White House blasts Salon

Drug policy spokesman responds to Daniel Forbes' report on the government's anti-drug messages in American media, and Forbes replies.


Salon Staff
April 20, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

Dear Editor:

The purpose of this letter is twofold. First, I write to once again ask Salon.com to set the record straight with respect to the errors in Salon's earlier reporting, which were set out in my last letter. Second, I write to raise factual errors with respect to the latest article in Salon, "The Drug War Gravy Train."

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Salon has an obligation to correct the record about openness

In my prior letter, ONDCP [Office of National Drug Control Policy] provided you with extensive documentation that proves that, contrary to the reporting of Mr. Forbes and Salon, the Youth Campaign was in no way secret. In fact, well before Salon's focus on the Youth Campaign, as we documented for you, the use of content within the match element of the Youth Campaign had appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times and on the pages of USA Today. It was also the subject of opinion editorials by Director McCaffrey in papers across the nation. We had also testified extensively about this element of the Youth Campaign before the Congress. And, it was the Congress that actively voted to require the match requirement of the Youth Campaign and to allow for the use content.

As my earlier letter underscored, based on these facts the New York Times Sunday Magazine, which relied on Salon's reporting in calling the Youth Campaign secret, has had to subsequently correct the record. Moreover, the New York Times' inaccurate comments about the Youth Campaign were far more restrained than those that appeared in Salon.

We must, once again, formally call upon Salon to retract its reporting that the Campaign was secret. As Salon seeks to establish a niche as legitimate journalism on the Internet, it is imperative that your readers have full confidence in the factual basis of your reporting. Allowing such a clear error as this to go unanswered is not only wrong, it will undermine Salon's long-term credibility. Certainly, if the New York Times, one of the nation's most respected newspapers, felt the obligation to correct the record, Salon, which actually started this false allegation, should do so as well.

Salon has a particular obligation to correct errors of fact in Salon's prior reporting because in his recent column Mr. Forbes writes that ONDCP's relationship with television networks "was revealed in Salon earlier this year." This repeated error of fact, after we have made this error clear to Salon, is completely unacceptable. As we stated in our last letter Salon "no more broke this story or uncovered some trumped up secret than did any reader of the August 20, 1998 Los Angeles Times or the November 2, 1998 USA Today."

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Salon's continuing pattern of factual errors

In addition to the errors in Salon's prior reporting, your latest article about the Youth Campaign continues to completely ignore the facts. Each of the following factual errors are so clear that they too require Salon to correct the record.

  • In your latest article, Mr. Forbes writes that the Office of National Drug Control Policy requested the Sporting News to assign a specific reporter to write stories about drugs. This is completely false. Through hearsay, Mr. Forbes attributes this statement to the editor of the Sporting News, Mr. John Rawlings. However, Mr. Forbes never spoke with Mr. Rawlings to confirm this allegation. Had he taken this most basic reporting step he would have found out that ONDCP did no such thing. I have attached an email from Mr. Rawlings that provides for the record that Mr. Forbes' reporting is false.

  • Mr. Forbes directly quotes Mr. Rich Vietri, an employee of an ONDCP contractor, in his article. His article gives the false impression that Mr. Forbes interviewed Mr. Vietri in preparing the article (e.g.: "Vietri noted"; "according to Vietri"; "Vietri stated last year"; "Vietri confirms"). In fact, Mr. Vietri has never knowingly spoken with Mr. Forbes or any other reporter about the program. Unless Mr. Forbes interviewed Mr. Vietri under false pretenses, his technique is a deliberate effort to mislead Salon's readers in order to give his reporting credibility.

  • Mr. Forbes further argues "that the U.S. government is using taxpayer money to, in effect, reward publications whose editorial content matches the government's views on drugs." This is also false. A particular magazine's editorial bent on any given issue has no role in the Campaign's decision as to whether to advertise in that magazine. Such decisions are based upon the ability of any given magazine to effectively reach our target audiences (youth and adult youth mentors). The specific criteria for the purchase of ad space are guided by the professional standards and practices of the advertising business. Additionally, such advertising decisions are not made by the government. They are made by advertising agencies that are experts in the field, without government interference.

  • Mr. Forbes refers to ONDCP as a "law enforcement agency." This is inaccurate. As a matter of fact, ONDCP is a policy coordinating office. ONDCP has no operational law enforcement statutory authority.

  • Mr. Forbes reports that the magazine Seventeen has been credited $70,000 by the Youth Campaign for published content. Here again, Mr. Forbes is wrong. Seventeen has submitted content for credit. However, as of this date, no decision has been made on these submissions.

  • Salon reports that " ... Family Circle snared the drug control office's second-highest magazine buy: $1,425,000 last year." In fact, between June 1998 and July 1999, the Campaign has bought only $526,138 in advertising from Family Circle. Salon's reporting is off by roughly three-fold or approximately $1 million.

  • Mr. Forbes' description of USA Weekend's efforts confuses a paid insert or advertorial (which will clearly indicate ONDCP's sponsorship) with editorial content submitted for match purposes.

  • In what he describes as "an unusual example," Mr. Forbes writes that USA Weekend "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." This is false. In fact, USA Weekend has only submitted two full stories for possible match credit: "Tackling Tough Topics with Kids," December 3, 1999, and "Mackenzie Phillips: One Day at a Time," August 13, 1999.

  • Mr. Forbes also writes that: "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." Again, he is wrong. The statutory requirement is not a 50 percent discount on ads. The requirement is that for every public dollar spent, we must get an equal dollar's value of public service, which may or may not be ads. In fact, we often buy ads at full market price and receive other forms of public service, such as content, as the public service match. Further, the use of content and other outreach tools by the Campaign was specifically authorized by the Congress. Moreover, the statutory "match" requirement was established in 1998 as part of ONDCP's reauthorization not the Campaign's 1997 appropriation.

    That Salon would twice publish error-laced articles by Mr. Forbes calls into question Salon's journalistic standards. In this latest article Mr. Forbes describes arrangements with six magazines; his description of each contains substantial factual errors.

    While no one is above imperfection, it is troubling that so many important factual errors slipped unnoticed through Salon's editorial process. Let me underscore, I have not raised for you judgement calls, but only obvious errors -- calling something reported on the front page of the L.A. Times secret, misrepresenting public laws, attributing a statement to a person without ever checking with the purported source, and the like. Since these clear errors have now made it into your publication, we must ask that you now without delay correct each of these errors for your readership.

    Thank you for your review of this situation. I look forward to your reply.

    Sincerely,

    -- Robert Housman

    Assistant Director, Strategic Planning

    The White House

    Daniel Forbes responds:

    While I thank Robert Housman for taking the time to write, I wish he and other officials of the public agency that pays his salary had made themselves available for interviews before my most recent story was published. In any case, I'm happy to address the points in his letter.

    1. For the record, the word "secretly" appears in a headline to Salon's original story of Jan. 13, which detailed the drug office's involvement with the TV networks. The body of that story uses the word "hidden." The March 31 story, about the drug office and a half-dozen publications, does not use either word. Neither the House nor the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee chairmen knew of the financial quid pro quos operating in television. I spoke to some 20 senior Hollywood creative executives. Of that number, only one said she had any awareness of the drug office's financial incentives applying to the shows they were creating. It was also news to the editors of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, all of whom placed news of the arrangement on their front pages the day after our original story appeared.

    2. As for the drug office's having requested a specific reporter for the Sporting News, my source, identified by name in the story, was the reporter in question.

    3. I called Ogilvy & Mather's Rich Vietri in June, 1999 and identified myself as Daniel Forbes, a reporter doing a story on the drug office's paid-media campaign under formal assignment for MediaWeek magazine. (The story was ultimately published in Salon.) I had just interviewed a colleague of Vietri's, and told him I had done so. The colleague referred me to Vietri as the individual with the most expertise on the magazine component of the campaign. We had a 10-minute, on-the-record interview for which I have the notes.

    4. In regard to the drug office's rewarding certain publications that adhered to the government's viewpoint, here again my reporting was well-sourced. I quote a senior participant saying, "Anyone without the right editorial environment wouldn't even have gotten approached." And I quote a second participant describing how magazines competing for ONDCP ad dollars would boast of their anti-drug editorial content to the ad agency making the selections.

    5. According to the agency's own budget summary, well over half of the drug office's financial disbursements go for law enforcement and interdiction efforts and have done so throughout the 1990s.

    6. I reported that Seventeen received more than $140,000 in drug-office ad money in 1999. I quote the Seventeen sales executive, Jackie O'Hare, and her understanding at the time of the interview that the Web site content was to be valued at $70,000. If the drug office had agreed to speak with me before the article's publication, I could have confirmed whether the valuation had been completed.

    7. The Family Circle point is a crude sleight of hand. Housman's figure is, as he notes, from June 1998 to July 1999. My figure, supplied by Competitive Media Reporting, referred to the calendar year of 1999, as the story made clear. CMR confirms the 1999 total as $1,425,000.

    8. In regard to USA Weekend culling paragraphs, my source was sales executive Lisa Helbraun in an on-the-record interview, as the story stated.

    9. Housman disputes my characterization of the office's paid media buys with the phrase "50 percent discount." In both stories, I explained clearly and at length the circumstances of the office's arrangements with the networks and periodicals. Indeed, the arrangement is further described in the sentence following the one he quoted. Finally, while the statutory language Hausman refers to may have been added in 1998, Congress in passing the initial legislation in 1997 always intended to require the media discount. Salon quoted Congressional staffers to that effect in January.

    I will look forward talking with Robert Housman about this non-secret, non-hidden government program in the future.

    -- Daniel Forbes


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