All Commentary
Friday, October 1, 1999

Bought and Sold: Drug Warriors and the Media

The Federal Government and the Media Form an Unholy Taxpayer-Financed Alliance

Americans pride themselves on their independent press. Yet some media outlets and networks are compromising their autonomy and objectivity by welcoming the federal government as a major paying advertiser. This alarming union is the latest outgrowth of the “war on drugs,” and the launch of a new $775 million White House campaign to promote its objectives through television, radio, and print advertising.

The message to media moguls is simple: Promote the continuation of the drug war in advertisements, editorial content, and features, and we, as federal officials, will reimburse you by spending millions of taxpayer dollars for ads. The better government mouthpiece you are, the more advertising space we will buy.

Not surprisingly, America’s print and television media hierarchy are lining up for a slice of the pie.

Last fall, the board of directors of the Magazine Publishers of America announced their participation in the federal crusade, dubbed the “National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign,” by agreeing to run “compelling ads in their magazines and providing editorial support for their audiences.” Their decision came immediately after a meeting with White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey, who urged the industry to begin a “nationwide antidrug publishing strategy.”

McCaffrey found the MPA more than willing. “[We] accept the challenge presented to the magazine industry by the General [Barry McCaffrey] to join with the Ad Council, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy [ONDCP],” a spokesperson for the MPA board of directors announced following the drug czar’s visit. “The MPA will use its best efforts to coordinate member participation in a national magazine ‘roadblock’ . . . to raise the level of awareness of the campaign among parents and kids.”

Disturbing Implications

The implications of the publishing industry’s new alliance with the federal government are disturbing. Michael Hoyt, senior editor for the Columbia Journalism Review, warns that the industry’s involvement sacrifices credibility and journalistic integrity. “I don’t think that the MPA should be urging members to provide editorial support for anything at all,” he says. “And it doesn’t matter how worthy they think the cause is. That’s particularly true where there can be a perceived conflict of interest, such as urging that support in return for tax dollars.”

Indeed, federal officials made it clear that the MPA’s portion of the White House’s war chest hinged on its willingness to espouse the government’s party line. “We want . . . the magazine industry to be a critical player in this effort,” McCaffrey told the publishing heads. “However, . . . we have yet to determine exactly how much of the roughly $775 million ad dollars will go to magazines. . . . That proportion depends on your response. If you deliver the commitment of your industry, we will provide the [financial] resources necessary to deliver the message on your pages.”

As expected, the drug czar’s bribe achieved the desired union. Unfortunately, this is not the first time the media have enlisted in this governmental campaign. Previously, the National Association of Broadcasters announced that it would cooperate with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the advertising conglomerate Partnership for a Drug-Free America to launch a nationwide television campaign demonizing marijuana’s alleged dangers. The ABC television network also broadcast a month-long federally backed antidrug media blitz two years ago that raised eyebrows among many media critics.

“All of us can benefit from an honest message about the risks of substance abuse, but it must be credible,” wrote national columnist Robert Scheer, who called the earlier ABC/Partnership for a Drug-Free America effort a “propaganda campaign.” “The government-sanctioned anti-drug message, inserted by corporate fiat into all [ABC] programming, including news, criticizes only those vices that are not legally profitable, while the network’s advertising continues to glorify those that are. Surely, those sales people at ABC know that a warning that is transparently dishonest is worse than useless.”

Apparently not. Today, the White House drug-control office is one of ABC’s best-paying clients. ABC accepted over $14 million in paid ads from the ONDCP in the first five months of the federal advertising campaign, more than twice as much as any other network.

ABC also combined efforts with Disney Online to establish the drug propaganda Web site,, which targets visitors with baseless drug “facts” like: “Pot turns people into potheads.” This statement, like most others appearing on this and other government-influenced sites, conveniently ignores the science exonerating marijuana of such “reefer madness” inspired allegations. For example, visitors will find no mention of a May 1999 John Hopkins University cognition study, the first ever to investigate the long-term effects of marijuana on mental function in a large epidemiological sample, that found “no significant differences in cognitive decline between heavy users, light users, and nonusers of cannabis.”

The White House drug control office spent an additional $5.5 million on Fox, $1.8 million on NBC, $600,000 on CBS, and $800,000 on the WB Network, according to USA Today columnist Melanie Wells. In return, the major networks “donated” $24.4 million of free air time to promote the feds’ political antidrug agenda. This public-private partnership makes the White House campaign one of the top 15 single-brand campaigns in the nation, even outspending (in unadjusted dollars) the public service campaign run during World War II in support of the war effort.

Tom Haines, chairman of the drug-policy alternatives group Partnership for Responsible Drug Information, denounces the emerging alliance among the government and media as a threat to America’s free press. “We are seeing the unification of the business end of the media community and the government for an advocacy campaign where only one point of view is coming across,” he says. “If this were happening in any other country, it would be denounced as propaganda.”

Shifting Roles

Also critical is New York Times writer Frank Rich, one of the few columnists to question the shifting roles of the government and the media. This new ad campaign “may introduce a new economic model to the long and tortured history of the drug war,” he wrote in a syndicated column. “Where we once had companies that laundered drug money, we now have corporations synergizing anti-drug money.”

One thing is for certain, as long as there are dollars to go around, expect the networks and much of the Fourth Estate to keep buying. “One of the most surprising results we’ve seen has been the tremendous response by the media and entertainment industry,” Alan Levitt, who oversees advertising for the ONDCP, said in a recent interview. “They’re willing to listen to what we’re saying . . . and they [are] willing to change storylines.”

Such may have been the case last spring when the NBC show “Hang Time” aired an ONDCP-friendly episode regarding marijuana. “When kids and teens across the nation tuned into the popular TV show, they saw a group of high schoolers catch their friends smoking marijuana, witnessed the negative consequences of drug use, and saw some real friends convince their pal to get help,” the drug czar’s office bragged after NBC aired the show, declaring the network had “adopted” the prevention theme in their broadcasts. Other NBC shows followed suit, including “One World,” “City Guys,” and “Saved by the Bell: The New Class,” each emphasizing the “negative consequences” of drug use. The network and the White House also combined efforts to produce and distribute “study guide” pamphlets to public high-school students. Teachers were encouraged to use the materials as a basis for initiating drug “education” classroom discussions. “The programming and surrounding activities were made possible by a unique collaboration among the ONDCP [and] NBC television . . . , arising from the powerful messages of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign,” the White House summarized.

Is the campaign really propaganda rather than good science? The federal government’s marijuana policy has long been based on propaganda. Government witnesses advocated passage of America’s first prohibitive federal marijuana law in 1937 by telling Congress that marijuana consumption inevitably causes violence, insanity, and death among users.

In different eras, various other myths have gained prominence (marijuana kills brain cells, marijuana causes amotivational syndrome, marijuana harms sexual maturation and reproduction, and so on), but few have been abandoned. Indeed, many of the “reefer madness” tales that were used today to generate support for early anti-marijuana laws continue to appear in the government’s media campaign and bureaucratic reports today, despite scientific studies demonstrating the contrary. For example, just one month after the May 1999 National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine report concluded that marijuana withdrawal symptoms evidenced ••in humans are “mild and subtle,” the federal National Institute on Drug Abuse said that marijuana smokers who abstain from the drug become aggressive. Assertions like those form the backbone of the federal antidrug campaign, while nongovernment studies that fail to find deleterious or toxic effects from marijuana and other drugs are ignored.

The unholy taxpayer-financed alliance arising among federal drug warriors and the media threatens to usher an unparalleled campaign of government propaganda into our homes, lives, and public schools. In addition, by waving taxpayer dollars, federal officials are presenting many within the Fourth Estate with a conflict of interest that threatens not only their credibility and objectivity, but also their ability to maintain a proper role as a watchdog over big government and its policies. How likely is the media to question the drug-war party line when the warriors are some of their biggest advertisers? The feds are spending $775 million of your hard-earned dollars to find out.