"WARNING: This program contains material lobbying for support of current drug policies, paid for at taxpayer expense."
While viewers of "The Drew Carey Show" or "America's Most Wanted" may never see that admonition flash on their TV screens, the FCC wants them to know when the government is attempting to sway them. Ruling on a complaint filed by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this week ordered the major networks to begin identifying the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) as a sponsor of shows that include anti-drug messages underwritten by the federal government.
In 1997, Congress appropriated a billion dollars for a five-year anti-drug advertising campaign run by ONDCP. In the past two years, in a complicated programming-for-ad-time swap, the major networks took in $25 million from the government for placing anti-drug messages in a number of prime-time programs. ONDCP admitted to Congress to reviewing scripts for more than a hundred episodes of different programs to see if their anti-drug messages met government approval. But neither the networks nor the drug warriors told viewers that federal employees were helping to shape their favorite programs.
That arrangement, and similar ones with the film and publishing industries, blossomed into a national scandal after Salon's Dan Forbes first exposed them almost a year ago. That's when NORML jumped in. It filed a complaint with the FCC arguing that failing to identify the drug czar's office as a sponsor of the programs violated long-standing FCC disclosure rules.
The federal regulators agreed. In its ruling, the FCC cited sponsorship regulations in place since 1927 that state that viewers "are entitled to know by whom they are being persuaded."
"The language of the statute is very broad, requiring sponsorship identification if any type of valuable consideration is directly or indirectly paid or promised, charged or accepted," said the ruling.
NORML Executive Director Keith Stroup told the Washington Post he was pleased, but that the ruling did not go far enough. It did not address the troublesome question of whether the government should be supporting a specific public policy position in prime-time programs, he said.
"We have been told by these programmers that they have influenced the programs in order to please the government. That is not the kind of free press we have grown accustomed to," Stroup said.
Still, Stroup was "reasonably happy," he told Newsday.
"It puts the incoming drug czar on notice," he said. "At least the next time around, if they're going to spend taxpayer money to try to influence the content of programming, that fact is going to have to be included on the programming."
Neither the networks nor the drug czar's office have commented on the ruling. The networks could have faced fines for violating FCC regulations.