IN A LETTER published on this page on Wednesday, Barry McCaffrey, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, stated that "at no time has this office vetoed, cleared or otherwise dictated the content of network television or other programs." His office then issued guidelines stating that it will no longer "review program episodes . . . until after such program episodes have aired or been published." In other words, we never did it, and we promise not to do it again.

In either case, the new guidelines don't address the more fundamental problem with White House efforts to affect media portrayals of drug use: Whether the content review comes before or after a show is broadcast, government has no business offering financial rewards to networks for embedding messages within television shows.

There is nothing wrong with the government trying to discourage drug use through advertising. Under a 1997 law, the government was authorized to buy $1 billion in anti-drug advertising over five years as long as it could receive two minutes of advertising time for each minute it bought. The problem arose because the drug control policy director's office, to encourage the networks to participate, began crediting them for having made their matching contribution when they ran programs that showed drug use in a negative light. This effectively permitted the networks to resell time that had been committed to the government, while allowing the government to decide how much a show's message was worth. No matter when this valuation takes place, it is an improper cooptation of supposedly independent media. (The Post also sold space for anti-drug advertising, but the editorial contents of the paper were never mixed up with that deal.)

By all means, let the president push for responsible and accurate portrayals of drug abuse. Let the drug policy director provide information on the subject to those who make television shows. But the government crosses a line when it uses financial incentives to influence or reward networks for the content of the shows themselves.