BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Almost a year ago reporter Dan Forbes revealed on Salon.com that a government program designed to place anti-drug messages in the media was influencing scripts of network dramas and sit-coms. Now Forbes discovers that despite specific congressional prescriptions, the White House anti-drug office is influencing news programming as well on the in-school cable network called Channel One. Dan Forbes, welcome to OTM!
DAN FORBES: Well thanks for having me on your show!
BOB GARFIELD: The idea of the government ad credit program was they were going to give a bonanza in ad purchases to various media but the quid pro quo from the media is for every ad the government bought the medium had to provide a second ad at no cost.
DAN FORBES: Yeah, that actually was mandated by Congress when they appropriated a billion dollars in ad buys over the course of five years.
BOB GARFIELD: But there was a loophole for the media if they didn't want to give away an ad for free, they were able to get credit through their programming itself, is that right?
DAN FORBES: That's correct! There were financial credits for the correct anti-drug content.
BOB GARFIELD: Give me an example of what kind of programming was credited towards the, the free ad.
DAN FORBES: Television networks, 5 of 6 of them, received some 22 million dollars in financial credits for inserting anti-drug messages in the most popular shows on TV! ER, Drew Carey, Beverly Hills 90210, etc! And 6 national magazines including US News & World Report, The Sporting News, Seventeen submitted articles for credit that would free up advertising they owe the government.
BOB GARFIELD:So now on the heels of the revelations about the magazines, you discovered that among other news organizations, Channel One has been getting credit for its news programming that airs in the nation's high schools, and this news is precisely where Channel One put its anti-drug messages. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Why don't we listen to an excerpt from one of those stories?
MIRIAM: And Gotham joins us now to [...?...] special report on heroin. Gotham?
MAN:Thanks Miriam. Yesterday we introduced you to Sarah, a recovering heroin addict. When Sarah was still buying heroin, she was helping to finance a large illegal operation -- heroin trafficking. It's heroin users who demand the drug and fuel the supply. Today, in part two of our series, Heroin on the Streets we take a look at the efforts to choke off that supply, the supply experts say is now more available than ever.
BOB GARFIELD:All right, now that seems straightforward enough. It's a story about heroin trafficking that portrays heroin trafficking as destructive for individuals and for the society. Most news organizations have a firewall between the editorial and business sides. If an article appears in a newspaper or a story appears on Channel One with an implicit anti-drug message and if someone in ad sales decides to submit it for credit, where, where's the harm in that?
DAN FORBES: We can answer that question by the fact that in the first half of this past school year Channel One succeeded only one time out of 10 in getting financial credits. In the second half they succeeded 7 times out of 11. Essentially a White House law enforcement operation is helping to shape their editorial focus.
BOB GARFIELD:So let me see if I've got this right. During the first half of the year, Channel One did a number of stories that it deemed possibly eligible, submitted them to the drug office and the drug office turned most of them down saying no for this reason, for that reason, it doesn't match our checklist of points that we want to see covered. In the second half of the year, freshly-informed of what the drug office regarded as salient anti-drug information, they submitted another batch of stories which just happened to conform with the drug office's checklist. Is that how it worked?
DAN FORBES: Checklist. The drug office refers to them as "message platforms" actually and it's interesting. The first half of the year they had news segments on issues such as the death penalty or the civil war in Colombia.
BOB GARFIELD: Now what is it about the Colombia drug war that was deemed insufficiently cautionary by the White House drug office?
DAN FORBES:Well their contractor in an evaluation that I was able to obtain said quote, no relevant message platform. Suggests that the involvement of U.S. military may be too extensive and may eventually result in a deployment of American troops as in Vietnam. It was interesting as well regarding her rejection of a death penalty story, if you'd like to hear the evaluation of that.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, what did they have to say?
DAN FORBES:Yeah. Contains a tangential and mixed message. Focuses on the problems with the death penalty and states that sentencing is unjust and often based on race and economic status. It also says-- states that the person on death row who was interviewed did commit a murder as a teenager to obtain drug money, but there is no indication that his murderous act was caused by a drug-induced state. The link to drugs is in fact very weak.
So, remarkably enough, although he's on death row because he committed murder to obtain drug money, that was not a sufficiently dir--[LAUGHS] direct link to drugs.
BOB GARFIELD:I'm just dying to know what did the government deem a successful message platform in the second half of the year that the drug murders were insufficient to-- to meet in the first?
DAN FORBES: Well it's, it's not rocket science. You get feedback from the government evaluator, communicated through the government's ad agency, Ogilvy & Mather, and they say boom! -we want to focus on negative consequences.
BOB GARFIELD: It, it seems faintly less damning because it's for a good cause, but I guess it's alarming nonetheless.
DAN FORBES:Well when, when I spoke to folks previously about this, there was some talk among ONDCP contractors that if this paradigm works with anti-drug messages, why stop there? Why not approach issues of sexual mores, abortion, immigration that-- the sky's the limit!
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Dan Forbes, thank you very much!
DAN FORBES: Thanks for your time.
BOB GARFIELD: Dan Forbes wrote about the Office of Drug Policy for Salon.com.