No more lies

Americans see clearly that the war on drugs isn't working. Now some of our leaders are starting to open their eyes.

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By Arianna Huffington

Aug. 10, 2000 | How long do you keep the lie going? This is the unstated question in the blossoming drug-war debate.

Speaking last week at the Shadow Convention in Philadelphia, the Rev. Edwin Sanders of Nashville's Metropolitan Church was unequivocal in his answer: "This needs to be the time when we collectively raise our voices and say that this is the end." Sanders' speech was part of a breakthrough day in the drug-policy-reform movement. Speakers as varied as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of the biggest cheerleaders for the drug war in the 1980s, and Gov. Gary Johnson, R-N.M., the highest-ranking elected official ever to challenge our national drug policy, took to the stage to echo Sanders' sentiment that the time has come to declare an end to a war that has destroyed far too many lives.

In the audience, hundreds of parents, children and spouses of those incarcerated on nonviolent drug charges held placards with the pictures and stories of their loved ones. They had arrived on buses from around the country, representing the millions of Americans whose world has been torn apart by this disastrous war. People like Julie Colon, 21, whose mother is serving a sentence of 15 years to life for a first-time drug offense. "The last time I lived with my mother," said Colon, "I was 9 years old." Or Eileen Flournoy, 74, whose daughter Veronica was arrested on drug charges while she was pregnant with her second child and fell under the mandatory sentencing laws. "At my age, I sure didn't expect to be raising my 4- and 5-year-old granddaughters," she told me.

"We have absolutely become numb to what's going on in this country," Johnson, a triathlete and teetotaler, told the Shadow Convention crowd. "The bottom line is, we need a new drug strategy. Why don't we see if we can have fewer nonviolent drug offenders in jail? The message that needs to resonate to kids and adults is 'Just Say Know to Drugs. K-N-O-W.'"

Because the fact is we do know. We know what works -- treatment. And we know what doesn't work -- incarceration. About the only thing we don't know is how to convince our politicians of the truth of what almost everybody else now seems to know. But we're getting closer.

Jesse Jackson knows. He railed against our "failed drug policy whose friendly fire is killing Americans rather than helping Americans -- a policy whose unintended consequence is to build an ugly, shameful jail industrial complex, a policy driven by fear, race and greed." Pointing to the 75 percent recidivism rate of drug offenders, Jackson brought the crowd to its feet with his trademarked cadenced delivery: "They go into jail sicker and come out slicker and return quicker, and around and around and around they go ... Because if you are young, poor, brown or black or don't have a lawyer, there is no category called youthful indiscretion."

Drug-policy reform is moving from the fringes to the mainstream. And for every public figure who speaks out, dozens more are waiting in the wings until they consider it safe enough to say openly what they now dare say only privately.

Two elected officials speaking out are Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif., now running for the Senate, and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. In one of the unexpected alliances produced by the fight against the drug war, they have joined forces in favor of California's Prop. 36 -- a major policy shift from incarceration to treatment.

Campbell offered the Shadow Convention crowd a stinging bit of history from the drug war: "The street price of heroin and cocaine is less than one-fourth of what it was in 1981. The purity of heroin available on the street has increased more than fourfold since 1981. Incarceration for drug arrests has risen tenfold since 1981. The number of drug-overdose deaths has increased more than fivefold since 1981. The proportion of high school seniors reporting that drugs are readily available has doubled since 1981. This is not victory. This is failure."

But the greatest indicator that we are, as Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center, put it, "at the beginning of a new anti-war movement, a new movement for political and social justice," came not at the shadow gathering but at the Republican convention. Colin Powell, in the one bit of truth shining through the phony multicultural fog, made it clear that it was time to rethink America's drug-war policy, which has led to more than 2 million Americans behind bars: "If you want to solve our drug problem, you won't do it by trying to cut off supply and arresting pushers on the street corners alone ... It's time to stop building jails in America and get back to the task of building our children."

It's a conclusion shared by an overwhelming majority of Americans: More than 70 percent are now in favor of treatment over incarceration for those convicted of nonviolent drug charges. And the media -- in a growing number of editorials, columns and news stories -- have begun to actually shine a light on the drug war's casualties and call for new policies.

Yet George W. Bush did not have one compassionate word to say on the subject beyond grandiloquently promising to "tear down that wall" that traps our citizens in "prison, addiction and despair." And you can bet that, come next week, Al Gore will be equally silent on the subject.

salon.com | Aug. 10, 2000


Prime-time propaganda

Drug money

Prime-time propaganda
How the White House secretly hooked network TV on its anti-drug message: A Salon special report.

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By Daniel Forbes

Jan. 13, 2000 | Advertisements urging parents to love their kids and keep them off drugs dot urban bus stops across America. Anti-drug commercials fill Channel One in the nation's schools and the commercial breaks of network TV -- most notably a comely, T-shirt-clad waif trashing her kitchen to demonstrate the dangers of heroin. We've come a long way from Nancy Reagan's clenched-teeth "Just Say No."

Few Americans, however, know of a hidden government effort to shoehorn anti-drug messages into the most pervasive and powerful billboard of all -- network television programming.

Also Today

Washington script doctors
How the government rewrote an episode of the WB's "Smart Guy."
By Daniel Forbes

Two years ago, Congress inadvertently created an enormous financial incentive for TV programmers to push anti-drug messages in their plots -- as much as $25 million in the past year and a half, with the promise of even more to come in the future. Under the sway of the office of President Clinton's drug czar, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, some of America's most popular shows -- including "ER," "Beverly Hills 90210," "Chicago Hope," "The Drew Carey Show" and "7th Heaven" -- have filled their episodes with anti-drug pitches to cash in on a complex government advertising subsidy.

Here's how helping the government got to be so lucrative.

In late 1997, Congress approved an immense, five-year, $1 billion ad buy for anti-drug advertising as long as the networks sold ad time to the government at half price -- a two-for-one deal that provided over $2 billion worth of ads for a $1 billion allocation.

But the five participating networks weren't crazy about the deal from the start. And when, soon after, they were deluged with the fruits of a booming economy, most particularly an unexpected wave of dot-com ads, they liked it even less.

So the drug czar's office, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), presented the networks with a compromise: The office would give up some of that precious ad time it had bought -- in return for getting anti-drug motifs incorporated within specific prime-time shows. That created a new, more potent strain of the anti-drug social engineering the government wanted. And it allowed the TV networks to resell the ad time at the going rate to IBM, Microsoft or Yahoo.

Alan Levitt, the drug-policy official running the campaign, estimates that the networks have benefited to the tune of nearly $25 million thus far.

With this deal in place, government officials and their contractors began approving, and in some cases altering, the scripts of shows before they were aired to conform with the government's anti-drug messages. "Script changes would be discussed between ONDCP and the show -- negotiated," says one participant.

Rick Mater, the WB network's senior vice president for broadcast standards, acknowledges: "The White House did view scripts. They did sign off on them -- they read scripts, yes."

The arrangement, uncovered by a six-month Salon News investigation, is known to only a few insiders in Hollywood, New York and Washington. Almost none of the producers and writers crafting the anti-drug episodes knew of the deal. And top officials from the five networks involved last season -- NBC, ABC, CBS, the WB and Fox -- for the most part refused to discuss it. The sixth network, UPN, failed to attract the government's interest the first year of the program; it joined the flock this current TV season.

The arrangement may violate payola laws that require networks to disclose, during a show's broadcast, arrangements with any party providing financial or other considerations, however direct or indirect. (We'll explore that issue in a separate article Friday.)

Legal or not, the plan raises a host of questions. "It sounds to me like a form of propaganda that is, in effect, for sale," says media watchdog Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation. Terming it a "venal practice" and "a form of mind control," he adds, "It's breathtaking to me that any [network's] sense of obligation to the viewing audience has a dollar sign attached to it."

Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm, says, "This is the most craven thing I've heard of yet. To turn over content control to the federal government for a modest price is an outrageous abandonment of the First Amendment ... The broadcasters scream about the First Amendment until McCaffrey opens his checkbook."

Former FCC chief counsel Robert Corn-Revere, now at the law firm Hogan & Hartson, calls the campaign "pretty insidious. Government surreptitiously planting anti-drug messages using the power of the purse raises red flags. Why is there no disclosure to the American public?"

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The ONDCP, the powerful executive-branch department from which the anti-drug effort emanates, is more commonly known as the drug czar's office. McCaffrey, a Vietnam War hero, directs it and sits on Clinton's Cabinet.

The office oversees spending of nearly $18 billion annually for such activities as fighting peasants growing coca in Latin America, helping interdict drugs entering the United States, local law enforcement and research and treatment. Though Bob Dole savaged non-inhaler Clinton as weak on drugs during the 1996 presidential campaign, Clinton has quietly been Washington's most aggressive anti-drug warrior. Says Dr. Thomas H. Haines, City University of New York medical school professor and chair of the Partnership for Responsible Drug Information, "Clinton spent more federal money in the war on drugs in his first four years than was spent during Reagan's and Bush's 12 years combined."

But in the fall of 1997, the most prominent public face of America's anti-drug crusade belonged to the private Partnership for a Drug-Free America. With major funding from a foundation fueled by the estate of the founder of Johnson & Johnson, along with other corporate support, the partnership bills itself as a "nonpartisan coalition of professionals from the communications industry."

Founded in 1986, the partnership has garnered hundreds of millions of dollars a year in donated media space and time, hitting its peak with over $360 million annually in both 1990 and 1991. But by 1997, donated media had declined to $222 million, the group was suffering a decrease in both the quantity and quality of its donated space and time, and the targeted teens had become inured to its oft-parodied "This is your brain on drugs" message.

The partnership's chairman, James E. Burke, began to lobby Congress to add money for paid ads to the drug czar's budget. Though then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich didn't need much convincing, other Republicans had to overcome two objections to a new federal expenditure of this size: Some wondered if the highly visible effort would just let the president and other Democrats claim credit as crusading anti-drug warriors; others worried about showering money on Clinton's perceived allies in Hollywood. "Some on the Hill wanted to just cut a check to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America," says one Capitol Hill insider.

Burke and the partnership eventually won the Republicans over. Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds the media campaign, says, "We were persuaded by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America to spend tax dollars" to get the message out in prime time.

So in October 1997, Congress approved an extravagant plan to buy $1 billion worth of anti-drug advertising. The drug office got about $200 million annually for five years, beginning in fiscal year 1998, and was charged with targeting both the nation's youth and "adult influencers." The office billed the job in a 1998 press release as "the largest and most complex social-marketing campaign ever undertaken."

Approximately two-thirds of the office's ad budget was targeted at TV; the rest was sprinkled among everything from billboards to radio, newspaper, magazine and Internet advertising.

But Congress, feeling that the networks should also contribute to the war on drugs, drove a hard, two-for-one bargain: for every ad the government bought, it demanded another of equal value for free.

"It was contingent on a private-sector match," says John Bridgeland, former chief aide to Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who fought for the deal. "No member of Congress was going to pass new money for this without a match" -- that is, without that second ad slot.

Indeed, with only $1 billion budgeted to it by Congress, the office refers to its "five-year, $2 billion ... campaign." McCaffrey himself called it "our major prevention initiative, the $2 billion five-year Anti-Drug Media Campaign."

The government's paid ads began running on five of the nation's networks, all but lowly UPN, during the summer of 1998. One TV ad features a scruffy, plain-spoken teen who boasts of a sterling academic record before succumbing to marijuana and getting thrown out of the house. Then there's the one mentioned above: the waif-like Gen-Xer taking a frying pan to her kitchen, supposedly to demonstrate the terrors of heroin addiction. The actress is budding young star Rachael Leigh Cook of "She's All That."

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How did the networks' two-for-one ad deal evolve into a plan to insert messages into programming content? Bridgeland says that wasn't the original idea. "I don't think we thought of programming content as a match ... [It] was not actively discussed," he says -- a point that Kolbe echoes.

The half-price deal got a mixed reception from the networks. NBC, the most highly rated network in 1998, with the most valuable ad slots, initially balked for some three months. The chief ad buyer for the drug czar's office, Zenith Media Services Inc. CEO Richard Hamilton, oversaw negotiations with the networks. NBC, he says, made a "business decision."

Then in the ratings doldrums, ABC had fewer qualms. Says Bart Catalane, former CFO of ABC Broadcasting: "Given the way ad-spending had been going, we needed every category, particularly a growing one like government spending. We wanted to grab every share we could." Indeed, the first year of the office's ad campaign, ABC grabbed nearly $30 million worth, half again as much as Fox, its nearest rival at $20 million.

Even high-flying NBC eventually went along; participants say that the network came around after hearing about its rivals' barrels of government cash. Half a loaf was considered better than none, especially from a baker with a projected five-year supply of flour. "This was before the market got so tight," says one former contractor to the drug-policy office. "This was before all the dot-com ads. When we started, the market was less bullish."

But selling time at half price never went down smoothly, and Hamilton reported back that the networks weren't happy. Hence, in the spring of 1998, Alan Levitt, who runs the office's advertising campaign, and Zenith boss Hamilton cooked up the novel idea of using programming -- that is, the plots of sitcoms and dramas -- to redeem the second ad slot owed the government.

"We did this to make it a little bit more obtainable to participants," Levitt says. "I know it's allowed us to make some deals we wouldn't normally make before. There are some media outlets that have not been able to -- are not financially able, or they don't have the structure where they can give us print space or programming or time. And so we can make it more flexible for them."

That spring of 1998, Hamilton and Levitt agreed that sitcoms and dramas that met with the drug-policy office's approval could be used in lieu of the ad slots still owed to the government. Formulas would be applied to determine the cash value of these embedded messages, and the networks would then be free to resell the commercials they otherwise would have given to the government.

Ultimately, the ONDCP developed an accounting system to decide which shows would be valued and for how much. And its officials began to vet television shows in advance, sometimes suggesting alterations. Tapes of the show as broadcast were sent to the office or its ad buyer to be assigned a final monetary value, which would then be subtracted from the total the particular network owed the office.

The drug office and its ad buyers received advance copies of the scripts from most networks, often more than once as a particular episode developed over time. In some cases, the networks and the office would wrangle over the changes requested. Says an office contractor, "You'd see a lot of give and take: 'Here's the script, what do you think?'" He adds, "I helped out on a number of scripts. They ran the scripts past us, and we gave comments. We'd say, 'It's great you're doing this, but inadvertently you're conveying something'" off-message.

This contractor prevailed upon the producers of the WB's "Smart Guy" to change the original script's portrayal of two substance-abusing kids at a party. They were originally depicted as cool and popular; after the drug office input, "We showed that they were losers and put them [hidden away to indulge in shamed secrecy] in a utility room. That was not in the original script," this contractor says.

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The scheme worked like this: According to a set, numerical formula, the drug-policy office assigned financial value to each show's anti-drug message. If the office decided that a half-hour sufficiently pushed an endorsed anti-drug theme, it got valued at three "units," with each unit equaling the cost of one 30-second ad on that show. Hour shows presenting an approved story line were valued at five units, equal to the cost of five of that show's 30-second ads. (Ads on higher-rated shows -- shows that deliver more eyeballs -- cost more. Therefore, shows with higher ratings, which disseminated ONDCP's message more widely, achieved higher valuations.)

For example, the drug czar's office bought approximately $20 million of advertising time from News Corp., the Rupert Murdoch-owned global media conglomerate that owns Fox. Therefore, News Corp. owed the United States an additional $20 million in matching ad slots from its inventory of ad time.

To partially meet its "match," and thus recoup some of the ad time owed the government, Fox submitted a two-episode "Beverly Hills 90210" story arc involving a character's downward spiral into addiction. Employing the formula based on the price of an ad on "90210," the episodes were eventually valued at between $500,000 and $750,000, says one executive close to the deal. As Kayne Lanahan, senior VP at News Corp One, Fox's media and marketing operation, describes it, "There were ongoing discussions with Zenith. They looked at each episode and how prevalent the story line was." Lanahan adds, "We occasionally show [them] scripts when they're in development, and the final script, and then send a tape after it airs."

This Salon reporter was able to identify some two dozen shows where specific single or multiple episodes containing anti-drug themes were assigned a monetary value by the drug czar's office and its two ad buyers: Zenith and its eventual replacement, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide.

In return for, apparently, several episodes with anti-drug subplots, highly rated "ER" redeemed $1.4 million worth of time for NBC to be able to sell elsewhere. "The Practice" recouped $500,000 worth of time for ABC to sell if it wished. And anti-drug messages woven into "90210" redeemed between $500,000 and $750,000.

Other shows with episodes that redeemed ad time for the networks during the 1998-99 season include: "Home Improvement," valued at approximately $525,000 for ABC; "Chicago Hope," valued at probably $500,000 or more (CBS); "Sports Night," a valuation of around $450,000 (ABC); "7th Heaven," valued at around $200,000 (WB); and "The Wayans Bros." with its relatively paltry ratings, kicking in only approximately $110,000 (WB).

In addition, the following shows also redeemed ad time last season, though this reporter could not determine their monetary value: "Promised Land" and "Cosby" on CBS; "Trinity," "Providence" and several episodes of the four teen-oriented Saturday-morning live-action shows on NBC; and "The Drew Carey Show," "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," "Boy Meets World" and "General Hospital" on ABC.

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The process unfolded over time, with some scripts reviewed more than once. When a draft of the script was available, the network sales department would alert the drug czar's ad buyer. And then the office's Alan Levitt, or his colleague Jill Bartholomew, became involved. They'd get a copy of the script -- though ABC maintains it was an exception to this step -- and then provide "a quick turnaround" with their reactions, says one insider.

The drug-policy office typically verified the particular episode as being on-message and appropriate for a match. "If a kid was offered a joint and said, 'No thanks,' in a way that was on-strategy, it was that simple. It was a judgment call by the network, the agency and the client," says this source.

Other anti-drug, government-endorsed plots were as subtle as a brick through a window. "Chicago Hope" is owned in part by News Corp. subsidiary 20th Century Fox Television. Though CBS was the potential beneficiary of any ONDCP-approved "Chicago Hope" episode, an agreeable News Corp. exec, Mark Stroman, phoned John Tinker, an executive producer on "Chicago Hope," to request an anti-drug episode. Facing cancellation and commanding scant leverage with the show's owners, the "Chicago Hope" producers dusted off a previously rejected script and decided it could stand another rewrite.

As broadcast, the graphically anti-drug story of the tragedies afflicting young post-rave revelers featured drug-induced death, rape, psychosis, a nasty two-car wreck, a broken nose and a doctor's threat to skip life-saving surgery unless the patient agreed to an incriminating urine test -- along with a canceled flight on the space shuttle.

Other drug office-approved shows featured: a career-devastating, pot-induced freakout of angel-dust proportions ("The Wayans Bros."); blanket drug tests at work ("The Drew Carey Show") and for a school basketball team (NBC's Saturday morning "Hang Time"); death behind the wheel due to alcohol and pot combined ("Sports Night"); kids caught with marijuana or alcohol pressed to name their supplier ("Cosby" and "Smart Guy"); and a young teen becoming an undercover police drug informant after a minister, during formal counseling, tells his parents he should ("7th Heaven").

At least one show, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," was rejected after it showed itself to be immune to the drug office's worldview. "Drugs were an issue, but it wasn't on-strategy. It was otherworldly nonsense, very abstract and not like real-life kids taking drugs. Viewers wouldn't make the link to our message," says someone in the drug-policy office camp who read and helped reject it.

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Levitt, the office's point man on the campaign, downplays the money's influence on the networks' "voluntary" creative decisions. He likens the process to the (non-monetary) Prism Awards for socially responsible television. "The government is not dictating these kinds of changes," he says. "We will provide an incentive, a financial incentive."

Levitt insists that his office is trying solely to achieve accurate portrayals of drugs -- not any overall increase in the number of anti-drug episodes broadcast. Be that as it may, by the office's own count, the number of shows with anti-drug themes (whether financially boosted by the office or not) has risen from 32 as of last March to 109 this winter.

Whatever the intent of the government program, it was deemed sensitive enough to be kept under wraps. The TV producers typically knew nothing of the money involved. Says Levitt, "In almost every instance that I'm aware of, the [creative] people coming to us have no understanding at all of the pro bono match. They have no idea." Asked if they should know of the financial arrangement, Levitt says no: "We're not trying to intrude on their creative freedom. If the perception is such that we are trying to influence the [TV] program financially -- well, I won't go any further."

This reporter spoke with some 20 writers, producers and production executives for major shows. With perhaps one exception, nobody knew of the arrangement.

John Tinker, last season's "Chicago Hope" executive producer, took the News Corp. call requesting an anti-drug episode. He recalls no mention of CBS being able to recoup something like half a million dollars in ad time for the one shrill episode he helped craft at the show owner's request. He says the financial incentives are "complete news to me." He adds, "I'm so caught off guard, so stunned. I like to think I'm well informed. I had not a clue about any financial incentives." Asked if the scheme gave him cause for concern, Tinker says, "Of course. It smells manipulative ... All of this is disturbing."

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Tinker's response would undoubtedly be shared by many in Hollywood's creative community. One network sales executive who's worked with the drug-policy office acknowledges that if producers were to learn that scripts were being altered, that would "start a nightmare." This executive adds, "I don't need it getting back to [a particular powerhouse producer]. I'm in a tough situation between the client and the shows."

Realizing how tough it might get, a lot of top brass shied from trumpeting their enlistment in the drug war. In a brief conversation, Rosalyn Weinman, NBC's executive vice president for content policy and East Coast entertainment, said that the drug office did not exercise "script approval," but conceded that there had been conversations about broad issues or "specific concerns." Other NBC officials declined comment. Two other NBC executives implicitly confirmed the deals, however.

Senior management and public relations officials at each of the other four networks involved last season -- ABC, CBS, the WB and Fox -- were contacted, but offered little in the way of substantive comment.

While no current Fox executive would comment on the network's cooperation with the government, Rob Dwek, the network's former executive vice president of comedy and drama series, maintained that the financial incentives have "no impact on what we do creatively -- it would have no effect on the direction of a show ... It's not noticeable, it doesn't hurt the quality of our product, and it allows us to be responsible."

An ABC public relations exec, speaking anonymously, confirmed the network's participation in the deal. "Halfway through the year ['98-'99 season], ONDCP said we can meet the match ... if programming was appropriate. I don't know the month. But it was after setting up the [matching ads] schedule."

CBS president Leslie Moonves had nothing to say. A CBS spokesman said simply, "CBS is proud to be working with the government in regard to the war on drugs."

Michael Mandelker, executive VP of network sales for UPN, sounded enthusiastic about the program. Speaking this summer, he said he'd "already started a dialog with programming. Somewhere there will be shows that qualify."

Mandelker said he urged UPN entertainment president Tom Nunan to drum up support for anti-drug messages with producers, asking him: "Is there a way to have these kinds of story lines as you talk to producers?" Mandelker adds, "I imagine ONDCP will look at a couple of scripts in the first year to make sure our interpretation is theirs." He stated further, referring to UPN's strategy: "Tom approaches the producers. We [sales] can't do anything for them. Tom can pick up a show."

Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin, vice chairman Ted Turner and the WB head office all declined comment.

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The drug office's campaign is only just approaching full flower.

The teen-friendly WB (home to "7th Heaven" and the since-cancelled "The Wayans Bros.") has, for example, "significantly" expanded its anti-drug messages, one insider notes, with the drug office more than doubling its WB buy this season. The WB had initial plans for "at least five" programs with anti-drug content counting as a match, the source adds.

"Last year was the program's first year," he points out, "and a lot of companies didn't understand the match." He predicts the practice will only increase as the networks come to understand it as an effective way to free up valuable ad time otherwise sold at half-price.

salon.com | Jan. 13, 2000


The drug-war gravy train


The drug war gravy train
How the White House rewarded U.S. News, Seventeen and other magazines for publishing anti-drug articles.

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By Daniel Forbes

At least six major U.S. magazines have submitted anti-drug articles they have published over the past year to the government's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in an attempt to qualify for thousands of dollars of financial credits under the same federal advertising program that has benefited the television networks, Salon has learned.

Those magazines whose articles have been deemed by the drug czar's office as "on-message" have qualified for the credits, which are awarded in lieu of advertising obligations. Those that failed the test have not.

The drug-control office has made some of the most lucrative ad buys from magazines that maintain an anti-drug editorial environment that it considers hospitable to its messages.

The ONDCP, which is overseen by Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, an officer in President Clinton's Cabinet, did not review the articles before they were published. But the office did allow the six magazines -- U.S. News & World Report, Sporting News, Family Circle, Seventeen, Parade and USA Weekend -- to submit their editorial content to qualify as a substitute for advertising pages owed the government under single-year advertising contracts. Executives at all six magazines have confirmed the relationship with the drug office in interviews with Salon. The ONDCP refused to comment on this and all other matters. (The office demanded that questions be faxed to it, which Salon refused to do.)

The editors of the six publications denied that their content or editorial decisions were affected by the relationship with the White House drug office -- although some of the articles were apparently planned and assigned out of a desire to help spread the ONDCP's anti-drug message. Several of the editors denied any knowledge of the relationship, while others claimed to have only a partial awareness of it.

Given their ignorance and the fact that the articles weren't vetted before publication, several editors said, there was nothing unseemly about trading them for the ad credits. It was unclear whether, now that they knew about it, the editors would continue to engage in the practice.

Some industry insiders defended their colleagues' decisions to take part in the program. Jacqueline Leo, president of the American Society of Magazine Editors and former editor of Family Circle, said, "Given all the things editors can be pressured about, this doesn't ring my chimes. This one is at least not completely toxic. If U.S. News is trying to get credit to meet their numbers, I can't fault them for that. To say you don't owe [ONDCP] a half a page, I'd do that." Retroactive valuation is especially not a problem, says Leo, because "it means nothing if you take preexisting features and say, 'Here, give me credit.'"

Other commentators, however, were less sanguine.

Tom Goldstein, dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, said, "It strikes me as highly dubious. Editors should edit and the sales side should sell. Sure, I'm concerned. The way you describe it, it seems the editorial function has been compromised." He added, "There shouldn't be arrangements that are hidden from readers."

Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's, expressed no great shock: "The only surprise here is it hasn't happened sooner. Most consumer magazines a long time ago turned themselves into delivery systems for advertisers."

One of the writers whose story was submitted to the White House drug office for valuation stated, "This is a clear violation of journalistic ethics. It's really egregious."

"This shapes the type of reporting you're doing and what editors are asking for," continued the journalist, who requested anonymity. "If we ever did something like this as a writer -- showed a story to a source ahead of publication, say -- our career would be finished."

What is indisputable is that the U.S. government is using taxpayer money to, in effect, reward publications whose editorial content matches the government's views on drug control.

Besides the six magazines listed above, 20 others captured $11,935,000 of the drug-control office's ad budget in 1999. These included Essence ($124,000); Ladies' Home Journal ($148,000); Newsweek ($207,000); Reader's Digest ($1,392,000); Teen ($199,000); TV Guide ($232,000); and Vibe ($106,000).

A number of Time Warner publications also participated, including Sports Illustrated ($1,385,000); Time ($1,344,000); People ($743,000); People En Espa�ol ($160,000); Life ($111,000); and Family Life ($74,000). To date, Salon has obtained no evidence that any of these publications sought to swap editorial content for drug-czar financial credits.

Overall, the drug office's five-year, roughly billion-dollar ad buy enriched a wide range of media. Television, both local and network, got well over $80 million in fiscal year 1999; radio got more than $10 million; billboards, transit and the like got over $5 million, and in-school efforts got a similar amount. Print, both newspapers and magazines, received some $17 million, with about $10 million of that going to magazines, as detailed above.

The manner in which the ONDCP works with magazines is similar to its relationship with the major television networks, which was revealed in Salon earlier this year. When Congress appropriated nearly $1 billion for the anti-drug program in late 1997, it added the stipulation that the drug-control office get all of its advertising at a 50 percent discount.

Specifically, Congress required any media outlet selling advertising to the drug-control office to either give the office one free (that is, "bonus" ad) for each paid ad or trade some other form of ONDCP-approved content for its obligation.

Salon's earlier investigation detailed how the five major TV networks, which rushed to get a piece of the ad buy but then resisted having to sell their increasingly valuable airtime at half-price, were eventually able to cut deals with the drug-control office to substitute programming for some of the extra ads. In certain cases, the drug czar's office was allowed to review scripts and suggest changes before a show was broadcast. In some cases, the networks inserted government-approved anti-drug messages into TV sitcoms and dramas in order to satisfy their obligations to their government "client."

By following the guidelines set by the ONDCP, which is primarily a law-enforcement agency, the networks freed up nearly $22 million worth of advertising time that they could then sell for even more money, given the current red-hot TV ad market.

As for magazines, the drug-control office sent formal instructions called "Strategy Platforms" to publishers detailing its wishes for editorial content. It distributed formal, printed instructions on what sort of articles to run in which months. In at least one case, that of USA Weekend, the ONDCP made it clear to a magazine that it wanted a certain type of anti-drug story to be published. In another case, it actually picked the writer for a story that appeared in the Sporting News.

Magazine executives interviewed by Salon explained how the arrangement worked. The drug-control office would buy a specific amount of advertising in individual magazines. Under Congress' mandate, each publisher then owed the drug-control office advertising of an equal value. But magazines were allowed, if they chose, to submit editorial features to be "valued" in lieu of the extra ads owed the White House.

The drug office has employed two well-known ad agencies, Bates USA and subsequently Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, for the print-media campaign. Rich Vietri, currently a senior partner at O&M, has helped manage the magazine component for both agencies. He stated last year that editorial content is one way to meet the drug-control office's stipulation for a second ad. "With magazines, we get a one-for-one dollar match," he said, adding, "Straight news wouldn't be the match, but features would be -- stories that they might run already as a matter of course."

Vietri noted that an article in the May 24, 1999, issue of the Sporting News "counted as a match." In addition, according to Vietri, two articles in Parade counted, as did at least one in Family Circle. Last year, Vietri said he was anticipating a meeting with Gregory G. Coleman -- Reader's Digest's president of U.S. magazines, but in this instance representing the Magazine Publishers Association -- to discuss "not just running [ad] space, but featuring editorial material across a variety of titles. It's an industrywide initiative ... over a broad dispersion of magazines."

Salon's investigation has documented six magazines that have cooperated with the drug czar under this matching program.

At U.S. News & World Report, which is owned by real-estate magnate Mortimer Zuckerman and has a weekly circulation of 2,205,000, the drug office bought a total of $652,000 in ads last year. (All ONDCP ad-buy figures are from Competitive Media Reporting, an ad-tracking service.) Under the rules established by Congress, therefore, the drug-control office was "owed" an equal amount of free ad inventory by the magazine. Rather than incur the costs for this much valuable real estate, however, the magazine submitted several of its feature stories with anti-drug themes to the drug czar.

U.S. News publisher Bill Holiber explained his reasoning for this relationship to Salon: "If we luck out over the course of a year, our editorial fulfills [the obligation]. If not, we offset with ad pages." Holiber said that Ogilvy makes the evaluation on behalf of the drug czar's office.

The editor in chief of U.S. News, Stephen G. Smith, told Salon he was completely ignorant of the magazine's relationship with the drug czar's office. "You have my ironclad assurance we never do a story in an effort to win ad pages," said Smith. "It seems to me [publisher] Holiber acted appropriately in not making me privy. I guess the ad sales department has all sorts of arrangements I'm not privy to." Given his ignorance about the situation and the fact that his editorial content was not shaped to suit the drug czar, Smith stated: "I can't make any great moral pronouncements."

Holiber noted that a feature article earlier this year on prescription drugs for children might conceivably count as a match (though probably not, given the drug-control office's focus on illegal drugs). Holiber added, "I don't know how many stories counted." He said about half the stories submitted have been rejected by the drug czar's office and that "the editor does not know, he has no clue."

USA Weekend, the nation's second-largest magazine in circulation with 22 million copies distributed inside Sunday newspapers, received a $418,000 drug-office ad buy in 1999, according to CMR. USA Weekend's match to make up $418,000 in free ad inventory was "primarily made in editorial," according to ad director Jim Hackett, although it also gave the ONDCP a bonus ad page. "We show [the drug-control office] that we cover drugs and alcohol -- stories that we would do regardless -- and we provide issues [of USA Weekend] that have editorial that supports an anti-drug message."

The CEO and editor of USA Weekend, Marcia Bullard, said she had the final word on whether to cooperate with the drug czar. "I didn't stand in the way," Bullard said. "I had a rudimentary understanding of it." But Bullard added that "in retrospect, I don't think it should be done. It treads too closely to a conflict of interest ... If that [ONDCP] contract exists, it can raise questions in readers' minds if editorial is creditable or produced by advertising. It all gets to be very murky." Bullard said that "very few things in life are black and white," but added, "There should be a clear separation between what's being paid for and what's not. It's a publisher's duty to keep things separate for the readers. This muddies the waters."

In perhaps the most unusual example of the quid pro quo arrangement between publications and the ONDCP, the sales staff at USA Weekend (which is owned by Gannett Co.) submitted paragraphs culled from four different articles in an attempt to cobble together enough government-endorsed column inches to physically add up to one full page, said Gannett account executive Lisa Helbraun. Helbraun told Salon, "We're waiting for approval. We haven't gotten a valuation as of yet. But their initial reaction is we'll probably have to submit more."

Helbraun said that the drug-control office wanted editorial content on parents talking to their kids about drugs. "We've done alcohol and tobacco [articles], but that doesn't count. It has to be strictly drugs."

USA Weekend's anti-drug material could be acceptably embedded, though, in a story with a different focus. Helbraun said a paragraph on drugs could be snipped from a story on the dangers of drunken driving, for example. "Different paragraphs from different stories -- they measure the paragraphs just as long as somehow, some way they're hitting home on this topic" of parents talking to their kids about drugs.

Negotiations apparently continue on how Gannett will fulfill the government's requirement for a match -- in addition to the bonus advertising it has already provided. Helbraun said, "If they want more, we'll have to talk to editorial and see if they're planning more [anti-drug] stories." Then, "see if they [the articles] work."

Helbraun believes the arrangement does not interfere with the magazine's editorial independence, saying that editors maintain their prerogative to run whatever they want. But, speaking generally, she acknowledged that it's not unheard of for editorial material to be indirectly influenced by big clients, such as food companies that buy large blocks of space. In a similar vein, the editors might decide that another anti-drug article "could be a possibility," Helbraun stated.

The Sporting News, the 114-year-old, 550,000-circulation newsprint weekly owned by Times Mirror (though Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen recently announced his intention to buy it), received $414,000 from the drug office in 1999. Its editor, John D. Rawlings, said he "was told that Gen. McCaffrey was going to use the magazine" to disseminate an anti-drug message. Referring to publisher Francis X. Farrell, Rawlings added, "Fran and I talked about doing anti-drug columns."

Farrell said, "I send John [Rawlings] notes saying I admire what the drug-control office has done" and suggesting more features of an appropriate nature. The magazine published about half a dozen "appropriate" features, all one-pagers, in 1999, Rawlings said.

In fact, ONDCP even helped pick the writer for two of the anti-drug articles. According to Richard Lapchick, director of the Northeastern University Center for the Study of Sport in Society, he had already severed a longstanding relationship with the Sporting News in favor of writing for another sports publication. But then he heard from Rawlings that ONDCP had "asked for me specifically."

When asked whether he was aware that a financial value was being placed on anti-drug articles, Rawlings said that it was "not a factor in my [editorial] decisions," and "I know only what I've read about television" (i.e., Salon's earlier report). He added that he and publisher Farrell "didn't talk details" about the matter.

Farrell said the deal did not represent a financial quid pro quo. Told of Ogilvy executive Vietri's quote that an article in his magazine "counted as a match," Farrell says, "I never viewed it that way."

Times Mirror Magazines Chairman and CEO Efrem Zimbalist III, in a written statement, said, "We stand by the integrity of the editorial product of the Sporting News and the decisions of the editor, John Rawlings." He declined to be interviewed.

Seventeen, the leading magazine for young women, with a circulation of 2,384,000, received $144,000 in drug-office ad money in 1999. The magazine, which is published by Primedia Magazine Group, ran a sobering feature in its January issue about a teenage drug dealer locked up in jail. She describes herself as "a pretty 17-year-old girl, scared, alone and sitting in prison. Sitting with killers, rapists and lunatics ... Just left with the reality that drugs put her here, and now she's stuck."

The article reported that after failing in a court-ordered rehabilitation program, the young woman landed a 10-year sentence for possession, distribution and auto theft. Though the article left it unclear, it didn't appear that she was a major dealer: The only amount of drugs mentioned was a quarter-gram of methamphetamine found at her home. Getting caught in a "drug-free" school zone apparently boosted her jail time, however. Regarding her fellow inmates, the article warned, "A lot are mean and want to fight, and some are big. Many of them are gay, and I was like fresh meat. That scared me, it still scares me, because sometimes they still mess with me."

Asked how this article was valued under the ad sales arrangement with the drug-control office, Seventeen ad salesperson Jackie O'Hare said, "It was huge." She noted that the drug-control office "wanted to make sure" there was anti-drug content in the magazine. She says, "There's another anti-drug feature in May or June; I'm sure they'll be happy about that."

Seventeen's Web site normally runs independently generated material that hasn't appeared in print. But an exception was made to feature the teenage-dealer article on the Seventeen site the entire time the January issue was on newsstands. That alone was valued at more than $70,000 toward the magazine's obligation to ONDCP, O'Hare explained.

Editor in Chief Patrice G. Adcroft denied having any knowledge of the arrangement with the drug czar's office, but added that discouraging drug use is "part of the daily menu" at Seventeen, and that, therefore, no unusual editorial steps would be necessary to create an editorial environment that the ONDCP would view as favorable. Adcroft noted that such a relationship "may be a dilemma for magazines [unlike Seventeen] that don't cover this issue, if the government says you have to have a match component." Adcroft points out that her personal commitment to maintaining the church-state line in publishing led her to quit Omni magazine in 1990 rather than subject herself to what she says was sales-side interference.

Discussing how her magazine achieved its required "match," Seventeen spokeswoman Jennifer McGuire explained, "We do exactly what Congress asks us to do. We totally comply with the drug-control office requirements."

The fifth known publication to submit anti-drug articles to the ONDCP for matching was Parade, the largest-circulation magazine in the country, with a whopping 37,340,000 copies distributed through Sunday newspapers every week. Parade is owned by the same privately held firm as Cond� Nast and Fairchild Publications Inc. Given its huge circulation and the attendant high cost per ad page, Parade captured more drug-office ad money in 1999 -- $1.85 million -- than any other publication.

John J. Beni, the president of Parade Publications Inc., acknowledges that Parade has submitted editorial features to the drug czar's office for valuation under the ad-buy program. And Ogilvy's Vietri confirms that Parade's editorial content was allowed to make a "match" under the arrangement.

Beni says that the "anti-drug content is a normal" part of Parade's editorial mix. "They [the anti-drug office] can do that -- why not?" he says of the valuation program. "Any client can look at the editorial environment and see this type of environment." (But no other client benefits from a congressional mandate for a two-for-one deal.)

Indeed, in January, the magazine featured McCaffrey himself in a highly favorable cover story about the drug czar. The cover features a beaming McCaffrey flanked by flags and encircled by a diverse group of children. The cover headline promises: "The nation's drug czar has a clear message and a battle plan: Keep Our Kids Drug Free For Life."

The glowing feature inside includes the recommendation that readers visit ONDCP's Web site.

Beni refused to say whether the McCaffrey profile was assigned a valuation by the ONDCP.

The final publication was 5 million-plus circulation Family Circle, published by Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing, and the third of three magazines (along with Parade and the Sporting News) identified by Ogilvy as making a "match" with its editorial content in lieu of ad space. Family Circle snared the drug-control office's second-highest magazine buy: $1,425,000 last year.

Susan Kelliher Ungaro, Family Circle's editor in chief, notes that her publication does "two anti-drug special reports a year." Family Circle's publisher, Jim McEwan, refused to be interviewed, but relayed his thoughts through Ungaro. She says McEwan told her the drug-control office did demand a second ad page for every one purchased, but that McEwan refused. Ungaro believes the sales staff told the drug-control office that the magazine covers the drug issue, since "the sales people know our editorial calendar."

Given Family Circle's refusal -- as stated by its publisher -- to supply two ad pages for the price of one, either the drug-control office violated Congress' mandate on that two-for-one buy or editorial material was valued as a match.

The drug czar's involvement with magazines began at the October 1998 annual joint meeting of the Magazine Publishers of America (MPA) and the Society of Magazine Editors, where McCaffrey asked for publishers' and editors' support for his war on drugs.

The headline on a subsequent MPA press release announced its response: "MPA Accepts Anti-Drug Ad Challenge. MPA Board to Encourage and Coordinate Member Participation." The release went on to say the magazine industry "urged members to" actively promote the national anti-drug program "by running compelling anti-drug ads in their magazines and providing editorial support appropriate for their audiences." The MPA Board also approved a resolution to that effect.

One aspect that differentiates the drug czar's deal with the magazines from that with the TV networks is the government agency's decision to work only with those magazines that provide a congruent editorial environment. The government grants vastly different amounts of taxpayer money to different magazines, depending on how effective their content is deemed at building support for the war on drugs.

As one insider explained, "There were very specific, individual aspects" to picking which magazines got drug-office ad buys. It was a complicated process: "Everyone received the Request for Proposal [RFP] to submit their best shot," which could then be further refined, presumably after the drug-control office feedback. The final decision was based on "who gave the best value" regarding eyeballs delivered per dollar spent, says this source. Just as important were certain qualitative issues: "Anyone without the right editorial environment wouldn't even have gotten approached."

A sales executive then at a publication that had profited from a large ONDCP advertising buy said, "At the beginning, when [the ONDCP's ad agency] Bates had the business, I'd say to them, 'Look at this good [anti-drug] article.' Each magazine would go over there [to Bates] and show them editorially how great [i.e., on-message] the magazine was. There at the beginning, we thought we'd get credit if it happened that there were articles twice a year."

And indeed, the ONDCP rewarded publications that ran the "appropriate" anti-drug editorial content. Take the case of two magazines: Family Circle and Woman's Day, the latter published by Hachette Filipacchi Magazines Inc. To the average reader, these books probably appear about as different as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. But appearances can be deceptive. According to Hall's Magazine Reports Inc., an industry research group, Family Circle ran a hefty eight-and-a-half pages of anti-drug editorial matter in 1999. Woman's Day, on the other hand, ran none, states Hall's research director, Sandy Santora. Family Circle was the recipient of a $1.4 million drug-office ad buy, second only to Parade. The Woman's Day buy? Zero.

The differing ad-buy fates of the Sporting News, a weekly, and the monthly Sport are equally instructive. As noted above, the Sporting News' editor, Rawlings, said that he "was told that Gen. McCaffrey was going to use the magazine" to disseminate anti-drug messages, conferred with his publisher about running anti-drug stories and ran about half a dozen anti-drug features in 1999.

Sport magazine, published by EMAP Petersen Inc., a glossy monthly with roughly twice the circulation of the Sporting News, had a different editorial calendar. Editor John Roach said there was "nothing in 1999 that can even remotely be construed as an anti-drug feature."

The Sporting News received a fat 15-page ad buy from the government; among the other 23 magazines, the next highest page total was nine. In contrast, Sport captured just a single-page, $50,000 ad buy from ONDCP last year -- $364,000 less than the Sporting News got. For the Sporting News, a publication that according to the New York Times loses about $2 million a year, the revenue was significant.

The ONDCP "Strategy Platforms" guidelines specified that magazine articles should "target ... marijuana, inhalants and other drugs (cocaine, heroin)" and should focus equally on "Tweens" (kids ages 11 to 13), their parents and teenagers ages 14 to 18.

The main body of the document featured a platform called "Parenting Skills," which the drug office suggested should run in April and either October or November (editors got to choose between the latter two months). Among the skill sets that editors were to inculcate was: "Monitor: always know where [children] are, who they're with." Another was: "Set clear rules and enforce consistently with appropriate consequences."

In December and May, the "Your Child at Risk" months, editors were to inform readers: "All kids are potential targets for experimental drug use, regardless of where they live or how young they are."

Apparently, whether coincidentally or not, some editors took the "Platforms" literally. An article in the June 1 Family Circle instructs, "Monitor your child's activities." It then quotes an expert saying: "'Establish clear rules and expectations about what's OK and what's not, and consistently enforce them.'"

salon.com | March 30, 2000


Washington, 90210

Defenders of the White House-network drug-ad deal lost the battle of spin.

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By Sean Elder

Jan. 21, 2000 | NEW YORK -- When is a scoop not really a scoop?

In the week since Salon exposed the unseemly financial relationship between the White House and television networks, the arrangement's boosters tried a novel defense: that the story wasn't news, because it was already known to the public.

The attempted backlash began last Friday, when on ABCNEWS.com, "White House wag" Josh Gernstein challenged the notion that there was anything secret about the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy getting involved in TV features.

"Faithful readers of the New York Daily News may remember an op-ed piece that [ONDCP head Gen. Barry] McCaffrey wrote in that paper 14 months ago," wrote Gerstein. He then quoted the general's editorial: "Stations have begun running shows against illegal drugs as part of the advertising 'matching' system inaugurated by Congress," McCaffrey had written, adding "some of the anti-drug programs have taken the form of documentaries or features on drug-related issues." Of course, even attentive readers could be forgiven if they inferred from McCaffrey's op-ed that networks were broadcasting informational shows about drugs, not slipping "Just say no" messages into "ER."

Then Daily Variety ran a Monday story with the headline "Is TV-drug scandal just smoke?" Under Michael Schneider's byline, Hollywood's steadfast trade paper claimed, "The Great Drug Scandal of 2000 has been completely overblown," and insisted that the program -- which allowed the networks to satisfy federal public service broadcasting requirements, opening up additional advertising time they could sell at a premium, if they included White House-approved anti-drug messages in their programs -- was a matter of public record.

"We've been very open about this," Variety quoted ONDCP Deputy Director Donald Vereen saying. "We testified [to Congress] three times last fall, once specifically on this issue." The tone of the piece could be best summed up by quotes from various TV big shots. "It's a slow news day story, a boondoggle," said Dick Wolf, producer of "Law & Order." "This is the biggest non-story ever," remarked UPN CEO Dean Valentine. And Studios USA programming chief David Kissinger dismissed it as "much ado about nothing."

Think they doth protest too much? Schneider explains their vehemence in classic Variety shorthand: "Industry players said they were taken aback by the rabid coverage, which probably grew because it came out as TV journos were meeting with network execs at the winter Television Critics Assn. press tour." Network execs do their damnedest to spin upcoming programming, and the last thing they want the assembled "journos" jawing about as they gather 'round the pool is some story that says the networks lay down for the feds.

Wolf, for his part, was offended by the very suggestion that he would let some bureaucrat monkey with his scripts. But he didn't have a problem with submitting tapes of existing shows to the ONDCP, he added, because "they're not subliminal messages. They're entertainment programs that carry a positive social message."

Let's ignore the fact that, in a very non-subliminal fashion, Wolf's "Law & Order" -- and its more odious spinoff, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" -- has sent more messages than Western Union. What seems to have goaded the assembled industry players in Pasadena was the suggestion that they had submitted their scripts for approval, as if they were ... children!

"It would never happen on my shows or David [E. Kelley's] shows or Tom [Fontana's] shows or Steven [Bochco's] shows," Wolf fumed to Variety on behalf of all of prime time's alpha dogs. Indeed, at a press conference at the gathering on Friday, ONDCP's Vereen swore that the agency had never asked the participating shows -- which included such popular programs as "ER" and "Beverly Hills, 90210" -- to submit scripts for approval.

Buried in Variety's account, though, was what the publication delicately referred to as "one new wrinkle." ABC President Patricia Fili-Krushel told those same "journos" in Pasadena that the network had been asked to submit scripts for approval rather than finished programs and that ABC had declined.

"It wasn't something we were comfortable doing," Fili-Krushel said, adding that the network would fulfill its commitment to the government's anti-drug policy with ad time instead.

Naturally, Variety played this "wrinkle" down.

Ultimately, of course, the White House decided Wednesday to stop reviewing scripts to vet their drug messages, chastened by the revelations about -- and outraged editorials against -- this supposedly "public" relationship.

But after a week of spin and counter-spin, it's worth sorting out the media's mixed messages about whether this story mattered, and why.

New York Times television reporter Bill Carter was one of those who jumped on the story right away. He shared the byline (with Marc Lacey) on the paper's front-page report on Friday. "Our coverage speaks for itself, I think," Carter said Tuesday. "But let me tell you something. It's a complicated story, a really complicated story. [The story of] who knew what was happening [and] when became rather confusing in the whole process."

Furthermore, he felt Salon had been heavy-handed. "The tone of the story was sort of like there was a gigantic scandal, a violation of the First Amendment and payola, etc., etc. That might have been a little overselling it. We wouldn't write it that way."

On the other hand, New York Times media reporter Felicity Barringer saw the story as following a pattern common to other recent media scandals. "In '98, we had all the sins of lying and plagiarizing," she said. "The things that have gotten people into trouble recently are all related to branding, in the case of the Los Angeles Times; and related to revenue, in the case of the TV scripts; and related to competitiveness in other instances. The sins all come from a business ethos."

But to blame the media's reaction to the story as the result of a "slow news day," as "Law & Order" producer Wolf did, seems to miss some of the story's larger implications as well.

True, interest on the Washington end of the Hollywood-to-Washington saga seemed to have fallen off by the weekend -- the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses and the plight of Eli�n Gonz�lez had pushed it off the map of most of the Beltway media, with the exception of C-Span's "Washington Week in Review."

Outside Washington, others still identified profound implications.

The editorial pages of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune all ran ringing denouncements of the deal in unambiguous language. "The harm, of course," the Trib's editors argued, "is the awful precedent set by any arrangement in which government confers financial favor on selected media based on content."

The stench of favoritism and greed will not wash away easily -- even after McCaffrey's announcement Wednesday that the ONDCP will no longer review episodes until after they have aired. (Besides, the agency -- working with the advertising firm Ogilvy and Mather and the P.R. firm Fleishman Hilllard Inc. -- has created lots of other venues for its messages.)

And finally, if the White House must tamper with TV content, couldn't they do something about "The West Wing"?
salon.com | Jan. 21, 2000


Propaganda for dollars

When the White House and the TV networks got together to put anti-drug messages in prime-time television, were they breaking the law?

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By Daniel Forbes

Jan. 14, 2000 | Has the federal government embarked on an illegal payola scam with the nation's television networks? And has the nation's drug czar blown smoke at Congress to escape ongoing congressional oversight?

A Salon exclusive published Thursday described a hidden government campaign to insert anti-drug messages into TV programs. The arrangement was concocted by the office of the nation's drug czar, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, and its ad buyer and was carried out by the six networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, the WB, Fox, and, this TV season, UPN.

As disclosed Thursday, the scheme began in fiscal year 1998, when Congress appropriated nearly $200 million a year over five years for paid anti-drug advertising. But there was a catch: Congress said the networks had to give the government a two-for-one deal on the ads. Instead, the networks and government officials decided that anti-drug themes and stories in prime-time TV shows could take the place of the free ads. Ultimately, promulgating government-approved propaganda afforded the networks the opportunity to earn buckets of extra cash.

The arrangement raises legal questions. Some observers think the government may have run afoul of the nation's anti-payola regulations. Payola entered public consciousness during the 1950s, when rock 'n' roll impresarios were convicted of bribery for paying DJs and radio stations to play specific records.

The payola laws that followed require broadcasters to reveal any financial considerations, direct or indirect, that yield on-air exposure. Today, in the arrangement uncovered by Salon, the networks are earning millions in financial incentives from the government in exchange for inserting anti-drug plots in TV shows.

Is the practice illegal? Perhaps.

Clearly federal law requires that anyone financially influencing or contributing to programming content be revealed at the time of broadcast. That's why game-show credits include disclosures like, "Joe Game-Show Host's suits provided by Botany 500." The drug-policy office's financial incentives certainly could be construed as, to quote the law, "matter for which money, service or other valuable consideration is either directly or indirectly paid or promised to, or charged or accepted by such station ..."

Andrew Jay Schwartzman of the Media Access Project says there's a "rigid requirement" to disclose direct or indirect sponsorship. While he couldn't say for certain, Schwartzman believes "It's likely it's a violation."

An FCC enforcement bureau official says, "I was not aware [of the ONDCP financial incentives]." He adds, "We haven't received any complaints yet. If we do receive a complaint, we'll proceed from there."

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Whether or not the deal is illegal, it's clear that it wasn't exactly what Congress had in mind when it authorized the drug-ad funding. And until recently, no one in Congress knew much about what the drug czar's office had been up to -- and many still don't.

Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., chair of the House subcommittee that appropriates funds for the drug office, says he had no idea until late last year that anti-drug shows were being used to free up half-priced ad time owed to the government. Alan Levitt, the official who runs the campaign for the drug-policy office, can name no members of Congress who knew of the arrangement prior to this fall, two years after the campaign's initiation.

In the past, before both the House and the Senate, McCaffrey has referred to the deal only obliquely, making reference to "entertainment venues" or "pro bono programming." In March 1999, for example, he called the arrangement "an equal added dollar's worth of anti-drug public service, pro bono activity." Nowhere did he tell Congress that his office was horse-trading valuable advertising time for TV shows that promulgated the government's anti-drug messages.

After Kolbe learned of the deal from this reporter, he summoned McCaffrey for explanation, and the snow job continued. McCaffrey appeared before Kolbe's appropriations subcommittee in October 1999. There McCaffrey made his most direct, if brief, statement yet: "We allow public affairs and programming to count as part of a network's public service contributions," he said. But even this was buried in a complex discussion of formulas, and he did not make it clear that the practice frees up millions of dollars in advertising time for the networks.

Following the hearing, Kolbe declared himself "satisfied that it's legitimate." Nonetheless, he marvels at the unusual Hollywood-government pact: "I never thought of it before, and I'm still not sure that Congress intended it."
salon.com | Jan. 14, 2000


Washington script doctors

How the government rewrote an episode of the WB's "Smart Guy."

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By Daniel Forbes

Jan. 13, 2000 | Like much of network television aimed at a youthful audience, "Smart Guy," a WB network sitcom that went on the air in April 1997 and was cancelled this past spring, was full of lessons about growing up. It told the story of T.J. Henderson, played by Tahj Mowry, a genius of sorts who finds himself in high school at the age of 10, grappling with the pressures that beset his older peers.

But in the case of one episode, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) thought "Smart Guy's" moral instruction could be made even more explicit -- and, with the active cooperation of the show's producers, the government proceeded to do just that.

Also Today

This is your TV on drugs
How the U.S. goverment secretly paid Hollywood to plant anti-drug propoganda into some of America's most popular television shows.
By Daniel Forbes

The original script of the episode, which eventually aired May 19, 1999, placed T.J. at a kids-only party, where he encounters two older boys he'd known before he skipped several grades in school. As first conceived, the two boys were the life of the party, their coolness evidenced among other things by their precocious ability to score some beer.

They convince an impressed T.J. to indulge. He returns to the party sloshed, makes a fool of himself and spills a soda all over a girl he's trying to dazzle. Hung over the next day, he compounds his sins by lying to his father about his condition. Later, his new friends drop by with some peppermint schnapps. Dad walks in on their debaucheries, and all hell breaks loose.

The episode was written primarily by freelance film and television writer Steve Young. Young first pitched the alcohol-themed story in 1997. It was rejected, he believes, at least in part because Disney (the show's partial owner) recoiled from having its young character involved with booze. But well over a year later, Young suddenly received a phone call from "Smart Guy" executive producer Bob Young (no relation), who told him, "Remember that show we said we're never going to do? We're doing it."

The booze-themed script was revived after WB senior VP for programming John Litvack suggested a drinking or drugs episode to the "Smart Guy's" producers. (While most of the shows that the drug-policy office influences deal with drugs, the office permits about 10 percent of them to be alcohol-related.)

Says "Smart Guy" creator Danny Kallis: "The WB came to us and asked if we'd consider doing a drugs or drinking show." Tahj Mowry's mother would have objected to a show concerning drugs. But fortunately, the producers had on hand Steve Young's previously rejected script.

Once the script was resurrected, Kallis recalls that the WB "put us in touch with the White House, with Alan Levitt [the drug-policy point man for the media campaign]." "Smart Guy" producer Young says that show staffers spoke to three or four outsiders on "the most effective way to reach teens," including Levitt and other social-marketing experts whom Levitt referred them to.

ONDCP and its consultants offered "a few dictates," Young says. No mention of beer brand names. T.J. had to be "clearly inebriated" and the negative consequences of drinking had to be emphasized, including -- worse even than T.J.'s embarrassment with the girl -- his breach of trust with his father. And father and son had to (eventually) have a heart-to-heart talk.

Writer Young recalls that the scenes in which T.J. is counseled by his father were crafted with the government consultants' input. He says the show's producers were "concerned that we didn't say anything that diverges from" the consultants' paradigm.

Among the consultants Levitt steered Kallis, Young and their writers to was George Carey, president of Just Kid Inc. of Stamford, Conn., an expert on effective youth marketing. Carey says he consulted with ONDCP on "a couple of shows." Around last February, a couple of months after the decision to revive the beer episode, Carey participated in a conference call with the producers of "Smart Guy." He says, "The holding company [the WB] was looking for ways to fulfill the match" -- i.e. make the show palatable to the drug czar's office.

In that phone conference, Carey delineated a few more specific themes dear to the drug-policy office's heart: Parents need to take an active role, not just assume kids can handle these issues on their own; "resistance skills," that is, saying no to drug or alcohol inducements in a face-saving way, are crucial; and, as always, the overall negative consequences of drugs and under-age alcohol use.

Producer Young recalls two or three other ONDCP contractors augmenting Carey's ministrations to "Smart Guy." By the time everyone was done shaping the script, it had changed significantly. The two older boys were turned into goofy and unappealing clowns, one of whom T.J. remembers from the "slow-reading class." Instead of trying to ingratiate himself with a couple of winners, as the original script had it, T.J. finds himself dragged down to their inferior level. A second drug-policy office contractor who worked on the script says, "We showed that they were losers and put them in a utility room [rather than out in the main party]. That was not in the original script."

Asked whether it's proper to have government consultants shaping a TV program's scripts, WB programming chief Litvack says, "Sure, absolutely. It's a good idea if he knows more than we do."
salon.com | Jan. 13, 2000