Jul 31 2000

Drug Czar Continues Assault on First Amendment

Once again, White House Drug Czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey is using federal funding to bribe corporations to surreptitiously insert government-approved messages into media content.

Salon.com (1/13/00) first broke the story that McCaffrey was giving TV networks a financial incentive to put messages about drugs into entertainment programming. Congress authorized McCaffrey’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to place millions of dollars’ worth of anti-drug commercials, but with the condition that the TV industry donate time for similar public service announcements.

McCaffrey, however, has allowed the networks to avoid giving up valuable ad space to public service announcements by giving them “credits” for airing entertainment programming that dealt with the issue of drugs in ways that met with the drug czar’s approval. At one point, the White House drug office was even reviewing scripts in advance and suggesting revisions to make sure that they conformed to the official line on drugs. Affected shows ranged from ER to Home Improvement to 90210.

Salon later revealed (3/31/00) that magazines from Seventeen to U.S. News & World Report were accepting the same deal–publishing articles with government-approved anti-drug themes in order to avoid obligations to print free ads about drugs.

McCaffrey’s office responded to the Salon articles by accusing reporter Daniel Forbes of not being a “disinterested reporter” and asking Salon to disclose Forbes’ “bias.” The evidence: Forbeshas written articles that have been reposted on the website of the Media Awareness Project, which promotes drug policy alternatives. ONDCP denies it is trying to discredit Forbes, just trying to get Salon to practice “honest journalism”; “I think the reader should know,” McCaffrey aide Robert Housman told the Boston Globe (4/10/00). This sudden fondness for full disclosure seems strange, given that that ONDCP has been very quiet about its role in the anti-drug propaganda it encourages.

Now the White House drug office is turning its attention to film: It will pay for trailers that urge youth not to take illegal drugs, and the theaters will agree to run other trailers about drugs for free. If the theaters show films with messages on drugs that the government approves of, however, they will be free to run lucrative advertising trailers instead (Los Angeles Times, 7/11/00).

All of these arrangements do serious damage to the First Amendment: They give media corporations a financial incentive to transmit what is essentially government propaganda. Unsuspecting audiences have no way of knowing that the messages they are receiving are designed to conform to the official federal line on drugs.

ACTION: Please call on President Clinton to rein in Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey and insist that the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy no longer offer financial incentives for the insertion of government-approved messages into media content. Point out that the promotion of undisclosed government propaganda is incompatible with the First Amendment and the idea of a free press.

CONTACT: President Bill Clinton, president@whitehouse.gov

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