Media Circus: Just say reality

ABC thinks it's doing the world a favor. But has the network committed itself to a month of worse-than-useless anti-drug propaganda?

By Jennifer Nix

Published March 12, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

you may have noticed that everyone on ABC seems obsessed with drugs these days -- from Peter Jennings to Drew Carey. This isn't a coincidence: In conjunction with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, ABC has launched what it calls its "March Against Drugs" -- an unprecedented monthlong anti-drug media blitz drawing in "every corner of the network: news, entertainment, sports and advertising."

During the campaign, at least one anti-drug ad -- produced either by the Partnership or by ABC -- will air every network hour of every day throughout the entire month. All regular ABC news programs will air drug-crisis reports, and the network has scheduled a number of news specials as well. Drug-related story lines are being incorporated into all daytime and evening television programs, from sitcoms to soaps, and even "Wide World of Sports" announcers are citing the problems wrought by illegal drugs. PDFA's toll-free telephone number beckons viewers to call its office for further information and ABC's Web site links viewers straight to the Partnership's home page.

ABC considers this media blitz to be essentially a public service announcement writ large. But critics charge that the network has effectively put its weight behind a bankrupt anti-drug approach by choosing to join forces only with the increasingly controversial PDFA. Rather than making a real difference, they say, ABC will accomplish little more than pushing useless, feel-good propaganda into the homes of some 142 million viewers.

"There is no credible scientific evidence that 'zero-tolerance' drug education works, and that is what the PDFA ads are based on," says Dr. Joel Brown, director of Educational Research Consultants in Berkeley, Calif. Brown and his team conducted the four-year Drug, Alcohol and Tobacco Education, or "DATE," evaluation for the California Department of Education. His research leads Brown to believe that kids don't take the PDFA ads seriously.

"In the absence of any real evidence, as even the government's own General Accounting Office report concluded in 1991, it's wrong-headed to continue pouring millions of dollars into only zero-tolerance approaches for kids," Brown says.

The PDFA, of course, disagrees. "We know advertising works. It can convince you to buy a new car, or a certain brand," PDFA public relations director Stephen Dnistrian said last month in his well-ordered Chrysler Building office. "It can convince kids that drugs are dangerous." From PDFA's hefty press kit, Dnistrian pulls favorable statistics from a Johns Hopkins study on the impact of anti-drug advertising. "A majority" of the 837 students included in the study were found to have felt "they gained stronger beliefs about the dangers of drugs."

It's not clear what effect these "stronger beliefs" have in the real world. Over the last 10 years, more than 250 advertising agencies have created over 600 anti-drug ads for the PDFA. Those commercials have aired on all three networks, reaching what Dnistrian calls a "peak media saturation level" in 1991 at $365 million in pro-bono support. Figures show that by 1996, support had dropped-- but was still providing some $260 million a year. Despite this campaign, teen drug use remains on the rise, and many drug abuse experts have begun to question the zero-tolerance approach.

Don't try telling that to the folks at ABC, though, which is itself pouring the equivalent of many tens of millions of dollars into the March campaign. "If we were just going to sell the time allotted to the public service announcements we'll be running," ABC spokesperson Janice Gretemeyer estimates, "those spots would go for in excess of $15 million."

The March campaign had its origins last summer -- between the government's release of a report showing teen drug use on the rise and the November votes in California and Arizona to legalize marijuana for medicinal use. All the influence and money poured into "Just Say No" and eggs in frying pans was proving to have little to no lasting, or attributable, effect. Nearly $3 billion in pro-bono services and prime media placement has been at PDFA'a disposal since 1987, and these elite information officers in the War on Drugs didn't want to admit they'd failed in their mission. So they circled the wagons.

"You see, drug use among teens has doubled since 1991 and that's when we, here at the Partnership, started to see a drop-off in commitment from the media. We just weren't getting the saturation we needed for our ads to work," the PDFA's Dnistrian says.

And so, last summer, PDFA Chairman James Burke and his well-heeled team paid visits to all the networks. Burke's message found particularly fertile soil the day he hit up ABC -- the network that has consistently run more PDFA ads than all other networks combined. Most important was the reaction from then-ABC President David Westin, who said he was "startled" to learn that kids are doing drugs. (In a press release, Westin said he had believed "we were past that problem.") He decided then and there to heed the PDFA battle call, and has become a vocal supporter of the campaign.

Indeed, just last week, moments before he was named the new president of ABC News, the usually dashing Westin was unleashing a torrent of rage on visitors to his office. Red-faced and with eyes bulging, Westin was defending the "March Against Drugs" against criticisms from those visitors, members of the group Partnership for Responsible Drug Information, who were there to express their dismay at being denied participation in the campaign.

"The ads put out by PDFA have done nothing but interest more kids in trying drugs. Their scare tactics are worse than ineffective -- they're dangerous," says PRDI Chairman Thomas Haines, who also heads the biochemistry department at the City University of New York's medical school.

He and his wife, Mary "Polly" Cleveland, research director for the Schalkenbach Foundation, are at the center of PRDI's loose-knit group of roughly 100 academics, doctors and past and present political and law enforcement officials. Their mission, members say, is to promote open and honest discussion about drugs, and they deny accusations that they are for drug legalization.

"Fair, balanced and responsible programming," Haines wrote in a February letter to ABC, "would devote equal time to other views." He says his overtures were "politely and lightly dismissed" until the 40-minute session with Westin last week -- when the "March" was well under way.

Another coalition -- including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Black Police Association and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting -- has also joined in the anti-ABC fray with its own letter to Westin. No. 1 on its list of concerns was the fact that, in following the PDFA's policy, ABC will not air any anti-tobacco or anti-alcohol messages as part of the campaign. The PDFA has received criticism in the past for accepting alcohol money.

"Five hundred thousand people die each year from alcohol and tobacco ... 35 times the number of deaths from all illegal drugs combined," the letter reads. "The implicit message sent to kids ... is that legal drugs are not as harmful as illegal drugs -- a message compounded by the massive advertising campaigns of the alcohol and tobacco industries."

ABC staff seem to be unaware that they've stepped right into the middle of the war over controlling the drug policy debate. To Leslee Spoor, a news division staffer now coordinating much of the "March Against Drugs" effort, this is about parents talking to their kids about drugs.

"I don't see how anyone could be against it. We're just trying to get people talking," she says.

She should know better than that. While folks on all sides of the drug policy debate are quick to spew wildly spun scientific evidence, the fact remains that there is a debate raging in this country over what to do about illegal drugs. What PRDI et. al. are trying to make ABC realize is that in joining forces only with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, the network has now come down on just one side of a very fragmented issue.

And ABC has also committed its news department to something other than free and fair reporting on the controversy. All of the ABC News programs, from "Good Morning America" to "World News Tonight" will air drug-abuse specials, and Peter Jennings and network correspondents are starring in several of the anti-drug ads. On March 30, "ABC D-Day," the network will even fade to black for a period during a town hall meeting.

"I don't want a network to ram a particular point of view down my throat," Donna Leff, professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, complains. "A network's public service responsibility should be about giving time to different points of view and letting the public decide.

"I'm also concerned about the way ABC plans to infuse drug themes into their news coverage in much the same way as they will their soaps. There doesn't seem to be a clear separation in this campaign between the news and the network's message," says Leff.

Obviously, the drugs debate is a contentious one, and all sides feel their answers will solve the drug crisis. Nevertheless, despite the fact that groups like the Partnership for Responsible Drug Information are trying to change the tone of drug education and media messages, the country is likely to see more of the same.

Two weeks ago, when unveiling his Drug Control Strategy, President Clinton announced that he had earmarked $175 million in government funds for combating drugs through TV advertising.

The White House's "unofficial" partner? The Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

Jennifer Nix

Jennifer Nix has written for New York, the New York Observer and the Nation.

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