invulnerable. I have tenure, I’m not running for anything, I don’t have any Federal grants, and my actual views are well-enough known so that I won’t have too much trouble straightening out the record. (No doubt my editor will change the headline in the morning.)
[UPDATE: Hed now changed to the far more accurate In California, Legal Pot Is Best of Bad Options: Mark Kleiman.]

But if those things weren’t true, this could be a career catastrophe. As it is, it’s a substantial annoyance.

Chalk it up as one more reason to stick with blogging.

FOOTNOTE The convention that headlines are written by copy-editors and not by reporters or columnists goes back to the days of print, when headlines had to be custom-crafted to occupy the right amount of space: a quantity that couldn’t be known until the page was laid out. For a piece in electronic form, there’s no reason not to let the author create the heading. It’s called “cultural lag.”

SECOND FOOTNOTE After the piece was written, I assigned my first-year policy students to design a cannabis legalization initiative for California, assuming that the federal law remained in place. I was sure I’d given them a problem with no really attractive solution; I wanted them to wrestle with a hard one and have the experience of choosing a “least bad” option.

But it turns out they’re smarter than I am, and came up with a way to make state-level taxation and regulation work, more or less, even under federal prohibition. More on that to come.

UPDATE: As noted above, the headline has now been changed to something more accurate.

Reading the comments is instructive: they’re all from legalization advocates, with a plurality calling me an ignorant liar because, e.g., I think that driving stoned is probably a bad idea or that lower prices will mean more problem use. The shift in the balance of intensity on this issue over the past 30 years is even more striking than the shift in the level of support for legalization.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

28 thoughts on “Beware the headline-writer!”

  1. Serious question: Pretty much everyone knows that media editors screw things up now and again. Why would it be a career catastrophe?

  2. I often suspect writers don’t write their own headlines. Often I read an op-ed and look back at the title and think, “That looks like something designed to get people’s attention but it’s a misrepresentation of the author’s views.” Slate does this a lot. I wonder if the preservation of this bad habit isn’t more than cultural lag: is it to give an article a more clickable headline?

  3. On the headline-writing issue: I used to be an AP writer, and, given that we had no space constraints, the reporter would write the headline, subject to edit, of course. No reason why Bloomberg should not be the same.

  4. Not only is the headline still up on the Blomberg on my desk, it just flashed on the bottom of the TV screen on the trading floor here, which is always tuned to Bloombreg television. It looked fantastic.

  5. Just checked and headline has been changed to In California, Legal Pot Is Best of Bad Options: Mark Kleiman

  6. For a piece in electronic form, there’s no reason not to let the author create the heading. It’s called “cultural lag.”

    Ha! No, Mark, it’s because 99% of writers couldn’t write even a passably decent headline if their lives depended on it. It’s about traffic — the only cultural lag is on the part of writers who think subtly witty NYRB heads work on the net.

  7. Is it ok to comment on the underlying article here? Hoping so, I think its very good, though I’m interested to hear what your student came up with, because the combination of increased revenue/ decreased spending on police & prisons is more attractive than just the decrease in spending alone. Anyway, one of the points that you usually raise in this context is that “problem” usage will increase. But I have a hard time remembering exactly what the social costs associated with more-than-occasional cannabis usage are (or what you expect them to be). If you’ve written this up before, can you provide a link?

  8. Amusingly the headline has changed, but the link is still: let-california-become-u-s-pot-bread-basket-mark-a-r-kleiman
    I checked to see if that was a legacy link with a different link from their other pages, but no, that seems to have stuck.

  9. Headline risk has always been there – it was even a problem on the Haverford – BMC News. That’s why it’s very important not to bury the lead. Headline writers look for the headline content in the first paragraph.

  10. Hey, redwave… it’s bury the lede, not lead. The deliberate misspelling dates back to the days when newspapers used Linotype machines and it was important to distinguish between the metal that would be used set the story (Lead) and the main point of the story (the Lede).

  11. If they are going to negotiate with you over the content of your article, it seems like the least they could do is include the headline in that process. Even if they want their headline expert to write it for maximum clicks, they could still run it by you before publishing to avoid incidents like this.

  12. I love it when right wing “liberals” get burned by the propaganda machine. Now tell me about the “liberal” “news” media, please? Just a little fairy tale that the oligarchy doesn’t control the “news” totally. Pretty, please? Make it “fair and balanced” so it will be funnier.

    The real mass killer drugs all come out of the FDA approved pharmaceutical industry. Don’t admit that.

    Putting 1/10th of a single one percent of the waste of the “war on drugs” into prosecuting legal drug dealers for manslaughter would have a more positive impact on the American drug problem than all of your penny ante rationalizations for keeping any drugs illegal.

    Welcome to real reality, Mr Kleiman.

  13. I am confused as to why taxation would not be feasible statewide when Oakland is doing this on a local level…(?)

  14. Reading the comments is instructive: they’re all from legalization advocates, with a plurality calling me an ignorant liar because, e.g., I think that driving stoned is probably a bad idea or that lower prices will mean more problem use. The shift in the balance of intensity on this issue over the past 30 years is even more striking than the shift in the level of support for legalization.

    This suggests that legalization advocates are not themselves dopers. I cannot imagine any serious pothead, or rather, I have never met a serious pothead who could ever express any intense feeling at all except as “Oh wow, man! Heavy!”

  15. @Marcel: Define your terms. Is an “advocate” someone vocal about legalization? Or merely someone who supports legalization? If the latter, then 44% of the adult populace are apparently “dopers”.

    For that matter, define “dopers” and “serious potheads”. Are they people who use marijuana every waking hour? People who use it nearly every day but confine use to off-duty hours? As someone who’s certainly fallen into the latter category in years past, I can assure you we are still capable of forming coherent sentences.

  16. Dennis is correct: lede, hed, and graf are the standard newsroom terms. This is a case where a dictionary doesn’t help.

  17. Most editorial pages will not, as a matter of policy, tell authors what the headlines on op-ed pieces will be. I once wrote an op-ed that was heavily edited, without consultation, before running under my name. That also turns out to be common. When I started insisting, as a condition of publication, that I review and approve any edits, many papers’ editors were surprised and offended…

  18. “This suggests that legalization advocates are not themselves dopers.”

    Well, duh. If you actually USE illegal drugs, you’d have to be pretty brave and/or stupid, (Given the use, probably the latter.) to say squat about drug legalization, given that it might attract the attention of people in a position to kick your door down in the middle of the night, and cart you off to prison.

  19. Mark,

    Nice piece. Too bad for the headline snafu. I have one question: how did you come up with the 50-75% price decline scenario? Why wouldn’t prices go down as much as 90%, as predicted by the RAND paper? My understanding of Caulkins et al was that they were already factoring in the continued risk of federal enforcement. Did I misread them? If so, that could have significant implications for the interstate export potential of legal Calfornia sinsemilla: I haven’t run the numbers yet, but if the post-legalization price reduction was only 50%, I am inclined to think that Mexican commercial grade marijuana would still be cheaper than the California stuff (after adjusting for THC-content)everywhere east of the Mississipi.

    Best regards.

  20. Your speculation on the lower prices of (quasi-)legal cannabis due to the state repealing it’s anti-pot laws does not seem to be supported by the available evidence (quasi-legal medical marijuana is very expensive). We shall see.

    Looking forward to reading about your students’ proposals.

  21. San Diego is awash with high quality pot. It’s got the cheapest prices in the country! Any MM card holder can get a $300 oz of dynamite “medicine”.

    This pot requires a LOT of electricity – the margins are getting slimmer.

  22. Amusingly (or not — for the author), the Google search “marijuana prices dropping” (without quotes) brings up, as the first hit, that very Op-Ed. With the original headline in the search result, though not in piece itself when you click through the link.

  23. I honestly don’t understand how you arrived at the conclusion that legalisation will lead to cheaper cannabis. Tobacco prices don’t seem to be falling. It’s almost like you completely miss the point – legalisation gives us TOTAL PRICE CONTROL.

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