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An Englishwoman in Washington: Government plots

With just a few months left in office, Bill Clinton's presidency is more lame-duck than ever. And as November's elections loom on the horizon, Clinton's opponents in the Republican-dominated Congress seem determined to shoot down all the president's pet projects, from hate crimes legislation to gun control.

But luckily for Clinton, he does not need Congressional approval to launch some policy initiatives that affect millions of unsuspecting Americans. One of the hallmarks of this administration is that it has been able to sidestep many of the old political channels and has adopted new ways of reaching out to influence the electorate - like scripting entertainment shows to keep us morally on-message.

In January the online magazine Salon revealed that for the past two years Clinton's drug 'tsar' has persuaded some of America's most popular TV shows - including ER, Beverly Hills 90210, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Home Improvement and The Cosby Show - to fill their episodes with anti-drug pitches to cash in on what Salon called 'a complex government advertising subsidy'. The networks were allowed to sell advertising slots, previously reserved by law for free public service announcements, if they included anti-drug messages in their primetime shows. It is estimated that this arrangement has netted the six leading networks about $25 million (see www.salon.com for the full story).

Apparently unknown to all but a handful of network executives, the White House has been merrily previewing scripts and suggesting modifications to soaps and drama series across the networks. Of course the TV executives denied that the White House actually caused them to change storylines, but evidence quickly emerged that modifications were made. Producers of CBS's Chicago Hope have admitted that they resuscitated a previously trashed script with a strong anti-drugs message after getting a phone call from one of the show's bosses. In total, over 100 shows were deemed worthy of the drug tsar's stamp of approval. When you consider the number of repeats on the US networks it is hard - if not impossible - to get away from government-sponsored plots.

Salon's revelations caused a storm. An editorial in the New York Times decried the possibility of 'censorship and state-sponsored propaganda' while the leader writers at the Washington Post fretted about where the policy could lead. 'Could the government pay the networks to slip idle comments into ER about the virtues of a particular healthcare policy?', they asked. But no sooner had the newspapers printed their condemnations than they too were exposed as cooperating with the White House drug control office in return for financial benefits. The New York Times was allowed to sell space reserved for public service advertisements when it agreed to produce 30 000 anti-drug booklets for New York teachers. The Washington Post earned credits by putting a link to an anti-drugs site on their website. All in all, the drug tsar probably got more media hits than the president himself.

The most worrying thing about these revelations is not simply that everybody is at it. When it comes down to it, nobody really objects to the drug tsar's insidious influence. Commentators may have been outraged that scripts were previewed by the White House and perturbed by the fact that so few people knew what was going on. But the White House operation is criticised for its style rather than its content - which is generally applauded. As the Washington Post explained: '[W]e happen to agree with the [White House] spin, and the idea of sitcoms and television dramas carrying anti-drug themes seems healthy.' In other words, the ends - getting a healthy moral message across to the mass of Americans - justify the means, however sneaky and undemocratic these may be.

In fact, the drug tsar's message is just as objectionable as the secret methods employed by the White House. How can it be seen as acceptable that the entire US media should become one big public service announcement for the White House? The idea that somebody in the media might want to transgress from the White House line, and go off-message by suggesting that taking drugs is exciting, or even hint that drug-taking does not lead to instant death and misery, is not even considered. At least 'idle comments slipped into ER about the virtues of a particular healthcare policy' would be an obvious plug for the government. Slipping in an anti-drugs message as if it were a natural part of the story is no different from this - simply more cunning.

I am told by my Democratic friends in Washington that, in the old days under Reagan, the propaganda war against drugs was much more objectionable and intrusive. Apparently an authoritarian Nancy Reagan used to pop up during the commercial breaks saying 'Just say no' through clenched teeth. But at least in Reagan's time there was some separation between politics and entertainment (even despite the president being a former movie actor). In the Clinton era, by contrast, such distinctions are disappearing. Over the next few months we will undoubtedly see Congress block nearly all of the 102 proposals that the president outlined in January's State of the Union address. But with Hollywood doing such a sterling job for the president, Clinton will still be able to touch parts of America that Reagan would never have dreamed possible.

Helen Searls

Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000



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