Teenage Prom Hotel Parties… the Outrage!

And they [television news] treat every story with the same level of importance. They’ll be like “Pachoo! Are your kids having sex at the mall?” I don’t even have kids, but I’m like, Are they? I gotta make sure they’re not having sex at the mall. Like fun are they having sex at the mall! And then the next story will be like, “Pachoo! Terrorists blow up bus.” And I’m like, Wow, that really puts the mall sex in perspective. That is much worse.

– Mike Birbiglia, Sleepwalk with me

Tonight, after watching some hockey and Diners, Drive ins and Dives, I decided to watch the local news. Until I was about 17, I cared about the local news on television. But only because my high school was dominating Cleveland sports and I wanted to revel in the replays.

Because I was flipping channels, I was attracted to tonight’s WUSA9 report because they (read: Gannett) used FOIA to publish the payroll of administrative agencies. Apparently, bureaucrats aren’t happy about that. As a former Hill staffer, whose salary history is public, I think they should go fly a kite.

As an adult, I think local television news is mostly just reactionary craziness. Thus, the appropriate Mike Birbiglia lede.

If I want local news that’s reported seriously, I’ll tune into WTOP and listen to Neal Augenstein. That guy is a serious reporter, and his tweets are quite good. We’ve even become semi-frequent twitter pals. Neal’s level headed, the kind of guy you’d chill with at a dive-y watering hole. Among DC radio journalists, he has the most distinctive voice, hands down.

Back to the point: After the well-reported story on federal salaries and bonuses, they flipped to the following story: Police Sting: Teens Order Alcohol Through Hotel Room Service. WUSA teamed up with the Montgomery County (MD) police department to get a 17 and 19 year old to order wine at hotels in Maryland. If the server didn’t ask for ID, the cops came out from the closet and gave them a citation. At one hotel, the woman took the ID to her manager, but left the wine in the room. That hotel got their third citation in four years.

To that, I say big deal. College bars knowingly serve underage people every night. It doesn’t make it right, but 3 citations in 4 years isn’t a terrible record. Special note: To admit my blatant hypocrisy, I drank underage, and later served as a bouncer (yes, you read that correctly) who denied underage drinkers. Personally, I think States should be able to set drinking ages without fear of losing highway funding (thanks, fellow Republicans!). Either way, the law’s the law.

I do have a serious problem, though, with WUSA9’s reporting: They tried tying the report to the Prom season, and suggested that tons of high schoolers will rent out a room and will get drunk because of the hotel. This is unlikely, but we’ll get to that later. Unless their parents don’t mind potential criminal charges, hotel parties are likely to happen. However, the story’s point was to suggest that post-Prom, high schoolers would pile into a room and order a bunch of alcohol and get drunk. Even their story’s lede opens with:

This prom and graduation season, 9 Wants You To Know about yet another way teenagers are sneaking alcohol into their celebrations

This is disingenuous, and it’s poor reporting.

At my all-boys Catholic High School in Cleveland, there was a receiving line you had to introduce your date to. It included the President of the School (priest), the Principal and his wife, the Dean of Students and his wife, and a few other administrators. The goal was to catch drunks.

Pretty much, it was the Catholic version of a field sobriety test for teenagers. For the most part, teenagers are stupid and easy to catch. Breathalyzers were on hand, but they were seldom used. Why? Our brothers and friends’ brothers told us about it. The tactics weren’t very reactive. As a result, the parties happened afterwards, an unintended consequence of a smart tactic to catch drunk promgoers. But it did deter pre-prom drunkery.

Why I think WUSA9’s reporting on this story is poor because of the following:

  1. There is all the difference in the world comparing two 17 and 19 year old girls ordering one bottle of wine in daylight, and a room of well dressed teens ordering massive amounts of alcohol at midnight. They aren’t comparable.
  2. Even the most aloof of hotel employees might go, “Oh, room 818 ordered 10 bottles of wine, 60 bottles of beer, and 5 bottles of alcohol and a few two liters of pop. That’s strange.” I highly doubt they’d just oblige and serve the party, especially after opening the door and seeing a bunch of teenagers.
  3. If teens are going to drink after prom, they are going to get alcohol from one of three sources: a.) their parents b.) siblings c.) friend’s parents or siblings. Getting it from a legitimate purveyor of alcohol, even with a fake ID, is far riskier than a, b, or c.

Am I concerned about local hotels serving minors? Sure. But does WUSA’s reporting lead me to believe that after prom parties are crazy binge drinking fests fueled by unconcerned hoteliers? No. Not at all. It’s about making a non-story into a story. It’s about ratings.

As I learned earlier in the program, some federal employees are getting $60,000 bonuses. To paraphrase Birbigs, “Wow, that really puts the underage drinking of one bottle of wine in perspective. The big bonuses are much worse.”


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