IN OFFERING television networks financial incentives to toe the White House's anti-drug line, the Office of National Drug Control Policy co-opts ostensibly independent broadcasters for propaganda purposes -- and the broadcasters let themselves be co-opted. The arrangement is all the more disquieting for having been largely unknown -- though not really a secret -- until its existence was reported Thursday by the online magazine Salon.
This is not to say the government has no role in promoting an anti-drug message. To the contrary, if the president wishes to use his bully pulpit to urge Hollywood not to glorify drug use, more power to him. Indeed, that was precisely the purpose of the law that gave rise to this peculiar arrangement. The drug policy director's office was authorized to buy $1 billion in anti-drug advertising over five years, with the networks providing, in effect, two minutes of time for every minute the government buys.
Where the White House goes too far is in providing a direct and significant financial inducement to the networks to weave the government's anti-drug message into network programming. The drug policy director's office does this by letting the networks sell advertising time that had been committed to free public-service spots -- if network programs portray the ill effects of drugs. This puts government in the position of assessing how on-message the networks really are and networks in the position of increasing their profit if they satisfy the White House script reviewers. Unlike viewers of anti-drug ads, viewers of these programs don't know that they are receiving government-sponsored political messages. It's kind of like commercial product placement -- only the product is White House spin.
In this case, we happen to agree with the spin, and the idea of sitcoms and television dramas carrying anti-drug themes seems healthy. But where does it end? Could the government pay the networks to slip idle comments into "ER" about the virtues of a particular health care policy? There is nothing wrong with government's promoting a message -- it happens all the time and often with good cause -- but people have a right to know when they are being propagandized.