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?

Topics: Drugs, NBC, ABC, CBS,

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.”

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

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.”

Daniel Forbes is a New York freelancer who writes on social policy and the media.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>