(This article was scheduled to appear in last week's issue of The Week Online, but was accidentally omitted due to an e-mail breakdown.)
Salon Magazine last week reported that the federal government, through the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has been reviewing the scripts of prime time shows on all six major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, WB, Fox and UPN) and giving financial credit -- through that agency's anti-drug media campaign -- for those that are "on message." The scheme, which has been kept largely obfuscated, if not entirely secret, is seen as unethical by many media scholars and may run afoul of federal payola laws which require disclosure of any consideration paid -- either directly or indirectly -- in return for the airing of content of any kind.
According to the Salon story, ONDCP got into the business of reviewing content like this: In 1997, Congress approved a billion dollars in Partnership for a Drug-Free America advertising buys, on the condition that the networks provided a dollar-for-dollar match in donated ad time. Soon after entering these agreements, however, the networks became swamped with dot-com advertising, making the contributed ad time far more valuable than it had previously been. In order to free-up the ad space that they owed the government, they agreed to a system under which they would get credit for airing shows in which the plot was "on message," showing drug, and in some cases alcohol use, in a light that the government deemed proper.
Pat Aufderheide, a professor at the American University School of Communications, told The Week Online that the practice is extremely troubling.
"It's a very bad idea for government to use carrots and sticks to influence content on commercial programming," Aufderheide said. "There are lots of forums through which the government can legitimately get its message out. You never want to see government using its clout, financial or otherwise, to get programming to conform with its version of the 'right message.'"
"It's not bad to use the mass media to send positive health messages," she said. "What is bad is to use the club of government -- whether through financial incentives to cooperation or the implicit threat of governmental power -- to influence content."
Alan Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm, told the New York Times, "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." To the Washington Post, 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." (This week the Post reported that the Times had also participated in the government's financial plan. A Times writer claimed not to have known this when editorializing about it.)
There are questions beyond the government's role in paying networks to air content that the government deems "appropriate," however, and those revolve around the effectiveness of the government's message, whether in paid ads or surreptitiously placed in story lines. Dr. Joel Brown of the Center for Educational Research and Development, and one of the nation's leading researchers in the field of drug education, questions the very premise of the government's campaign.
"The strategy, as it manifests itself both in the advertising and now, as we come to find out, in plot lines that gain government approval, is focused primarily on the punitive aspects of our response to drugs and drug use. What we know about education, however, is that it is far more effective to focus on the interests, strengths and development of children -- the "resilience approach" if we hope to raise kids who make healthy decisions.
"The idea, if we truly want to provide drug education, is to stress capacity rather than deficits and punishment. 70% of kids who are raised under even the worst conditions, will thrive and make healthy decisions if we strive to educate them in this fashion. The government's anti-drug campaign, going all the way back to "this is your brain on drugs," promotes little more than tired variations on "just say no." This message might be appropriate politically, but it is also largely ineffective."
On the issue of redeeming ad time owed in return for government-approved scripts, the reaction to the Salon story indicates that nearly everyone, other than ONDCP itself, wants to distance themselves from the practice.
NBC, in a statement released on Thursday, said "NBC has never ceded creative control of any of our programs" to the drug policy office or any other government agency. The New York Times reports that the other networks issued similar statements.
But an unnamed participant in the give and take between the networks and the government told Salon that "script changes would be discussed between ONDCP and the show -- negotiated." And Rick Mater, the WB Network's senior VP for broadcast standards told Salon, "The White House did view scripts. They did sign off on them. They read scripts, yes."
Bob Wiener, spokesman for ONDCP, however, told The Week Online that the agency merely viewed the scripts of shows to decide whether or not the network would get credit toward their advertising commitment.
"We worked with over 100 shows. They would submit scripts, mostly after they aired, and we would decide, up or down, whether or not they met the standard to receive credit. Sometimes, we will work with a network, voluntarily, to help them with accuracy. That has been true for years. We will often send them to experts, at CASA (the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse) for example, so that they can be sure to get the facts and the message right."
When asked whether there was a distinction between the "facts" and the "message," with the latter implying political doctrine rather than factual information, Wiener replied that his office is "proud of the 13% reduction in youth drug use."
"We plead guilty," said Wiener, "to using every legal means to save the lives of America's children."
Professor Aufderheide, however, believes that the "any means necessary" defense leaves something to be desired.
"In the end," she said, "the American public will have to decide which is more important: drug education as defined by the government, or freedom of the press."
The Salon series can be found on the world wide web at http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2000/01/13/drugs/. The Center for Educational Research and Development can be found at http://www.cerd.org. ONDCP is online at http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov.