The office of drug czar Barry McCaffrey secretly paid the television networks to propagandize its anti-drug message. According to a special report from Salon magazine, the scripts of popular television shows like ER, Chicago Hope, Beverly Hills 90210 and many others were doctored to fit the requirements of McCaffreys White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). In return for altering scripts, the networks were allowed to sell advertising time that had been promised to the government to other more high paying advertisers.
A free and democratic society cannot long tolerate extensive government manipulation of the media. What is next? Will the Department of Defense pay the networks to drum up support for more bombers? Will the CIA pay filmmakers to alter the scripts of their movies? The payments from the office of the drug czar to the networks make one wonder whether this is not already occurring. If McCaffrey can pay for television shows supporting the goals of his office, what is to stop another agency from paying for shows supportingor not supporting as the politics of the day changeaffirmative action, sexual harassment laws, gays in the military, or any of a host of other controversial issues?
Government tampering with the media is not new. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover planted editorials in major newspapers, had reporters and writers tailed, and collected incriminating sexual information against publishers in order to blackmail them. McCaffrey has been far more circumspect. Why blackmail a publisher when you can buy a television show? No one is accusing McCaffrey of buying airtime to aggrandize himself, but good intentions are no excuse for paving a road to hell. Moreover, according to Salon reporter Daniel Forbes the purchase of altered television programs may have been illegal under the payola laws.
But doesnt everyone agree that drug use is a national problem to be fought with every means necessary? No, everyone does not agree. We are currently spending billions of dollars and putting hundreds of thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens in prison in support of the war on drugs. The drug war itself has created large increases in homicide and other violent crimes, just as did alcohol prohibition. Many people, from Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman to New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson have called for an end to the war on drugs. Many others are beginning to question the war. Whether or not one agrees with Friedman and Johnson, it is clear that the drug war is a political question. We are not just dealing with government propaganda to eat less fat. McCaffreys purchase of altered television programs was a political act designed to sway public opinion.
Medical marijuana laws, for example, were recently passed by voter initiatives in California, Alaska, Arizona, Oregon, Nevada, and Washington, but medical marijuana laws are opposed by McCaffrey. The voters showed good sense in permitting the medical use of marijuana. Numerous scientific studies show that marijuana is effective in treating a wide variety of disorders. After reviewing the evidence on marijuanas medical uses, the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Jerome Kassirer, wrote Federal authorities should rescind their prohibition of the medical use of marijuana for seriously ill patients and allow physicians to decide which patients to treat. McCaffreys office says it supports accurate portrayal of drug use, but did the ONDCP offer to pay for television programs showing how marijuana can help alleviate the suffering of AIDS or multiple sclerosis victims? Of course not.
Its disturbing when the government spends more on advertising than any corporation in America. Its worse when taxpayer dollars are spent to influence public opinion about political issues. Its intolerable when those dollars are used to manipulate programming in ways undisclosed to the viewer. In an October 1999 speech McCaffrey described the goal of his programs as increasing the mind share of anti-drug messages with the help of experts in behavior change. Such language is inconsistent with a society in which the people are meant to control the government and not the other way around.
Barry McCaffrey should learn that the ends do not justify the means. Effective immediately he should resign from his position as drug czar and apologize to the American public for his gross abuse of trust. Failing that the drug czar should be more truthfully renamed: minister for propaganda and national enlightenment.
Alexander Tabarrok is Research Director for The Independent Institute, Assistant Editor of The Independent Review, and Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University. He received his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University, and he has taught at the University of Virginia and Ball State University. Dr. Tabarrok is the editor of The Independent Institute books, Entrepreneurial Economics (Oxford University Press), The Voluntary City (with David Beito and Peter Gordon, University of Michigan Press), and Changing the Guard: Private Prisons and the Control of Crime.
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