Why Americans care about Rob Ford's drug abuse but not Nigella Lawson's

Maybe crack cocaine is inherently funnier to talk about than the powdered kind. Or perhaps it's a race-class thing.

Nigella Lawson and Tom Ford
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Sang Tan, Christopher Drost/ZUMA Press/Corbis))

On Wednesday, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson testified in a London courtroom that she has used cocaine a handful of times and smoked pot occasionally. The admission came amid a trial of her two former personal assistants, Italian sisters Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo, on charges that they essentially stole $1.12 million from Lawson and her allegedly abusive millionaire ex-husband, Charles Saatchi.

It's a salacious story about one of England's most famous couples, full of betrayal, public neck-grabbing, and coke lines with a dying (now deceased) former husband. The British press is doing full-court coverage.

In the U.S.? Lawson's admission of cocaine use is dutifully appearing in the gossip pages of newspapers and on celebrity blogs, but it's hardly front page news. The story of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's use of crack cocaine, on the other hand, "has received more intensive media coverage in the United States than any other Canadian news story since the turn of the century," according to a media-monitoring analysis obtained by The Canadian Press.

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"It's not just the tabloids," says Jean-Francois Dumas, president of Canadian media monitoring firm Influence Communications. "It's not just People. It's The New York Times, the New York Post. All sorts of media covered this. It became a social phenomenon.... It's truly exceptional in terms of coverage."

This disparity in coverage doesn't make much sense. Before Gawker revealed the existence of the Rob Ford crack-smoking, smoking-gun video in May, few Americans had ever heard of the Toronto mayor. Lawson, on the other hand, is a legitimate celebrity, with a series of best-selling cookbooks, her own TV show on the Food Network, and guest judge stints on Iron Chef America and The Taste.

There are probably lots of factors in America's taste for Ford's drug abuse over Lawson's.

Ford's antics are on the comic side of tragicomedy; Lawson's tale is mostly just sad: Not only are there the allegations of "intimate terrorism" from Saatchi and blackmail/theft by the Grillo sisters, but Lawson says that she tried cocaine six times when a friend introduced it to terminally ill husband John Diamond to boost his spirits (Diamond died in 2001), then dabbled with coke again in July 2010, during a particularly rough patch with Saatchi.

There's also the possibility that Ford's previous obscurity in America (yes, he's the mayor of one of North America's largest cities, but it's in Canada, so....) worked against him — if all you know about somebody is that they smoked crack, drink a lot, and say odd things to reporters, that's enough to create a full-blown caricature. Lawson is a well-known figure, and let's face it: Wealthy celebrities caught doing drugs is hardly breaking news.

But there's also a longstanding difference in how we view crack cocaine versus its powdered cousin. Until 2010, laws for crack possession were 100 times harsher than for powder cocaine (you went to jail for five grams of crack, 500 grams of coke); after the Fair Sentencing Act, the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing is down to 18 to one. But the "cultural and political differences between powder cocaine and crack cocaine" run much deeper than that, says Freddie deBoer at Jacobin, in a post about Rob Ford:

Crime and medical statistics demonstrate that crack is a drug that is used by racial minorities and the poor in proportions far greater than their representation in society as a whole. Cocaine, in contrast, is largely a drug of whites and the upper class.... These statistics confirm the common depiction in the media and arts of crack as a drug of the urban, minority poor and cocaine of affluent whites....

But why is smoking crack ridiculous in a way that snorting cocaine wouldn't be? I highly doubt that Gawker would be constantly harping on the coke-snorting coke mayor of CokeTown who was filmed snorting coke in a cokehouse surrounded by known coke dealers. That simply lacks the click-baiting, scandalous appeal of Rob, The Crack-Smoking Mayor. But even if they did, that story would not involve nearly as much over-the-top, scandalized attention as a white mayor using a drug that is disproportionately used by the black, urban poor. [Jacobin]

If you need proof of that, look at Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.), busted for buying cocaine right after Ford admitted to smoking crack. Ford may be re-elected next year, but he's "going to be a punch line for years and years," says Greg Diamond at the Orange Juice Blog.

Now, I'm sure that Radel will be a subject of the late-night comics for a while — but does anyone think that he's going to dominate the news the way Rob Ford has done, or that you'll still remember his name and what he did almost a quarter-century later, like Marion Barry?... I think that it's simply because crack is "ghetto." "Bad people," the underclass, use crack. Coke is much more sophisticated. "Good people," wealthy and powerful people, "make the mistake" of sometimes using coke. [Orange Juice Blog]

Crack is a poor-man's cocaine, and when wealthy and powerful people use it we view it as a cry for help — think Robert Downey Jr., or Amy Winehouse, or Whitney Houston. Coke is Wall Street's party drug. Note to celebrities: Cocaine is cocaine, but if you want to avoid scandal, stick to the powered kind.

Note to Nigella Lawson: Our lack of interest isn't about you, it's about us.

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.