Is the White House involved in prime-time propaganda? Not surprisingly, the White House says no.
In press briefings Friday, both President Clinton and White House press secretary Jim Lockhart denied that an arrangement with the entertainment industry to insert anti-drug messages into TV programming is inappropriate. Salon News first uncovered the arrangement Wednesday with an original investigative report by Daniel Forbes.
The White House response -- and some of the media coverage of the arrangement -- have focused on the benign content of the messages and the positive public health impact they are designed to make on the viewing public. They have repeatedly described the arrangement as a "partnership," rather than a coercive contract.
And drug czar Barry McCaffrey, appearing on CNN's "Talk Back Live," even gave it at least partial credit for a 13-percent reduction in teenage drug use. But while McCaffrey denied any attempt at coercion, he confirmed every detail in the story, documenting the covert relationship.
In a press briefing with reporters, Lockhart replied to a question about whether the covert White House review of scripts in exchange for millions of advertising money constitutes payola. "I'm not sure I even know what the definition of payola is or how it applies here." He went on to say he found it "worthwhile to try to find innovative ways to get the message particularly to young people about the dangers of drugs."
When asked, "You don't think it's deceptive?" Lockhart replied, "I don't. I don't think -- I think there is a real benefit to getting the message out."
Any skepticism about the ethical implications of the government editing messages into TV programs without the public's knowledge was referred to the networks' motives. "As far as sort of theological questions for the entertainment industry," Lockhart said, "I suggest you put that to the entertainment industry."
President Clinton on Friday afternoon answered reporters' questions in the Roosevelt Room after giving a set of remarks on airline safety. He was asked if the arrangement is "right" and if the administration is considering using a similar method to deliver other sorts of messages (anti-gun violence or sexual abstinence, for example).
Clinton responded that he thinks the program is "a good thing" and that he knows of no such plans to expand it. "I've talked to a lot of people in the entertainment community who liked the idea that without compromising the integrity of their programs, they might be involved in all kinds of public service efforts," Clinton said.
As for White House drug czar McCaffrey, who oversees the arrangement, Clinton says, "I think this guy's intense and passionate and committed and we've got way too many kids using drugs, still."
On Friday, most national newspapers put the story on Page A1. These include the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. The Wall Street Journal, which also placed the story on its front page, took a more skeptical look at the inappropriateness of the relationship between the government and the networks.
The Washington Post online added a satirical piece to its coverage of the deal. Joel Achenbach observed other pernicious forms of White House influence in Hollywood. For $10,000, on Perry Mason, a character named "Mr. Starr" is held in contempt of court and is thrown into "Oz" prison. Then, for $30,000, "hard-to-watch things" happen to Starr in "Oz" prison, where he confesses under duress that he is part of a "vast right-wing conspiracy."