Interview with Mike Farrell: Movie Payola, Death Penalty 7/21/00

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Bloodied but unbowed, harassed yet heedless, drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey last week rode off to open a new front in his roundly criticized five-year, billion dollar mass media propaganda campaign. The Office of National Drug Control Policy has already cut payola deals with television programs and magazines, in which those media produced anti-drug messages for cash prizes from the drug czar's bounty.

Now, McCaffrey is targeting the movies. "We are making available to the producers, directors, writers -- the creative community -- the resources, the understanding that the National Institute of Drug Abuse gets out of $600 million a year of taxpayer dollars studying this issue," McCaffrey told Congress. "As powerful as television is, some experts believe that movies have an even stronger impact on young people," said McCaffrey. While McCaffrey did not produce a detailed plan for Hollywood's participation, he said the process of enlisting filmmakers and screenwriters had already begun through workshops, briefings, roundtables and one-on-one conversations with industry leaders.

DRCNet spoke with Hollywood figure Mike Farrell about McCaffrey's latest scheme as well as the Raul Garza death penalty case. Farrell, a long-time TV and film actor and producer, is best known for his portrayal of the BJ Hunnicutt character in the long-running TV series MASH, and currently co-stars in the CBS TV series Providence.

Farrell has also parlayed his celebrity status into a role as a committed and effective activist, especially on issues related to human rights and criminal justice policy. He is the Chairman of Death Penalty Focus ( and the Co-Chair of Human Rights Watch/California, and is a member of the advisory board of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Farrell is also a spokesperson for CONCERN/America, Good Will Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and a member of California's Commission on Judicial Performance.

WOL: What do you make of Gen. McCaffrey's latest foray into the entertainment business?

Farrell: He sought a way to make an effective end run around the censorship issue and still put money into films that convey his message. This is an example of the heavy hand of the government intruding into an area of social policy and seems close to government manipulation of public attitudes. That is a very dangerous area.

WOL: Some industry figures have been quoted as saying that Hollywood is such a money-driven town that the industry would find the drug czar's financial blandishments irresistible. What do you think?

Farrell: Oh, yes. This is a business of whores to a significant degree, and it will perk up the ears of all of those people who are money-driven. The effect could be relatively benign if the movie already carried an anti-drug message, but if writers or directors are skewing their work so its fits within certain guidelines to get that money, then that would be very disturbing.

WOL: Hollywood has taken a lot of flack over portrayals of sex and violence, and now Gen. McCaffrey is implicitly pressuring the industry to portray drugs in a certain fashion. What sort of responsibility does the industry have toward audiences or society at large?

Farrell: We all need to aware of needs of society and the vulnerability of the audience to whom we're speaking. I think Hollywood has a big responsibility in terms of portraying life realistically and appropriately. Like life itself, sometimes these messages are life-affirming, but sometimes they are not. That's not my business. In real life there is sex, there is violence, there is indulgence in behaviors that some find reprehensible. And although I'm not personally a fan of entertainment that promotes or is irresponsible in promoting wanton sex, or violence, or overindulgence, we cannot allow ourselves to be bludgeoned into censorship. There's a tendency toward self-censorship already, especially when artists go into an area they fear will spark controversy or a hostile response. That is a terrible insult to the artistic process.

WOL: So, what should or could the film community do in terms of drugs as a social issue?

Farrell: In terms of drugs and drug policy, there are things my community can do that would be much more beneficial to the community at large than adapting our messages to fit some outside guidelines. We could realistically show the impact of drug use, we could show the positive, pro-social effects of drug education and rehabilitation -- all of those things we wish the government were promoting instead of filling our prisons.

WOL: Is there anything you like about McCaffrey's proposal?

Farrell: I'm pleased that he's being as overt as he is, because then people are forewarned and thus forearmed. There are already so many of what we used to call "hidden persuaders" that it is frightening to think the government is getting involved. As if they would be any better for us than the others, the private interests.

WOL: Let's turn to the subject of Juan Raul Garza. In your capacity as chair of Death Penalty Focus you've been deeply involved in his case and in the broader issues surrounding the death penalty. What is your reaction to President Clinton's decision to put Garza's execution on hold?

Farrell: I was part of a campaign to inform the president about our feelings on this issue and to help him understand that killing Raul Garza would in many respects run counter to the interests of the nation. I am pleased we were able to convince the president to postpone the execution and start a review of the whole federal death penalty process.

WOL: Opponents of Garza's execution have pointed to several problems with how the decision to seek the death penalty in his case was made. The OAS, for instance, has intervened, claiming prosecutors violated international covenants when, in the trial's penalty phase, they asked the jury to consider murders for which Garza was never tried, let alone convicted. What is your reaction to this argument?

Farrell: It was outrageous conduct. Using murders where he wasn't tried or convicted was an extraordinary act on the part of the prosecution, probably unprecedented and definitely unethical.

WOL: Garza's attorney has indicated that he will raise issues of racial and geographic disparity in the administration of the federal death penalty. What about such disparities?

Farrell: The preponderance of minorities on death row, the institutional racism and corruption on the part of ambitious prosecutors, and even the chance of human error, all are increasingly disturbing to many people. To allow a man of Hispanic origin to be the first executed without taking a serious look at the history of death penalty prosecutions at the federal level would be indiscreet, if not downright criminal.

WOL: What is it that drives politicians to so rabidly support the death penalty?

Farrell: Not unlike the drug war, the death penalty is a political tool that has nothing to do with justice and is not good social policy. Both are the result of ambitious politicians looking to push emotional buttons that can ensure their political power. They're certainly more interested in that than in solving social problems and ensuring the public safety.

WOL: The death penalty issue has achieved a high profile this year with Gov. Ryan's moratorium in Illinois and the focus on Gov. Bush's record in Texas, among other things. Is there reason to think the tide is beginning to turn?

Farrell: Yes. President Clinton's action in calling for a hold on Garza's execution while Justice completes its review of racial and geographic disparities and establishes guidelines for clemency petitions was a defensive action, as well as being an appropriate action. The increasing prominence of the whole death penalty issue is a sign that in this country we are seeing a willingness to rethink our positions. At long last, because of organizations like yours and ours with our continued insistence on good, solid information to counter the official line, we are now finding traction with people who might otherwise not know any better. This is a hopeful sign, indeed. People are asking for straight talk from their politicians and requiring them to justify the outrageous statements they make in support of their outrageous policies.

(Death Penalty Focus of California is a non-profit organization dedicated to the abolition of capital punishment through grassroots organizing, research, and the dissemination of information about the death penalty and its alternatives. They are a sponsor of "Committing to Conscience: Building a Unified Strategy to End the Death Penalty," a conference taking place Nov. 16-19 in San Francisco. Visit to find out more.)

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Issue #146, 7/21/00 Hemispheric Rights Group Intervenes in "Drug Kingpin" Death Penalty Case, Cites US Violation of International Agreements | Interview with Mike Farrell: Movie Payola, Death Penalty | California Medical Marijuana Moves Ahead on Two Fronts | Study Says Marijuana Doesn't Interfere with AIDS Drugs, Scientific First Comes After Years-Long Battle With Government Health Honchos | Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush Puts Decriminalization "On The Table" | Columbian Fusarium Conundrum: Colombia Accepts/Rejects (choose one) US Biowar Plan | All the News That Fits: The New York Times and Colombia | Peru Blows Suspected Smugglers Out of the Sky, Again | Boston Study Finds Racial Disparities in Drug Cases | Buprenorphine Bill Passes House | AlertS -- Federal and State: Colombia, Meth Bill/Free Speech, Mandatory Minimums, California, New York, Washington | Alert -- International: Russian Federation Calling for Expulsion of Radical Party from United Nations | Job Opportunity in Minneapolis: Women With A Point | Event Calendar | Do You Read the Week Online?
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