Why today’s journalists are kicking liquor to the curb.
By Michelle Pressé
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. 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.
Over the years, journalists have earned a reputation for being heavy drinkers. But should we be raising our glasses—or putting them down?
In Brian Palmer’s 2011 article “Does Alcohol Improve Writing?” he wrote, “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 2015, the British Medical Journal published a study that found clocking in long hours at work influences the likelihood of excessive drinking. The study found 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,” said Duma, a Calgary Herald quality control editor with more than 35 years of journalism experience. He said drinking on the job became less conventional during the late 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. Between 1991 and 1997, he worked as a provincial affairs columnist at the Ottawa Citizen. For the past 18 years, he’s worked for the Toronto Star.
It took a long time for Coyle to admit he had a problem. He said 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,” said 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 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,” said 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.
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 the cons.
“I decided to talk about my experience after the Rob Ford story came out,” said 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 said 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 said writing it was “the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done.”
One Saturday morning soon after, 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,” said 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 Sarah Allen Benton to realize the same thing. 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.
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 Behavioral Health and Consulting in Killingworth, Conn. She remembered drinking heavily as an intern at CBS and hiding it from her co-workers, even though some of them were rumoured alcoholics.
She said 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.’”
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,” said Allen Benton. “It’s not like a broken foot.”
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, said 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.”
In October 2015, Coyle was on the northbound Yonge subway line in Toronto on his way home from work when he saw his son’s former hockey coach. Every five years or so, they cross paths. They talked about everyday things until the coach mentioned he had read Hell and Back. To Coyle’s surprise, the coach said he too was an alcoholic, deciding to get sober after reading the ebook. “I remember wondering what any riders nearby would make of the conversation if they overheard,” said 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.