Strange Bedfellow

This Is Your Network on Drugs

ABC abandons news for propaganda.

ABC is devoting the full range of its resources to a month-long “March Against Drugs.” The network says it will forgo $20 million in advertising revenue to air anti-drug public-service announcements. World News Tonight, as well as Good Morning America, Turning Point, and 20/20, is featuring stories about the dangers of drug use. On March 30, “D-Day,” Peter Jennings will host a “town meeting.” Non-news shows, including GeneralHospital and HomeImprovement, have been drafted into service too. On the March 14 episode of the sitcom GraceUnder Fire, Grace finds drugs in her son’s room. As a child of the 1960s, she finds it hard to raise the issue with him. But in the end, according to an ABC publicist, Grace decides to take a “hard line.”

ABC’s little adventure in what is known in the trade as “cause-related marketing” is the most serious episode of Disneyfication since the Mouseketeers took over the network in 1995. The March Against Drugs replaces journalism (and entertainment) with agitprop. Beyond that, the willingness of a top news organization to suspend all skepticism is one more sign that the drug war has reached another baroque period.

The story of ABC’s descent into this morass begins with family. James Burke, the head of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, is the brother of Daniel Burke, who, until shortly before the Disney takeover, was the head of Capital Cities/ABC. Under Daniel Burke’s leadership, ABC tried to distinguish itself as the anti-drug leader among the major networks, running a plethora of partnership-produced public-service announcements, including the famous fried-egg commercial, “This is your brain on drugs.” Capital Cities instituted a pre-employment urine-testing program that covered the ABC newsroom. David Westin, who recently replaced Roone Arledge as president of ABC News, has redoubled these efforts. Last year, when the partnership presented research indicating a national rise in teen drug use, Westin hatched the “March Against Drugs” idea.

The first question Westin should have asked himself is whether it ever makes sense for a news organization like ABC to climb into bed with an advocacy organization like the partnership. Fighting racism and protecting the environment are good causes too. But had ABC allied itself with even mainstream organizations like the NAACP or the Sierra Club, alarm bells would have gone off–and rightly so. Despite the worthiness of these causes, questions arise about the methods, tactics, reliability of information, and sources of funding of any advocacy organization. Nonprofits often provide essential help for reporters, but it’s Journalism 101 that you treat them skeptically–as sources, not as allies in a crusade.

T he Partnership for a Drug-Free America is a nonprofit group that produces super-slick TV and print advertising to try to “unsell” drugs. Until very recently, the partnership was heavily supported by the cigarette and liquor industries, which want to distinguish their products from illegal drugs. The partnership no longer accepts smoking and drinking money, but about half its support comes from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, whose wealth is based on pharmaceuticals.

These biases are reflected in the March Against Drugs. Drinking by teens is arguably a bigger problem than the use of illegal pills, plants, and powders. According to surveys, 30 percent of high-school seniors say they have been drunk in the last month. Only 10 percent say they use drugs. But ABC isn’t talking about that. “Most experts agree that it is OK if your kids see you having an occasional drink,” says an educational pamphlet distributed by the network in connection with the march. ABC has aired no stories about the abuse of prescription drugs so far this month. It did, however, run an alarmist story on GoodMorningAmerica about kids sniffing toxic household chemicals, which it claimed kills 1,000 kids a year–a statistic that drug experts say has no basis.

What’s a little exaggeration in a good cause? The air of hyperbole that surrounds the ABC march is in keeping with the partnership’s Madison Avenue attitude that a message doesn’t have to be accurate if it sells. One famous partnership ad suggested that smoking pot produces the flat-line brainwave of a comatose person. ABC News would never knowingly be a party to the dissemination of such crude and dishonest propaganda during a real war, as opposed to a metaphorical one like the war on drugs. But this month, it seems to be dropping all its usual standards.

Richard Evans, a Massachusetts lawyer who wrote a piece in Time about the difficulty of talking honestly to one’s kids about drugs, was flown to New York to participate in a taped round-table dialogue for GoodMorningAmerica. He says his comments criticizing the partnership were edited out of the discussion before it aired. Perhaps this was because of time constraints or because Evans was inarticulate–though he was pretty cogent on the phone. And ABC has made some efforts in the direction of balance. Last week, World News Tonight ran a fair-minded story about Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who advocates treating drugs as a public-health problem rather than a law-enforcement one. But if another dissenter is presented this month, it will probably be some stoned freak with a ponytail. It’s your choice: communism or Joe McCarthy. That’s not atypical of TV journalism, which thrives on the conflict of extremes. But ABC used to do better. A couple of years ago, it broadcast America’s War on Drugs: The Search for Solutions, a much praised hour-long special that questioned the tactics and methods of the drug war.

There is a crudeness to the March Against Drugs campaign that must make Ted Koppel wince. A pamphlet called How to Raise Drug-Free Kids (produced by the partnership, Reader’s Digest, the Department of Education, and ABC for the project) makes the project of child-rearing sound like growing seedless watermelons. Never experimenting with drugs is seen as the chief goal of growing up. “Drug-Free Kids” might sound like just another dumb slogan à la “Just Say No.” But these slogans have consequences. “Zero Tolerance” led to the near-expulsion of a 13-year-old girl who gave Midol to a friend at school. “Drug-Free Kids” is already encouraging parents to drug-test their own children–something Good Morning America thinks might not be such a bad idea.

Historians are likely to look back on ABC’s March Against Drugs as a high-water mark in the anti-drug irrationalism of the mid-’90s. There’s a returning kids-on-milk-cartons sense of hysteria to the whole crusade. This would have been a good story for ABC News, if ABC hadn’t been so busy being part of the problem.