Channel One, the company that beams TV news programs and commercials into thousands of schools in the United States, has broadcast dozens of news segments that contained anti-drug messages in the past three years -- and received millions of dollars' worth of ad credits from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy for doing so, Salon has learned.
The arrangement, in which taxpayers' money was used to underwrite a covert anti-drug message shown to millions of schoolchildren in the guise of a supposedly objective news program, appeared to violate the ONDCP's publicly stated policy that news and editorial pieces would not be eligible for the ad credit program.
Documents obtained by Salon explaining why some news segments were accepted and others rejected last year shed light on the process by which a media company and a law enforcement branch of the U.S. government came to a mutually satisfactory understanding over the monetary value of news programs.
According to Cornelia Pechmann, a marketing expert who was hired by the ONDCP to evaluate whether stories or segments were sufficiently "on message" to receive ad credits, of 10 news segments Channel One submitted for approval from August 2000 to January 2001, only one was approved. However, during the second half of the school year, from February to May 2001, Pechmann approved seven of the 11 stories Channel One submitted. Salon has obtained an evaluation sheet rejecting nine of 10 segments for the year's first half, as well as tapes of several of the later submissions that were approved. The rejected segments were turned down because they were too general, too equivocal in their stance and/or did not contain sufficiently explicit anti-drug messages. The accepted segments were much more narrowly focused and contained unequivocal anti-drug messages.
Channel One refused comment despite numerous calls to its president, Jim Ritts, and to Tom Rogers, the chairman of its parent company, Primedia. The ONDCP and the White House also declined to comment.
But critics of the ONDCP's controversial advertising program (which gained national notoriety when Salon revealed that TV networks had turned scripts of prime-time shows with anti-drug messages over to the ONDCP for vetting, in hopes of gaining cash credit) were quick to condemn the arrangement.
Kevin Zeese, president of the advocacy group Common Sense for Drug Policy, saw the dramatic increase in the number of segments that Channel One got approved for matching credit as evidence that "they know what tune to play to get the government's money. I suspect it was a conscious decision to warp their reporting to satisfy the government's requirements."
"ONDCP is treading dangerous waters," said Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education, criticizing Channel One for lacking journalistic integrity. "The government shouldn't be let off the hook either, for its participation in undermining the integrity of the news," Montgomery said. "Maybe we should haul Channel One before the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive marketing practices in calling itself news. They bill themselves as news and clearly everything is for sale."
In addition to Channel One, Pechmann told Salon, she assessed TV shows from NBC, Fox (including two television movies), CBS, the Family Channel, the WB, Arts & Entertainment, Lifetime and the E! Network, and articles from Teen Newsweek, Girls Life and Scouting. She said she also evaluated "documentaries and biographies," but didn't specify what network they appeared on.
Pechmann said she also received more than one submission for evaluation from the New York Times, including a news article published last November reporting on a town meeting about youth drug use. Catherine Mathis, vice president of corporate communications for the Times, acknowledged that a Times salesperson working on the ONDCP account had submitted the articles, but stated that the employee, who she said was acting on his or her own initiative, had done so in error and had been instructed not to do so again. She declined to name the employee. In an e-mail, Mathis wrote that "it was the Times's practice to only submit advertising" to the ONDCP, not news articles or features, and that the salesperson, "unaware of our practice, erroneously submitted articles." Mathis confirmed that more than one article was submitted, but declined to say how many.
Pechmann said that she had approved the New York Times article for ad credit because it met the ONDCP's criteria, and passed it to her superiors. Mathis wrote that "because the ONDCP's media campaign contractor [the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather] was aware of the Times' practice, senior managers flagged the article that had been reviewed by lower level managers, and no value was placed nor credit offered."
Pechmann gave details of the articles submitted by Teen Newsweek, a joint venture between the Weekly Reader Corp. and Newsweek. The magazine submitted three articles this spring for possible ad credits, according to Pechmann: a feature on the travails of actor Robert Downey Jr.; one on the "war on addiction"; and one on ONDCP's own effort, "What's Your Anti-Drug?"
(Last year, Salon reported that at least six major U.S. magazines had submitted anti-drug articles to the ONDCP in an attempt to qualify for ad-credit dollars. The magazines were U.S. News & World Report, the Sporting News, Family Circle, Seventeen, Parade and USA Weekend.)
Informed that articles had been submitted for White House approval, Teen Newsweek publisher and editor in chief Roseanna Hansen said, "It's news to me ... It's possible." Hansen, who was on medical leave from January to March, said she was aware that ONDCP advertised in "several publications" published by Weekly Reader Corp. "Our articles are selected for their news value, not for any other reason," Hansen said in a subsequent voice message, adding "I'm not aware of anything along the lines you're describing, of articles submitted for financial credit."
Debbie Nevins, Teen Newsweek's managing editor, said that two articles adapted from Newsweek, "War on Addiction" and "Robert Downey Jr. Takes It One Day at a Time," ran in her Feb. 19, 2001, edition, and that one short, internally generated piece, "What's Your Anti-Drug?" on ONDCP's effort of the same name, ran on Feb. 26.
Terry Bromberg, president of Lifetime Learning Systems, a Weekly Reader Corp. (WRC) sibling to Teen Newsweek, is in charge of selling advertising for several WRC magazines. He told Salon that while Teen Newsweek itself ran no ONDCP ads, five publications in his stable did. They were Read and Current Science, which are published every two weeks; and Career World, Writing and Current Health 2, which are monthlies. He admitted that numerous WRC articles, possibly including the three from Teen Newsweek, were submitted for evaluation. But he said they were submitted not out of a desire to maximize profits but simply because his magazines ran out of issues to run free ads it owed the ONDCP. (Media companies from whom the ONDCP makes ad buys owe the White House matching ad time, but can redeem the time owed by submitting content for ONDCP evaluation. The process is explained in greater detail below.)
According to Bromberg, last October the ONDCP bought three ads in the five magazines listed above; it was therefore owed three free ads. Bromberg said the company wanted to run the three free ads, but simply ran out of time -- so it had to submit the articles. "The only reason it occurred is that the advertising campaign started later in the fall than we anticipated -- we ran out of issues," he said. "If the school year had run longer, we would have gladly run the third free ad. And so there would have been no need to submit the articles. In fact, we would not have submitted the articles."
In any case, Bromberg said, "The WRC 100 percent complies with our relationship with Ogilvy, which we are pleased to continue by carrying ONDCP advertising next year."
Newsweek itself would neither confirm nor deny that its licensee had submitted articles to ONDCP. Director of media relations Ken Weine said, "To our knowledge, no such effort was made as you describe. We would not believe any effort to obtain financial credit for any editorial content published under the Newsweek logo is appropriate. To our knowledge, no Newsweek salesperson was involved with this if it did happen."
The ONDCP's controversial ad-credit program arose as part of a five-year, nearly $1 billion, federally financed anti-drug media campaign approved by Congress in 1997, with the stipulation that ONDCP could only buy advertising if the media company it was buying from would agree to sell additional ad time or space at half-price. The two-for-one deal boosted the total value of the campaign to nearly $2 billion.
But rather than forcing media companies to meet this requirement entirely with a second ad for no further compensation -- a financially onerous arrangement, especially during boom times when ad buys are costly -- the White House allowed them to use content it approved for up to 49 percent of the value of time or space owed the government from the original two-for-one deal. The ONDCP refers to such deals as "pro bono" matches, but the phrase is inaccurate: If the content meets ONDCP's strict anti-drug-message criteria, the media company that submitted it saves money that can total millions of dollars. (Magazines and newspapers can either sell the ad space to another client or save money by not running the ad; television invariably earns more by selling to other clients.)
As recently disclosed in Salon, on May 31 the ONDCP quietly terminated the most controversial portion of its program, in which it approved the anti-drug messages in TV sitcoms and dramas for advertising credit. But the other ad credit arrangements continue.
The ONDCP deals with Channel One and Teen Newsweek -- and even more egregiously, the abortive New York Times one -- would seem to violate ONDCP's stated policy that news and editorial content would not be eligible for match consideration. According to a July 2000 ONDCP "Statement of Pro Bono Match Program and Guidelines," "Feature stories or public materials in print" are eligible, but "anything involving news or editorials or [that] could be perceived as news or editorials (as determined by the Strategic Message Specialist)" is not.
The distinction between "news" and "features" is a blurry one. But the Channel One segments submitted to the ONDCP would seem to qualify as news: Channel One characterizes itself as a news organization, and indeed is the only "news" encountered by many of its claimed 8 million viewers in 12,000 schools in grades six to 12 across the nation. (These numbers are disputed by some Channel One critics.) Teen Newsweek's articles also arguably could be defined as news stories.
As for the one known article erroneously submitted by the New York Times, it was clearly a news article. Written by Joan Swirsky and titled "Hewlett Schools Head Sees Drug 'Epidemic,'" it appeared in the Times' Long Island section on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2000. Its opening read: "Drug and alcohol abuse 'by our own children' has reached an 'almost epidemic state,' Dr. Charles W. Fowler, the superintendent of Hewlett-Woodmere public schools, said in a letter to parents announcing a town meeting to discuss what could be done about the problem."
The article then described a meeting packed with concerned parents listening to several experts. One expert who attended the meeting is quoted as saying, "Baby-boomer parents are confused about their own values about drugs. Many of them think that it's a phase that their children will outgrow, but many kids don't." He added, "There is an increase in the use and range of drugs."
The Times writer noted, "Concrete solutions like setting limits and age-appropriate boundaries, seeking professional advice and chaperoning parties were suggested at the meeting."
Pechmann, who approved the Times article for credit, explained that to qualify for financial credits, media content must incorporate one or more ONDCP-promulgated "message platforms": the message to parents that your children are at risk; the perception of the harm drugs inflict; and parenting skills. The Times article qualified, she said, because "it talked about them all."
The fact that the Times article was clearly a news article rather than a feature did not affect Pechmann's decision to approve it -- nor, apparently, did it trouble her superiors, who apparently rejected it only because they were aware of the Times' policy against this type of editorial submission.
A document called "Evaluation of TV Episodes for Match Credit," dated March 1, 2001, sheds fascinating light on the process by which the government evaluates whether stories qualify for ad credits. The document was co-written by Pechmann, who is an associate professor of marketing at the University of California at Irvine, and Ph.D. candidate Maria Kniazeva, also of UC-Irvine.
Pechmann said that the media companies participating in the program received feedback from the ONDCP's media campaign contractor, Ogilvy & Mather, on how to qualify for credit. "O&M relays the information I provide," she said. Pechmann, who began working for the ONDCP last summer, is one of seven expert members of the Behavioral Change Expert Panel, which is funded by the ONDCP. She is paid about $400 a day for her work.
Asked what the general criteria for matching approval are, Pechmann said, "The general concept is an ad slot then gets released ... The material has to be the same message as an ad because it's a substitute for the ad and replaces the ad. That's the general concept."
In their evaluations, Pechmann and Kniazeva (who was working under Pechmann's supervision) explain why they rejected nine of the 10 segments that Channel One submitted to ONDCP for potential credit from the first half of this past school year. Pechmann said she evaluates content for potential "match credit" depending on whether it corresponds to five strategic "message platforms," which she listed as "negative consequences of marijuana; negative consequences of inhalants; normative education; refusal skills; and the negative consequences of other drugs, say, ecstasy or alcohol." (The "normative education" platform refers to the fact that kids may have an inflated view of the actual percentage of their peers who use drugs.)
In a column labeled "Platform," each segment Pechmann rejected received a "N/A," or nonapplicable. The only segment accepted bears the entry "neg. cons," which denotes the "negative consequences" of drug use.
That Pechmann placed marijuana at the top of her list is probably not coincidental. A July 31, 2001, staff memo to the Democrats on the House drug policy subcommittee refers to the media campaign's goals as "educating and enabling youth to reject illegal drugs and preventing youth from initiating use of drugs, with emphasis on marijuana and inhalants." In fact, as reported in Salon, to a large degree the entire ONDCP media campaign came about in response to the passage of medical marijuana initiatives in California and Arizona in 1996 -- which former ONDCP head Gen. Barry McCaffrey saw as a stalking horse for the legalization of marijuana.
The 10 segments Pechmann and Kniazeva judged included five on the drug war in Colombia; one on the concept of "graduated" driver's licenses (teenagers earning full driving privileges in a series of steps); two on drugs in the Olympics; and two on the death penalty.
Rejecting two stories that ran in August on the drug war in Colombia, the document states, "No relevant message platform ... Suggests that the involvement of U.S. military may be too extensive and may eventually result in the deployment of American troops as in Vietnam."
Of these segments, Pechmann told Salon that deaths in Colombia don't have enough resonance for kids in the United States. "The negative consequences have to be for the youth actually using drugs," she said. (Comparing Colombia to Vietnam would also not seem to be the wisest way to obtain anti-drug monies.)
In turning down a Channel One story on Colombia aired in January of this year, the evaluation states, "[The news story] suggests that demand for drugs in U.S. is high, and that it is very hard to stop drug smugglers. Could convey wrong message about drug norms." (Of course, other branches of the government, such as Customs, acknowledge these very facts.)
In rejecting a story on steroid abuse in the Olympics that ran July 19, 2000, the evaluation states: "Though the health risks of steroids are briefly mentioned, the program never explains who might experience such risks." In other words, it's not enough to portray a problem with world-class athletes -- it has to hit home to American teenagers. The evaluation continues: "Youths might therefore conclude that limited steroid use is widespread, which sends the wrong message about steroid-use norms." The comment rejecting an "Olympic Doping" segment that ran on Sept. 27, 2000, reads: "Suggests that the drug testing of Olympic athletes may be overly harsh, overly stringent and thus unfair."
Pechmann and Kniazeva's rejection of a segment on the death penalty that also ran on Sept. 27 makes it clear that only stories with crystal-clear, narrowly focused negative messages about drugs are likely to be approved. More troubling, it also contains some language that suggests that opinions on subjects that have nothing to do with drug use per se -- such as the death penalty -- could affect their evaluation.
Their evaluation states: "Contains a tangential and mixed message. Focuses on the problems with the death penalty, and states that sentencing is unjust and often based on race and economic status ... The person on death row who is interviewed did commit a murder as a teenager to obtain drug money, but there is no indication that his murderous act was caused by a drug induced state. The link to drugs is, in fact, very weak. The main message is that the death penalty may be overly harsh."
And rejecting a second death penalty story that aired that same day, the document states: "No relevant message platform. No discussion of drugs. Discusses the possible innocence of death row inmates."
It may simply be that Pechmann and Kniazeva rejected the segment because its focus was too much on the death penalty and not enough on drugs, not because it questioned whether all death row inmates were guilty. Still, their comments raise questions about subjective elements in the evaluation process.
A viewing of the news segments Channel One showed during this school year's second half, when seven of 11 submissions were approved, is equally instructive. Rather than addressing broader social issues, such as the Olympics and the death penalty, the later submissions are much more narrowly focused and specifically address the ONDCP message platforms -- especially the one on negative consequences. Whether this remarkable shift in editorial priorities came about because Channel One received feedback from Ogilvy & Mather about how to get a "match," or simply figured that out on its own, is unclear.
The Feb. 2, 2001, offering shows a lot of cool-looking anti-drug agents dangling on ropes from helicopters as they bust a big marijuana grow in the wilds of California. One agent makes a face and comments that the growers had (improbably) relieved themselves inside their shelter. A DEA agent speaks of the "bigger business" marijuana has become under the control of large international criminal organizations and says that if a new drug appeared tomorrow -- call it "purple" -- they'd make money off it. The segment notes that pot smokers now suffer from increased levels of THC, which is said to have malign effects on the brain, blood, reproductive and respiratory systems. The next day, the agents all go off to bust another 10,000-plant operation, in the "never-ending battle" against dangerous drugs.
In a story on heroin addiction that ran on the same date, an attractive young female ex-addict says she became addicted to heroin the first time she tried it. Then she amends that to say she was addicted the first couple of times, or within a week. She got beaten up and robbed while buying street heroin.
In a Feb. 22 report on Los Angeles narcotics police, an informant facing incarceration herself is shown being dropped off by police to make numerous, incriminating heroin buys from dealers, who are subsequently shown to be arrested. (What happens to the informant subsequently is not shown.) The effort is described as an "endless battle. It's not against people, but against heroin. And it won't go away until the demand does."
A segment that ran a couple of days later concerns a pathetic teenager with shaved head and eyebrows who ended up having two heart attacks from abusing cough syrup.
Despite the obvious good intentions of the anti-drug media campaign, some of the content it pays for may actually do more harm than good. On March 20, 2001, Channel One aired a wildly irresponsible report on inhalants, one that gave viewers -- some of whom are as young as 11 -- far too much information about how to abuse household products. There were several shots of the type of products involved, and then one or two shots of someone spraying the product on a towel, preparing to inhale it. (Hearing of this, Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy said it sounded like the glue-sniffing scare of the 1970s, when "the media attention actually created a self-fulfilling prophecy.")
There were also two segments on the dangers of ecstasy and its simulacra-- featuring warnings that the drug cooks your organs "from the inside out" -- and one on a student at a rehab school who, after two years of sobriety, might finally be ready to leave.
These approved news segments make up only part of the numerous -- and highly remunerative -- Channel One features that have been approved by the drug czar's office over the last three years. According to a report by ONDCP/Zenith Media (one of the drug czar's ad agencies at the time), during the 1998-99 school year Channel One received credits totaling $3,264,000 for what were described as "16 Substance Abuse Program Features (1.5 - 4 min)" that the company aired that school year. (It's unknown how many segments were rejected by Pechmann's counterpart at the time.) In addition, the report lists "6 - 20 min. Feature Videos" valued at $425,000. These videos were submitted to free up in excess of two 30-second spots to be sold to some other client. ONDCP/Zenith list the final valuation figure, however, at five-sixths of $425,000, or $354,167. (Apparently only five of these videos were completed.) The final "Proposed Match" item is "1 Town Hall Meeting," scheduled for February 1999, and also valued at $425,000, or about the worth of two 30-second ads. Like the 16 news segments, this item is listed as completed, delivering its full $425,000 value. The total matching value of the features and the town hall meeting was $4,043,167.
The town hall meeting appears to have been basically a press release for the ONDCP -- but a very lucrative one for Channel One to televise. The fall 1999 ONDCP media campaign newsletter gushes about the "enthusiastic, energy-charged group of youngsters" who met with Gen. McCaffrey on March 17, 1999, in Channel One's Los Angeles studio, an event "produced by Channel One as part of its pro bono commitment to the Campaign." The newsletter continues: "The following day, Channel One's 12-minute newscast [presumably actually 10, with two minutes of ads] was devoted exclusively to the town hall event, benefiting students across the nation."
Students nationwide, says the ONDCP newsletter, benefited from McCaffrey's insight into "the responsibility of sports and entertainment celebrities to serve as role models, drug use depictions in movies and television, marijuana and other 'gateway' drugs." (Not incidentally, prior to this newsletter's release, a March 1999 report commissioned by McCaffrey himself by the federally funded Institute of Medicine declared marijuana is not a "gateway" drug.)
Whether taxpayers got their $425,000 worth by underwriting a lengthy program showing Gen. McCaffrey communing with a handpicked group of enthusiastic youngsters is uncertain, but that isn't really the point. The point is that it was overwhelmingly in Channel One's financial interest to make these deals. To see why, one need only look at the huge ad buy the ONDCP made -- and the financial obligation under which that deal placed Channel One.
According to the ONDCP/Zenith report, ONDCP's total Channel One ad buy for the 1998-99 school year was $8.2 million. Because of Congress' 50-cents-on-the-dollar requirement, Channel One therefore owed the government $8.2 million in additional ad time. Channel One provided the government 25 30-second ad slots (valued at $5.1 million), but that still left $3.1 million that Channel One owed the White House by some means other than ad slots. It made up the shortfall by submitting the features and town hall meeting for approval -- thus freeing up millions of dollars of ad time to sell to other clients. (The reason for the discrepancy between the $3.1 million Channel One owed the ONDCP and the $4.04 million valuation placed on its various submissions is that since submitting content is speculative, "overmatching," or having more content approved than ad space owed, frequently results. This appears to have been the case here. Companies are not reimbursed for overmatching.)
That $3.1 million is a considerable chunk of change for a company that, according to published reports, had 1999 profits of $30 million and faces steep replacement costs for its decade-old hardware infrastructure.
Channel One is a natural target for (and partner of) the ONDCP because of its unparalleled access to the media campaign's targeted age group of 11 to 18. (As a nonbroadcast medium, Channel One is also not subject to Federal Communications Commission enforcement of the federal law that broadcasters must indicate with "concurrent notice" any financial considerations, direct or indirect, paid to a program.) Pepsi-Cola vice president C.J. Fraleigh told the New York Times that Channel One "reaches teenagers as efficiently as the Super Bowl reaches men." He added, "There is no other vehicle to get those sorts of numbers of teens on a daily basis." Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum (and a stern Channel One critic), quotes one of its ads as stating that it is "viewed by more teens than any other program on television. Channel One's audience exceeds the combined number of teens watching anything on television during prime-time."
The company's daily program consists of 10 minutes of news stories and two minutes of ads. Typically, it runs four ads per day, with each 30-second spot costing about $200,000. Because of the ONDCP's heavy ad buy, its ads are often in heavy rotation. According to Obligation, a group dedicated to removing Channel One from the nation's schools, in one week in April this year ONDCP ran ads on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and also ran them the next week on Monday and Tuesday.
Those who believe that constantly exposing school-age kids to news shows and town hall meetings featuring heavy-handed anti-drug messages is an effective way to help prevent teenage drug abuse, and who are unworried about any compromises on press freedom or integrity this may represent, might salute Channel One for its efforts. But Channel One is not above taking money from corporations that take a less gloomy view of recreational drugs. It also ran commercials for the stoner movie "Dude, Where's My Car?" -- outraging Obligation president Jim Metrock, who fumed, "Channel One has a lot of audacity hiding behind anti-drug ads while promoting a movie that glamorizes drug use to young people."
Perhaps surprisingly, considering that fighting drug use among youths, even using dubious methods, is a holy, mom-and-apple-pie subject, conservatives and liberals alike blast the government's cash-for-propaganda program. The notion of sub rosa government boodle rewarding covert anti-drug messages exercises ideologues of all stripes: Drug reformer Zeese said his conservative friends castigate him for all of his drug policy views except one -- his opposition to government-paid media content.
No less a conservative icon than Schlafly said the practice "strikes me as dishonest. I don't think the government or anyone else should buy time where the source of the money is not identified." She added, "It strikes me as trying to deceive the public."
Even Robert Maginnis, a committed drug warrior who is vice president for policy of conservative think tank Family Research Council and serves on the Parents Advisory Council on Drug Abuse, an ONDCP group, expressed his doubts about the practice. While acknowledging that ONDCP-rewarded content might have the salutary effect of turning kids away from drugs, he said he "wouldn't want ONDCP dictating programs upfront." Then, reversing field, he said, "If it's tastefully done, if ONDCP is paying for it, then I accept it" -- but he admitted he would prefer if it was paid for by private rather than public money to reward programming. "I probably don't have any real problem with it, but none of it is totally clean -- that's my concern." Finally, Maginnis, who was touted this spring as a candidate for drug czar, admitted, "I am conflicted."
On the opposite side of the political spectrum, Graham Boyd, director of the American Civil Liberties Union drug policy litigation project, declared, "As Americans realize the failings of the drug war, the drug czar has turned to the classic tactics of a dictatorship: paying the reputable press to become a mouthpiece for government propaganda."
Other critics saved their harshest criticism for Channel One. Gary Ruskin, executive director of the anti-commercial group Commercial Alert, said, "The most important point is that Channel One has put a for-sale sign on their so-called news operation. It underscores that they're not legitimate and don't belong in the public schools. If they're selling their so-called news to ONDCP, who else do they sell to?"
Arnold Fege, president of Public Advocacy for Kids, said, "It's a continued validation of the fact that [Channel One's] news programming is a marketing strategy."
Obligation Inc. president Metrock said, "I don't want the federal government affecting any news content -- that's not their business. That happens in totalitarian states, but at least there the people know it. Here, we don't even know it -- it's behind the scenes, even though some of the anti-drug messages might be good."
The ACLU's Boyd said that the most troubling thing about Channel One's willingness to cut deals with the government over news programs was the fact that the programs are viewed by children. He noted that kids are a more vulnerable audience, particularly since the program is the only source of news for many: "It's presented as truthful to a captive audience, and they lack the filtering mechanisms of adults."