ANTI-DRUG CAMPAIGN: ‘Prime-Time Propaganda’ for Gov’t?
For the last two years, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has been engaged in a financial "compromise" with television networks. The deal allowed networks to reduce costly public service announcement ad slots if an anti-drug message is present in the plot lines of a television show, reports the New York Times. The arrangement stems from issues with a 1997 federally financed anti-drug advertising campaign that required networks to match advertising time bought by the federal government with public service time -- essentially giving the government ad time at half price. But since 1997, as demand and rates for television ad time grew, networks sought a way to sell more time at full price, resulting in the content-for-credit compromise. All the major networks participated in the program, and all issued similar statements claiming that creative control was never given up during the program.
Just Say No 90210!
The program gives federal drug policy officials an advance look at shows that networks want to submit, and officials can then make suggestions as to where they think anti-drug messages can be inserted. Occasionally, the office would "suggest that a scene be changed or a line rewritten to show characters turning down marijuana or ruining their lives through cocaine," said Alan Levitt, an official in the drug policy office. He added that by participating, the networks saved more than $20 million in advertising costs.
Guilty As Charged
Drug office spokesperson Bob Weiner, defended the program, saying, "I guess we plead guilty to using every lawful means of saving America's children. But we don't interfere in the creative process. We don't say they can't run anything. We don't tell them what to say or not to say." Alan Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm, vehemently opposed the deal. "This is the most craven thing I've ever heard of yet. To turn over content control to the federal government for a modest price is an outrageous abandonment of the First Amendment" (Lacey/Carter, 1/14). He added, "The idea of the government attempting to influence public opinion covertly is reprehensible beyond words. It's one thing to appropriate money to buy ads, another thing to spend the money to influence the public subliminally. And it's monstrously selfish and irresponsible on the part of the broadcasters" (Kurtz/Waxman, Washington Post, 1/14).
The former FCC chief, Robert Corn-Revere, called the plan "insidious," and wondered, "Why is there no disclosure to the American public?" Some within the television industry claimed to be in the dark about the program as well. John Tinker, last season's executive producer of "Chicago Hope" said, "I had not a clue about any financial incentives. It smells manipulative. All of this is disturbing" (AP/Newport News Daily Press, 1/13).