On the Fox sitcom That '70s Show, 16-year-old Eric Foreman and his friends are often seen sitting around a table in his basement. The camera swings from one teenager to another, showing them pontificating, talking effusively, giggling, and eating snacks with gusto. Sometimes one of them loses track of the conversation and offers up an amusing non sequitur.
Although you never actually see Eric and his friends pass around a joint, they clearly have been smoking pot. Their marijuana use is presented casually, as just one way they enjoy spending time together. There is never any hint that it causes serious problems.
These scenes are not earning Fox any points with the Office of National Drug Control Policy. I mean that literally.
Under the ONDCP's $1 billion anti-drug advertising program, launched in 1998, TV networks that wanted a share of the money had to donate a 30-second spot for each one the government bought. But as Daniel Forbes recently reported in Salon, after broadcasters started complaining about lost ad revenue the ONDCP agreed to let them substitute programming with anti-drug themes for the free air time.
"If the office decided that a half-hour [show] sufficiently pushed an endorsed anti-drug theme," Forbes explained, "it got valued at three 'units,' with each unit equaling the cost of one 30-second ad on that show. Hour shows presenting an approved story line were valued at five units."
In this way, networks could sell the air time they had promised the government, and the government could still get its message out. At first, no one seemed to think there was anything wrong with this cozy arrangement.
Last year, Paul Armentano, publications director for the research arm of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, interviewed Alan Levitt, who oversees the ONDCP's advertising program, for an article that appeared in the October issue of The Freeman. "One of the most surprising results we've seen has been the tremendous response by the media and entertainment industry," Levitt said. "They're willing to listen to what we're saying…and they [are] willing to change storylines."
But the ONDCP's pride in its success at coopting the media turned to embarrassment after Forbes' description of the program's details prompted critics to complain that the networks' independence had been compromised. "This is the most craven thing I've heard of yet," the Media Access Project's Andrew Jay Schwartzman told Forbes. "To turn over content control to the federal government for a modest price is an outrageous abandonment of the First Amendment."
At first the ONDCP insisted, contrary to Levitt's implication and the accounts of network insiders interviewed by Forbes, that it never asked for script changes. Then it announced that it would stop reviewing scripts and henceforth consider shows for credits only after they aired.
That change, of course, does not affect the financial incentive for broadcasters to toe the official line on drugs. Indeed, even before the ONDCP started offering its explicit quid pro quo, it was clear that the networks (and other media outlets) were expected to enlist in the war on drugs if they wanted the government's business.
With or without direct guidance, broadcasters have a pretty good idea of the points they're supposed to get across: All drugs are equally bad, all use is abuse, nothing good ever comes of drug use, and continued use can end only in disaster.
The problem is not just that the government has been sending these messages clandestinely, in propaganda disguised as programming. It's also that the messages simply are not true.
Eric Foreman and his friends, who smoke pot for fun and are not any worse off because of it, are far more representative of illegal drug users than the characters on other shows who blow auditions, flunk classes, lose their jobs, steal, cause accidents, get pressured into treatment, end up on the streets, or die of overdoses. To imply that such outcomes are typical, as the ONDCP requires, means abandoning realism and artistic integrity for the sake of political correctness.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said the "new guidelines" for the ONDCP's ad campaign would put "the program on a track where it will get universal support." But it is precisely the assumption of universal, unthinking support for a feel-good cause that put the government and its network lackeys in such an awkward position to begin with.