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Is the Government Coercing Media Companies to Adopt Anti-Drug Messages?

Aired July 12, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight, the White House drug czar goes Hollywood with his anti-drug messages, but is there a role for government in the movies? Or is it just government propaganda?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the crossfire, the president of the American Civil Liberties Union, Nadine Strossen, and Robert Maginnis, vice president of the Family Research Council.

MATALIN: Good evening and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

That's right, the government is going Hollywood with its drug war. The White House Office of National Drug Policy Control (sic) is stepping up efforts to encourage major movie studios, individual directors and writers to promote anti-drug messages in films.

Testifying before Congress, drug czar General Barry McCaffrey emphasized that government efforts to partner with the movie industry would include no financial incentives, only persuasive information.


RETIRED GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF NATIONAL DRUG CONTROL POLICY: We're making available to the producers, directors, writers, the creative community the resources, the understanding that the National Institute of Drug Abuse gets out of $600 million a year of taxpayer dollars studying this issue.


MATALIN: The general's sensitivity on the subject of money stemmed from an earlier similar arrangement with television and magazine industries, which drew widespread criticism, because the government provided millions of dollars in advertising credits to the media outlets in exchange for their inclusion of anti-drug messages in programming.

Though network executives swore no scripts were changed in exchange for their cooperation, critics contend the government program is intrusive, Orwellian and stifles creativity.

So tonight, should policy-makers and movie-makers partner to promote anti-drug messages, or is the long arm of government manipulating movies? -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Good evening. Good to have you both here in the studio with us.


PRESS: Bob Maginnis, let me ask you, first of all. I think it's important as we start the debate that people understand exactly what this campaign is all about, first TV and now the movies. Nobody would believe me. So I want to use the general's own words as he described it to Congress yesterday, General Barry McCaffrey. Quote -- I want you to listen for one key word.

"We believe there will be opportunities to leverage" -- key word -- "popular movies and videos that responsibly communicate campaign messages after they have been released."

Now, "leverage" means using force or pressure to bring about change or to move people. I mean, is this guy taking the word "czar" maybe a little too seriously?

ROBERT MAGINNIS, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: He's not the general of the White House drug policy. He is the director and he does have a concern about kids in this country, Bill.

You know, keep in mind, he may have used an inappropriate term, but what we are doing is providing information to producers who ask for it. For years and years, we've had, the National Institute of Drug Abuse has been asked, Alan Leshner and his crew have gone out to Hollywood and they've said these are the facts.

Keep in mind, 85 percent of all the world's research on illicit drugs is done in this country. We know the truth, and all we're trying to do is share the truth with Hollywood people, because we know the glamorization of drugs is leading to more drug use amongst our kids.

PRESS: I would hesitate to add that I think people in Hollywood know a hell of a lot more about drugs than General McCaffrey does. Maybe he ought to be going out there to learn about drugs and not the other way around.


But again...


... he said he wants to leverage. What's he going to leverage with? Is the government going to leverage using pressure? Is the government going to leverage using the IRS? Is the government going to leverage using cash payouts? What kind of pressure? What kind of leverage, Bob?

MAGINNIS: Hollywood keeps coming to him and asking him about the facts. They consult on "ER." They consult on "7th Heaven." They consult on a series of TV and movies for years and years.

You know, the idea is we have a terrible problem with adolescent drug use in this country. About half of our kids are now using -- half of teenagers are now using marijuana in one way or another. We have a rising use of heroin, 500 percent over the last decade.

So what we're trying to do is communicate rational information that is scientifically based and saying: This is it. You can have it, use it. They're not going to force anybody to use it in the movies and they're not going to force them into television.

PRESS: But it seems to me there's a word -- it seems to me there's a word for government-dictated scripts. And even if the aim is valid, the word is "propaganda." That's what you've got on TV now, government propaganda. Is that what we want in the movies? Government propaganda?

MAGINNIS: Bill, all they're giving them is the truth. You know, they're showing these images of what cocaine or ecstasy does on a kid's brain.

I will tell you, American moms and dads today in America are concerned about their young children being exposed to these radical movies that are promoting drug use.

You know, research shows that a large majority of the modern movies do have very sympathetic drug use and they don't have any of the consequences that are associated with that.

PRESS: But they're also concerned about too much government.

STROSSEN: May I make an observation, because Bob has refused to answer the question? He shifts the ground to whether it's a good message or a bad message, and that's really beside the point.

Actually, frankly, if the government was using leverage to pressure the media to issue pro-civil liberties messages I would still be disturbed, because the larger underlying principle is that in a free society we should be free to make our own decisions based on information that we seek. And the government also has the power to openly buy ads to provide information. Barry McCaffrey has spent millions of our taxpayer dollars. But the public has the right to know that it's coming from the government.

MAGINNIS: There's no money exchanging hands in Hollywood from McCaffrey or from Congress to influence movies. What we're trying to do is to share within the wealth of knowledge that our taxpayers have paid billions of dollars to find out the truth about illicit drugs, to keep their kids off drugs, and the movies, we know, are having a major impact on those youths.

MATALIN: OK, Nadine, let me go here, OK? I'm a civil libertarian. I'm the last person to suggest another government program. But you guys have gone off the deep end. I guess lefties think they know something about propaganda.

STROSSEN: Don't talk about lefties here. A lot of conservatives are equally upset.

MATALIN: OK. But you know what, this is a legitimate use for the government, the bully pulpit. It is voluntary. It is non- coercive. There is not one penny exchanging hands. And listen to what a movie industry mogul had to say today (sic) about it.


LORI MCCREARY, REVELATIONS ENTERTAINMENT: I think that his heart is in the right place. I think that ultimately as film-makers we have a responsibility for the messages that we're putting out into the public.


MATALIN: OK. What's wrong with the movie industry taking some responsibility? They carry themes of anti-domestic violence, pro- environment. What's wrong with them...

STROSSEN: I absolutely defend...

MATALIN: ... voluntary carrying this message?

STROSSEN: I absolutely defend voluntary action by the movie industry. If that were all we were talking about, we would not have to use terms like leverage. We would not use terms like consultation with TV.

I think it was very striking that Bob expressly compared what is now being proposed in the future, promises about the movie industry, oh, it will be voluntary, when we know what actually happened in the past with TV: that until he was confronted with the evidence, General McCaffrey denied that there had been any payment of money with respect to TV. He denied that there had been any prior consultation and review and changing...

MATALIN: You know what, but let's talk about what the network executives had to say...

STROSSEN: Mary, the public is entitled...

MATALIN: Excuse me, Nadine. Facts here. NBC, ABC, CBS, every network executive said not one script was touched.

Again let's talk about reality...

STROSSEN: That's absolutely not true.

MATALIN: not what might happen in the future.

STROSSEN: That's absolutely untrue.

MATALIN: And let me talk, let me...

STROSSEN: It was documented by the author, the investigative reporter who did the "Salon" magazine expose... MATALIN: Oh, "Salon." All the news fit to print.

STROSSEN: ... actually came up with an e-mail from McCaffrey's office that documented that at least one script had in fact been changed after the fact. And McCaffrey himself admitted as much when he testified in Congress yesterday and said, we are no longer going to follow the policy that we did follow with respect to TV, which was...


MATALIN: OK. All right. Let's -- then let's say one script out of hundreds was changed...


Can I just quote McCafrrey again? So we're trying to get to this problem that we have with our children.

Here's exactly what the program is. Let's not make up what it will be. Let's hear what it is.

STROSSEN: Exactly.

MATALIN: What McCaffrey had to say.


MCCAFFREY: The National Institute of Drug Abuse and my office are both aggressively trying to sell a science-based viewpoint on the damage that drug abuse does to American youngsters. And we hope that the movie industry -- and they've been very creative in partnering with us -- accurately describes what methamphetamines and heroin and inhalant abuse actually does to young Americans.


MATALIN: This is what he's providing to the movie industry, who in many instances have come to him: $600 million worth of taxpayer- funded data, real data.

STROSSEN: He's absolutely free to provide information. He's absolutely free to make requests. He's absolutely free to buy paid ads.

What he cannot do with our tax dollars is to pressure what is parading as a private industry, what is parading as a voluntary effort, and in fact use coercive tactics.

PRESS: Bob, I want to jump in here and I want to clear the air about something. We are talking about the exchange of money. It is incorrect to say no money changed hands.

Let me tell you how it did. Two ways. No. 1, the networks have to provide certain amounts of PSAs, and McCaffrey said, if you put these anti-drug messages in and you show us you did, you don't have to run as many public service commercials, which means you have more time to sell, which means you make money.

MAGINNIS: But that's for television, not for movies.

PRESS: If you go up to Congress -- if you go up -- well, I'm talking about TV, first, just to clear the air.

If you go up to Congress and you offer a senator money to do a certain thing, that's called a bribe, Bob. He was bribing the networks.

STROSSEN: And average $450,000 per episode.

MAGINNIS: This is purely voluntary. They don't have to accept the matching funds. But the point is that, you know, they have a civic responsibility to the epidemic of drug use in adolescents in this country, and unfortunately, we have all this fine information out here that parents need to know, that the kids need to know, and when we provide this information to the kids guess what, they don't use drugs. So let's not, you know, let's not pander around here. They aren't getting money unless they ask for it, and they have to match it dollar for dollar in PSA dollars.

PRESS: Let me ask you again -- listen to my question. I'm not countering any of your statistics on the problem with drugs. I'm talking about our condoning government going to any means, in fact taking away some of our liberties. I want to come back to the money. They have paid in TV -- please, please. In this TV thing, they paid $22 million to writers and writers and directors to change scripts. McCaffrey said that yesterday, and now he says in Hollywood, they're not going to pay money ahead of time, but they're going to reward them afterwards. That is still a bribe. What's the difference if you pay it up front or afterwards? It's outrageous.

MAGINNIS: They come to the movie industry and they say, look, we have information, you use this information and...

PRESS: And we'll pay you.

MAGINNIS: No. You had use this information to promote the type of messages that this country needs to keep kids out of trouble, and you know, if you want this, then we'll be matching and you'll produce the PSAs, you'll produce the advertisements and so forth. You know, we're spending a billion dollars, Bill, over the next five years or since 1998, to try to keep kids off drugs. The cost to Americans last year for drug abuse is $110 billion and 52,000 lives. This is a national crisis, we need to address it, and the best way we know how to do it today is to get to the kids. Sixty-six percent of kids have TVs in their room, and most of these kids are going to the movies and they're getting these terrible messages. So somehow in this country we have to keep our kids off drugs, and this is one way to help.

PRESS: Nadine Strossen, I know you're ready to jump in. You'll be first up when we come back from the break. A good debate, great issue, lots of emotion. When we come back, TV and movies aren't enough. General McCaffrey has announced his next target: the Internet, when we come back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

In his testimony to Congress yesterday, drug czar Barry McCaffrey not only expanded the war on drugs to TV and Hollywood, he announced his next target, tracking people on the Internet. Is this too much Big Brother, or does the end justify the means? Heavy questions for two guests who can handle it. Robert Maginnis, vice president of the Family Research Council, and Nadine Strossen, professor of law and president of the American Civil Liberties Union -- Mary.

MATALIN: OK, Nadine, finally a government program that makes sense. Barry McCaffrey's office found in a study they took a couple years ago that most popular movies were replete with characters who drank, who smoked, who did illegal drugs. That is still the case, the number one box movie of today, "Scary Movie," the guy is a total pothead, "American Beauty," "Eyes Wide Shut," they're all about drug use. This is why he wants to insert these messages in these movies.

Let me let you hear from a professor of media psychology at Cal Tech.


STUART FISHOFF, PROFESSOR OF MEDIA PSYCHOLOGY, CAL STATE, L.A.: Psychologically, it's more effective than public service announcements, because those are usually people with whom the audience can identify. And if you don't identify with the person on the screen, who is telling you about drugs, there is no message.


MATALIN: See, this is how you reach kids, people with whom they identify. And the message is, if you want to use them, if you want to show use, then show the consequences.

STROSSEN: You know, the question was, does the end justify the means? This is starting to sound like the Orwellian ministry of propaganda. We know what's best for you, therefore, we are justified in inserting? That was your word, Mary. Big Brother is going to insert messages in what is being portrayed as a movie? The government is free to spend my tax dollars, as we've just heard that's being spent to the tune of billions, to issue what is clearly labeled as government information. It is free to buy ads, and certainly does buy ads all over the country. What it is not free to do is to covertly manipulate messages that are purportedly being created by the independent creative communities.


MATALIN: The government is asking the movie industry to voluntarily include in their presentations of druggies as glamorous, successful, luxury, wealth, the consequences of drug use. Let me refer to the statistics that Bob did earlier. STROSSEN: We're not arguing about that, Mary. We're arguing whether this is a legitimate tactic. Are you are going to sit hear and say that I think drug abuse is such a serious problem and there's no other way to deal with it, therefore, we're going to give up our First Amendment freedoms as Americans?

MATALIN: Oh please, please.

STROSSEN: Well, that's what we're talking about.

MATALIN: No, I'm saying as a parent, every parent books says this, by the time their kids are in the age where they're drug vulnerable, you have lost control of them. They are affected more by their culture and their peers, and we're saying, let's do something about the culture. Let's use...

STROSSEN: We live in a free society. We can influence the culture. If there is anything that is responsive to public attitudes, it is the entertainment media, which goes by rating, which goes by popularity.


STROSSEN: The consumers influence the culture. It's completely different for government to dictate what the culture should be. That is the difference between a totalitarian society and a free society.

MAGINNIS: There is an interesting analogy. For 30 years, smoking was publicized and glamorized from the '30s to the '60s on television. And I mean, our use of smoking just skyrocketed. We have today, though, we've killed Joe Camel and Mr. Kool. Why? Because we know it results in cancer in a lot of people. Hundreds of thousands of Americans die every year. And so government, big, bad government in this context, did something right. What we know is that we're going to lose a lot of thousands of kids.

Now all they're doing is giving information, and they're saying, we want to help you understand what the facts are. That's what they do on TV and that's what they are proposing to do with movies.

STROSSEN: Government is totally free to provide information.

MAGINNIS: And they do, and they're asked for it all the time.

STROSSEN: What they're not free to do is to pressure entertainment to serve as their mouthpiece.

MAGINNIS: They're not pressuring anybody. They're not.

PRESS: Bravo for tobacco. But it's more than giving information, it's providing rewards, and that's what we are talking about.

STROSSEN: Pressuring.

PRESS: Now I want to ask you about the Internet, because there's a White House addict by chief of staff John Podesta that says the White House drug policy office, Barry McCaffrey, can not go after people who click on to the White House -- put these "cookies," they call them in the business, people who click their Web site. Barry McCaffrey said yesterday he wants to overturn that, so he can track these people down and find out their buying habits, even where they live, even their names. Isn't this "Big Brother" amuck? Doesn't that bother you as an American?

MAGINNIS: I certainly don't understand all the details in that. I will tell you that I am concerned about drug use. They want to provide information.

You know, the Internet, Bill, you can find anything want on the Internet. You go as a child, a teenager can go and access virtually every one of these pro-drug sites. They can order drugs to their home and so forth.

The cookie idea, it's done by businesses all over the country. They profile their buyers every day. It's out there, and it's and an controlled meanings of communication in this world.

PRESS: Well, wait a minute, I mean, I'm concerned about prostitution. I'm concerned about murder. I'm concerned about drug abuse. I'm concerned about a lot of problems, but I'm also concerned about my civil liberties and the right to privacy in this country, and you seem to be saying, whether it's TV, or it's Hollywood or it's the Internet, all bets are off to get to the drug problem.

MAGINNIS: So you want to regulate the Internet?

PRESS: No, I want to protect the Constitution and my constitutional rights.

MAGINNIS: Well, the information on the Internet -- if you put the information on the Internet, Bill, it belongs to anybody that can access the Internet; it's worldwide.

PRESS: You know what, the FBI has a program now, the FBI has a new program called "Carnivore." They can track every e-mail sent, every single e-mail sent anywhere in this country. And now you want to give Barry McCaffrey the same power?

MAGINNIS: Well, then regulate the Internet. If you really want to hurt our First Amendment rights, then regulate the Internet. That's what your suggesting, Bill.

PRESS: No, no, no, I'm not suggested that.

MAGINNIS: Sure you are.

STROSSEN: Government tracking is actually counterproductive, because it would deter people from going and seeking out the kind of information -- I'm all in favor of government providing information and people voluntarily looking for it. Well, in the war on drugs, which as we know, has been used to violate every right of Americans, from free speech to privacy. We have just heard about that tonight. MATALIN: The war of words on the war on drugs when Bill and I come back for our closing comments. Thank you, Nadine, so much.

STROSSEN: Oh, thank you so much.

MATALIN: Thank you, Bob.

MAGINNIS: Thank you, Mary.

MATALIN: Great. We'll be right back. Stay with us.


MATALIN: You know what, this cracks me up. I didn't see the ACLU or you crying in your beer about the government assault on the tobacco industry, on gun manufacturers, hundred billion dollars a year, 52,000 deaths, countless wrecked lives. This is a public health hazard and the government has an obligation, a responsibility to do everything it can to thwart it, particularly amongst kids.

PRESS: No matter how important the issue, the Constitution and our constitutional rights are more important.

Mary, if they were doing this in the news business, there would be a huge public uproar. We shouldn't let them do it in the TV business. We shouldn't let them do it in the movie business either. I mean, I think this is very dangerous. This is bribing people to say things. This is propaganda.

MATALIN: It would be dangerous if they were doing this. It's totally voluntary. When Nancy Reagan gave the same speech to the movie industry those many years ago, they gave her a standing o. They want to be responsible. It is totally voluntary.

PRESS: She wasn't offering payments to writers. That's what's wrong about this, paying people off.

MATALIN: They're not doing this now.

PRESS: From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: And from the right, I'm Mary Matalin. Join us again tomorrow for more CROSSFIRE.



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