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Congress looks at relationship between government, TV networks

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Broadcasting         Feb 14, 2000    

Congress looks at relationship between government, TV networks

  • The House Subcommittee on Telecommunication, Trade and Consumer Protection heard testimony on “anti-drug propaganda” in network television shows.

William Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunication, Trade and Consumer Protection, called a hearing Feb. 9 on the relationship between the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and network television.

First Amendment advocate and attorney Robert Corn-Revere of Washington, D.C. testified that the effort by that office to “influence prime time programming appears not only to have crossed the line marking the First Amendment’s underlying philosophy, but to have scrambled it.”

“As a nation dedicated to freedom of expression the United States should resist embracing the use of propaganda as an acceptable policy, regardless of the merits of any particular message,” Corn-Revere said.

The office, created in 1998 and headed by White House Drug Czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey targets youths, aged 9-18, with anti-drug messages via popular culture, including television programming, commercials and websites. An agreement with the networks requires them to provide air time equal to what the campaign purchases. After the agreement was in effect, the office offered monetary credits not only for anti-drug public service announcements, but for anti-drug content on television programs as well.

After ONDCP reviewed scripts before they were aired in order to see if they qualified for credit and, at times, offered suggestions on how the script could be more suitably written to approach the subject, the Internet magazine Salon wrote about the practice naming “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “ER” as among shows that received credit for approved themes. Author Daniel Forbes, called the practice a “hidden government effort” which may or may not be violating payola laws that “require networks to disclose, during a show’s broadcast, arrangements with any party providing financial or other considerations, however direct or indirect.”

ONDCP’s deputy director Donald Vereen Jr. defended the practice by saying popular media is the only method of interacting with the targeted age group. “What we see and hear in the entertainment media influences our beliefs about the world around us. Today’s adolescents are deeply immersed in popular culture” as conveyed through those media, he said.

Vereen said popular culture, including media programming and advertising content, “too often portrays drug use as common, something to be expected, or even humorous.”

Tauzin called the hearing to determine if government involvement bordered on television propaganda. Other panel members included Alex Wallau, President of ABC Network Administration and Operations; Jeff Loeb, Creative Director of Katsin/Loeb Advertising; and Martin D. Franks, Senior Vice President of CBS.

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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