Shortly before last year’s Super Bowl, about 22 million American households saw a series of reports on their local TV news about the dangers of marijuana. The reports were by journalist Mike Morris, and included interviews with Drug Czar John Walters and other “experts” on the harms of pot.
What viewers didn’t know was that these news reports were created entirely by the US government. The anti-drug officials being interviewed were reading from prepared scripts, and Morris was a former reporter hired to “play himself” in the video.
The prepackaged anti-pot news reports, produced by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), were distributed to television stations nationwide, complete with lead-in scripts to be read by the anchor. The pseudo-news was unquestioningly broadcast by nearly 300 stations; most anchors dutifully read out their scripted intro and presented the government’s propaganda to their viewers as legitimate news.
In January 2005, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) finally chastised the Bush administration for the pre-fabricated news, reminding the ONDCP that such “covert propaganda” is illegal under federal law. However, there are no formal penalties or charges being laid, and the ONDCP remains unrepentant, with their spokesman saying that those who complain are “making a mountain out of a molehill.”
30 years of lies
These fake news reports are hardly the first time the US government has secretly manipulated the media to spread their drug war lies. The GAO has previously found federal anti-drug agencies in violation of propaganda laws for distributing newspaper editorials and articles without identifying that they were written by government officials.
In fact, the US government has been working behind the scenes for at least three decades to get their anti-drug viewpoint into the media.
Richard Nixon was the first US President to formally seek media support in spreading drug war propaganda. In 1970, Nixon held a special White House meeting with senior executives and producers from the major TV networks and ad agencies, who were collectively responsible for over 90% of prime-time television.
Nixon showed them “shocking” films about narcotics addiction, and then asked them to help America survive the scourge of drugs. Popular shows like Hawaii Five-O, The Mod Squad and Marcus Welby, MD soon began featuring anti-drug storylines.
Nixon then met with senior radio executives, with similar results. Within a year Nixon’s drug war had received an unprecedented $37 million in free advertising, a figure which has grown steadily every year since. Government officials now claim the average American child sees over 140 anti-drug ads each year, and the anti-drug theme is incorporated ever more deeply into mainstream entertainment, including movies, music and TV.
Buying TV scripts
The covert propaganda campaign was taken to the next level under President Clinton and his Drug Czar, Barry McCaffrey.
In 1997, Congress decided to start spending $200 million each year to buy anti-drug ads on TV, radio and other media. They made their ad dollars go further by passing a law which forced media outlets to give them a two-for-one deal on anti-drug ad space.
Without approval from Congress, the ONDCP then offered TV networks a way out of having to give away their ad space at half-price. Shows with an anti-drug message could be counted towards the free advertising time, freeing up limited commercial space for paying advertisers (CC#25, TV takes prohibitionist payola).
Senior executives at major networks later admitted that government screeners had examined and modified scripts to better promote their anti-pot agenda. Shows which had episodes specifically written to cash in on the government program include The Practice, ER, Home Improvement, Sports Night, Cosby, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, General Hospital, Boy Meets World, Promised Land, Providence, Trinity, The Wayans Brothers Show, Smart Guy and 7th Heaven.
The ONDCP has also entered into payola arrangements with Internet service provider America Online (AOL), ensuring that AOL provides prominent links to anti-drug sites and government pot propaganda.
Marvel Comics is another group getting “creative guidance” from federal drug warriors, receiving financial gain for working anti-drug messages into storylines featuring their top comics, which include Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Incredible Hulk.
With a history of buying TV scripts and storylines in comic books, moving into fake news is a logical extension. As the drug war reaches a fever pitch, we can expect even more federal intervention against free thought, accurate reporting and investigative journalism.