The drug war gravy train

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

Topics: Drugs, Advertising,

The drug war gravy train

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 Espaqol ($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 Condi
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 target="new"
href="http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/index.html"> 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.’”

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

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    The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)

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