David Borden, Executive
Director, [email protected]
One of the issues under discussion
on Capitol Hill recently is that of government-financed propaganda.
The Armstrong Williams episode, in which a media firm contracted by the
federal government to make the Bush administration's case for its vision
of education reform paid the conservative commentator a tidy sum
to help, is fresh in the minds of Democrats, who are now fielding a proposal
to require all government-purchased media content be labeled as such --
"paid for by the federal government."
David Borden's usual Thursday night editing session
Largely absent from that
debate has been the much longer-running, and thoroughly bipartisan,
program of government-sponsored anti-drug media campaigns. These
include but are not limited to paid advertising buys – which are generally
labeled as from the government, to be fair – but go far beyond that.
Just as advocacy organizations pitch news media and supply content to them
to garner exposure beyond what their advertising budgets could purchase,
so does the government:
Sometimes a drug's new prominence
really is due to its popularity or dangers. Most scientists perform
their research scrupulously, in drugs as in any other area. And many
big drug busts are for real, abuse and misuse of enforcement
When a new "demon drug" hits
the airwaves – meth, ecstasy, oxycontin – one can assume that police
agencies' one-sided press releases played a role.
When a misleading news report
of some newly-discovered harm from marijuana, for example, comes out, it
was probably the public relations department at the National Institute
on Drug Abuse that prompted it.
When a prosecutor stands in
front of the TV cameras to brag about the latest takedown of a drug trafficker
or a drug-prescribing doctor, that is government-financed public relations.
When federal anti-drug bureaucrats
tour the country with representatives of the for-profit drug-testing industry,
using intellectually suspect information to pitch school systems on buying
their services (as we report this week), that is government-financed public
But often the attention drawn
to a drug is unrelated to its popularity or dangers. Often NIDA's
spin-meisters don't show good faith to the meaning of a study, but instead
promote their own angle which may have little relation to the actual findings.
Big drug busts aren't always justified, the defendants sometimes are innocent,
but prosecutors don't seem to have a problem denouncing their targets and
tearing them to moral shreds before the world long before their guilt has
When taxpayer resources are
exploited by public officials with an agenda, freedom is undermined.
US political leaders and others have rightfully criticized the Putin
government's squelching of independent media in Russia, for example, as a step backward
from that nation's young experiment in democracy. But the outright
closure of private sector media outlets is only an extreme form of government
control of political discourse. When officials use their power and
budgets to manipulate attitudes and opinions, in ways going beyond their
appropriate participation in public dialogue and debate, and when most
media outlets allow them to do it, that also runs counter to the democratic
spirit – no less so just because "drugs are bad" in some ways, though
broad public acceptance of anti-drug campaigns means there is less criticism
fielded of propaganda by the government in the drug arena.
Still, the record shows that
even the sacred cow of anti-drug media can sometimes be taken on successfully. Five years ago, journalist Dan Forbes exposed a program in which the Office
of National Drug Control Policy reviewed scripts and awarded credits toward
commercial ad buys when networks incorporated anti-drug content in their
TV shows. It
was a scandal – members of Congress even invited Forbes to Washington
to testify – and the practice was put to a stop. Clearly we have
much further to go, but perhaps there is hope – democracy does still function,
after a fashion, anyway, even for drug policy. People don't always
recognize when the government is trying to manipulate them through the
media, but they don't really like it when they do.
Perhaps a standard should
be put in place that restricts the ability of government agencies to use
the media to promote their agendas. For example, research funded
by NIDA could be announced to the press by the researchers or the universities
they work for, not by the NIDA press office. Perhaps police and prosecutors
should be barred from holding press conferences when they have merely indicted
a suspect but not won a conviction. It ought to be possible to craft
standards of conduct for government officials communicating through the
mass media in their official capacities, in a way that does not stifle
discussion of important issues or infringe on constitutional protections
for freedom of speech.
Any restrictions on speech should be carefully considered before being enacted or implemented, even restrictions such as these to be placed on the government. But what is clear is that the willingness of drug warriors to lie over and over to the public through mass media is shameful, and one way or another should be stopped – for the sake of better drug policy and for democracy – and, as drug warriors are fond of saying, for the children.
-- END --
Mail this article to a friend
Send us feedback on this article
This issue -- main page
This issue -- single-file printer version
Drug War Chronicle -- main page
PERMISSION to reprint or
redistribute any or all of the contents of Drug War Chronicle (formerly The Week Online with DRCNet is hereby
granted. We ask that any use of these materials include proper credit and,
where appropriate, a link to one or more of our web sites. If your
publication customarily pays for publication, DRCNet requests checks
payable to the organization. If your publication does not pay for
materials, you are free to use the materials gratis. In all cases, we
request notification for our records, including physical copies where
material has appeared in print. Contact: StoptheDrugWar.org: the Drug Reform Coordination Network,
P.O. Box 18402, Washington, DC 20036, (202) 293-8340 (voice), (202)
293-8344 (fax), e-mail [email protected]. Thank
Articles of a purely
educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of the DRCNet
Foundation, unless otherwise noted.