America's obsession with illegal drugs may be hazardous to the First Amendment. According to Salon, the on-line newsmagazine, the Clinton Administration has been reviewing scripts for popular television shows before they air so government drug warriors could examine them for anti-drug messages.
The administration's Office of National Drug Control Policy reviewed more than 100 shows and made suggestions on about two dozen, according to Salon. In exchange, the six major TV networks were freed from having to provide about $22 million in public service air time to the government. The deals were cut quietly, in most cases without the knowledge of the shows' producers or the public.
The revelations, published in Salon Jan. 13, are a clear example of just how little the Clinton Administration values our basic constitutional freedoms. Clinton's Drug Czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, did not attempt to bar the networks from airing shows that did not meet the government's strict anti-drug guidelines. However, his covert use of government money as a carrot to encourage the networks to alter their shows demonstrates a disregard for the creative process and the rights of TV writers, directors, producers and the networks to freely express themselves.
"The idea of the government attempting to influence public opinion covertly is reprehensible beyond words," Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, told the Washington Post after the revelations broke. "It's one thing to appropriate money to buy ads, another thing to spend the money to influence the public subliminally."
According to Salon, McCaffrey's White House Office of National Drug Control Policy reviewed shows to see if they met its definition of anti-drug; those that did qualified as public service announcements, which allowed advertising air time previously earmarked for anti-drug public service spots to be sold to regular advertisers for higher rates.
The collaboration began in 1997, after Congress approved $1 billion for anti-drug advertising over five years. Under the legislation, networks that agreed to accept the federal advertising money agreed to provide a dollar for dollar match -- for each paid spot, the networks were to carry a free, public-service spot produced by nonprofit groups working with the administration.
Some of the networks balked, according to Salon, and the administration offered a compromise: Shows containing anti-drug messages would count toward a network's public-service requirement -- up to three 30-second spots.
Salon said shows were "assigned a monetary value by the drug czar's office and its two ad buyers." According to Salon, shows like NBC's ER, ABC's The Practice and Fox's Beverly Hills 90210 were reviewed and earned their networks air-time allowances destined to bring in a boatload of cash: $1.4 million worth of time for ER, $500,000 for The Practice and between $500,000 and $750,000 for 90210.
Salon also reported that the WB network changed an episode of The Smart Guy to make two "cool and popular" teens who were using drugs at a party look like "losers" after a government review.
It is a dangerous approach to public policy, one that substitutes dollars for principle and allows the federal government far too much influence over the television programming. It may be legal -- no money changed hands directly -- but it certainly is not appropriate.
Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation, told Salon the practice was "venal" and "a form of mind control" and he said it was "breathtaking" that the networks' "sense of obligation to the viewing audience has a dollar sign attached to it."
Schwartzman agreed. He told Salon, "This is the most craven thing I've heard of yet. To turn over content control to the federal government for a modest price is an outrageous abandonment of the First Amendment."
Robert J. Thompson of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television told the Boston Globe that the kind of government involvement in the creative process was "really frightening."
"The most fundamental issue here is that short of debates and political advertising, has the federal government got any business using the television airwaves in that fashion?" he asked.
Apparently Caffrey, and by extension Bill Clinton, thinks so.
"The law mandates that we have entertainment industry collaboration to fashion anti-drug messages in television programming," Caffrey spokesman Bob Weiner told the Globe. "We plead guilty to using every lawful means to save the lives of America's children."
That's what governments always say when they strip us of our civil liberties: It's for your own good, for the good of your children, for the good of national security.
But we need to tell the Clinton Administration, their apologists in Congress and the networks that our minds are not for sale and what we do with our bodies is our own business. Enough is enough, already.
Hank Kalet is a newspaper editor and poet who lives in South Brunswick, N.J.