Washington, 90210

Defenders of the White House-network drug-ad deal lost the battle of spin.

Published January 21, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

When is a scoop not really a scoop?

In the week since Salon exposed the unseemly financial relationship between the White House and television networks, the arrangement's boosters tried a novel defense: that the story wasn't news, because it was already known to the public.

The attempted backlash began last Friday, when on ABCNEWS.com, "White House wag" Josh Gernstein challenged the notion that there was anything secret about the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy getting involved in TV features.

"Faithful readers of the New York Daily News may remember an op-ed piece that [ONDCP head Gen. Barry] McCaffrey wrote in that paper 14 months ago," wrote Gerstein. He then quoted the general's editorial: "Stations have begun running shows against illegal drugs as part of the advertising 'matching' system inaugurated by Congress," McCaffrey had written, adding "some of the anti-drug programs have taken the form of documentaries or features on drug-related issues." Of course, even attentive readers could be forgiven if they inferred from McCaffrey's op-ed that networks were broadcasting informational shows about drugs, not slipping "Just say no" messages into "ER."

Then Daily Variety ran a Monday story with the headline "Is TV-drug scandal just smoke?" Under Michael Schneider's byline, Hollywood's steadfast trade paper claimed, "The Great Drug Scandal of 2000 has been completely overblown," and insisted that the program -- which allowed the networks to satisfy federal public service broadcasting requirements, opening up additional advertising time they could sell at a premium, if they included White House-approved anti-drug messages in their programs -- was a matter of public record.

"We've been very open about this," Variety quoted ONDCP Deputy Director Donald Vereen saying. "We testified [to Congress] three times last fall, once specifically on this issue." The tone of the piece could be best summed up by quotes from various TV big shots. "It's a slow news day story, a boondoggle," said Dick Wolf, producer of "Law & Order." "This is the biggest non-story ever," remarked UPN CEO Dean Valentine. And Studios USA programming chief David Kissinger dismissed it as "much ado about nothing."

Think they doth protest too much? Schneider explains their vehemence in classic Variety shorthand: "Industry players said they were taken aback by the rabid coverage, which probably grew because it came out as TV journos were meeting with network execs at the winter Television Critics Assn. press tour." Network execs do their damnedest to spin upcoming programming, and the last thing they want the assembled "journos" jawing about as they gather 'round the pool is some story that says the networks lay down for the feds.

Wolf, for his part, was offended by the very suggestion that he would let some bureaucrat monkey with his scripts. But he didn't have a problem with submitting tapes of existing shows to the ONDCP, he added, because "they're not subliminal messages. They're entertainment programs that carry a positive social message."

Let's ignore the fact that, in a very non-subliminal fashion, Wolf's "Law & Order" -- and its more odious spinoff, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" -- has sent more messages than Western Union. What seems to have goaded the assembled industry players in Pasadena was the suggestion that they had submitted their scripts for approval, as if they were ... children!

"It would never happen on my shows or David [E. Kelley's] shows or Tom [Fontana's] shows or Steven [Bochco's] shows," Wolf fumed to Variety on behalf of all of prime time's alpha dogs. Indeed, at a press conference at the gathering on Friday, ONDCP's Vereen swore that the agency had never asked the participating shows -- which included such popular programs as "ER" and "Beverly Hills, 90210" -- to submit scripts for approval.

Buried in Variety's account, though, was what the publication delicately referred to as "one new wrinkle." ABC President Patricia Fili-Krushel told those same "journos" in Pasadena that the network had been asked to submit scripts for approval rather than finished programs and that ABC had declined.

"It wasn't something we were comfortable doing," Fili-Krushel said, adding that the network would fulfill its commitment to the government's anti-drug policy with ad time instead.

Naturally, Variety played this "wrinkle" down.

Ultimately, of course, the White House decided Wednesday to stop reviewing scripts to vet their drug messages, chastened by the revelations about -- and outraged editorials against -- this supposedly "public" relationship.

But after a week of spin and counter-spin, it's worth sorting out the media's mixed messages about whether this story mattered, and why.

New York Times television reporter Bill Carter was one of those who jumped on the story right away. He shared the byline (with Marc Lacey) on the paper's front-page report on Friday. "Our coverage speaks for itself, I think," Carter said Tuesday. "But let me tell you something. It's a complicated story, a really complicated story. [The story of] who knew what was happening [and] when became rather confusing in the whole process."

Furthermore, he felt Salon had been heavy-handed. "The tone of the story was sort of like there was a gigantic scandal, a violation of the First Amendment and payola, etc., etc. That might have been a little overselling it. We wouldn't write it that way."

On the other hand, New York Times media reporter Felicity Barringer saw the story as following a pattern common to other recent media scandals. "In '98, we had all the sins of lying and plagiarizing," she said. "The things that have gotten people into trouble recently are all related to branding, in the case of the Los Angeles Times; and related to revenue, in the case of the TV scripts; and related to competitiveness in other instances. The sins all come from a business ethos."

But to blame the media's reaction to the story as the result of a "slow news day," as "Law & Order" producer Wolf did, seems to miss some of the story's larger implications as well.

True, interest on the Washington end of the Hollywood-to-Washington saga seemed to have fallen off by the weekend -- the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses and the plight of Elian Gonzalez had pushed it off the map of most of the Beltway media, with the exception of C-Span's "Washington Week in Review."

Outside Washington, others still identified profound implications.

The editorial pages of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune all ran ringing denouncements of the deal in unambiguous language. "The harm, of course," the Trib's editors argued, "is the awful precedent set by any arrangement in which government confers financial favor on selected media based on content."

The stench of favoritism and greed will not wash away easily -- even after McCaffrey's announcement Wednesday that the ONDCP will no longer review episodes until after they have aired. (Besides, the agency -- working with the advertising firm Ogilvy and Mather and the P.R. firm Fleishman Hilllard Inc. -- has created lots of other venues for its messages.)

And finally, if the White House must tamper with TV content, couldn't they do something about "The West Wing"?

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Sean Elder

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