Friday A/V Club: You Are Watching LSD-TV

There was a time when psychedelics could get friendly coverage on a commercial TV news show.


Is that the barmaid?
Front Page Detective

The mid to late 1960s saw a moral panic over LSD, with press accounts that carelessly repeated urban legends about the drug's effects. (No, a bunch of acidheads did not stare at the sun until they all went blind.) Such reports helped fuel the drive to outlaw the chemical, which Congress banned in 1968.

But before that wave of stories hit the noosphere, the drug enjoyed a fair amount of favorable coverage too, particularly in two magazines—Time and Life—controlled by LSD enthusiast Henry Luce.

So the TV show embedded below—an episode of the documentary series Assignment Four—wasn't as unusual as you might initially assume. It aired on the San Francisco station KRON in 1964, at a time when psychedelics had started attracting controversy but the panic narrative had not yet taken over. A cautious report that tries to stay even-handed, if it has a slant at all it tilts slightly toward the drug's supporters. Naturally, it also includes an arty attempt to represent a trip on camera. Enjoy:

Bonus link: Here is an article that I wrote about Timothy Leary back in 2006. The piece covers a lot of ground, but I'm mentioning it here because of this passage on LSD and the media:

Scholars today generally regard the LSD scare of the '60s as a classic social panic. "Of all the widely used recreational drugs," the sociologists Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda note in their 1994 book Moral Panics, acid "is the one taken by users most episodically and occasionally, least regularly and chronically." It certainly poses risks, but the most disturbing rumors about its effects—that it causes chromosome damage, that it prompts teens to blind themselves by staring at the sun—turned out to be false. What's more, the media scare arrived at a time when LSD use was at a relatively low level; the hysteria actually faded as the drug grew more popular.

There are some who call me…Tim.
Last Gasp

What's fascinating is Leary's relationship to that panic. Leary has written that his best-known slogan—"tune in, turn on, drop out"—was inspired by a lunch with the media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who told him, "You call yourself a philosopher, a reformer. Fine. But the key to your work is advertising….You must use the most current tactics for arousing consumer interest." According to Leary, McLuhan even broke into a jingle: "Lysergic acid hits the spot/Forty billion neurons, that's a lot."

Leary was known to take liberties when recounting his personal history, and the McLuhan story sounds a little too perfect to be absolutely true. But the very fact that he tells it shows he was aware of what he was up to, as does his famous claim in Playboy that LSD "is the most powerful aphrodisiac known to man." In his book The Politics of Ecstasy, Leary commented that if the Playboy interview "had been conducted for Sports Illustrated, the conscientious interviewee would naturally consider the question, How LSD Can Raise Your Batting Average."…Leary's pitches for psychedelics oversold their benefits just as the media's scare stories oversold their dangers. His ad campaign helped fuel the panic and, in less obvious ways, was fueled by the panic itself. Both Leary and his enemies had a stake in the idea that the boomers were becoming the Acid Generation. As the press grew increasingly obsessed with LSD, Leary was willing to ride that wave as he offered a rival narrative of his own.

To read the rest, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.