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Drugs, Reform, Propaganda, & Payola

Habeas Mentem

An interview with Dan Forbes, the investigative journalist who uncovered the Drug Czar / Network Media payloa scandal.

Dan Forbes: ...sitcoms and dramas on all the major networks but I was lucky enough to pull it together and really make the disclosure of this and the fact that it made front page news in just about every paper in the country, so obviously the editors of all those papers thought it was news as well. Believe me, when I say luck, there was some hard work and persistence but there's always an element of luck in getting a story like that as well.

Habeas Mentem: It kind of reminds me of Gary Web's Mercury News stories. Seems to be a parallel there.

DF: Well, Not having held a job in years, I don't have a job in jeopardy. Gary was basically hounded out of a job by total lack of support from the paper, and actually left journalism to got work for a state legislator in California. It's tough challenging the powers that be on this particular issue. We can talk about it a bit later... Maybe I should outline for our listeners a couple of sentences on that White House campaign. What they did was basically set up a complicated financial credit mechanism, whereby the networks and also some major magazines, such as US News and World Report submitted an article for credit, Sporting News, Seventeen, and Parade, the Sunday supplement. But especially the television networks. If they went along with some pretty harsh anti-drug story lines then they made a heck of a lot more money: twenty-two million bucks of ad time that they owed the government was freed up and allowed them to sell that time to General Motors or Ford or whoever. And advertising time, if you got a thirty second block at 8:30/7 PM on a Tuesday night it only comes around once. So if you no longer owe that time to the government because they like the propaganda you're inserting in the shows, then you can sell it to somebody else.

HM: What was the result of your articles? Was there any curbing of the finances involved? Was there a resettlement?

DF: Actually, there were three congressional hearings. I managed to insert this in a conversation with old ladies I bumped carts with in the supermarket. I ended up testifying before both the House and the Senate. Which certainly helps a free-lancer trying to make his way in the world. But more far more important than that, NORML, the National Organization For The Reform of Marijuana Laws, made a formal complaint to the Federal Communications Commission(FCC). And a good eight/nine months down the road they issued sort of a slap on the wrist, telling networks they cant have secret messages in TV shows anymore. So in this case, the system did work. The press was able to expose something and under the Clinton administration FCC the practice was curbed. It's interesting to speculate what the result might have been under a Bush administration FCC, because there is still that crucial, slight wedge of difference between the two parties in Washington.

HM: Were you subpoenaed by the Congress to testify?

DF: No; I was delighted to testify. A friend of mine, Eric Sterling, who runs the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation out of Washington, and he used to work for Congress himself as a staff attorney, said to me if you're ever asked to testify before Congress, it's an honor and a public duty. I testified under oath and was very aware that I better not mess up, because theoretically it might come back to haunt me. But having worked for months to bring this story out, I was glad to tell my tale to Congress.

HM: You also wrote an article decrying Channel 1's use of funds to proliferate commercial broadcasting in schools.

DF: Yeah, the Channel 1 situation is interesting because certainly in a televised medium, let's put the magazines aside for a moment, the White House always maintained that they never crossed the line over to try to influence hard news. And you can laugh at Channel 1 if you want to but a whole host of middle school and high school students are now rushing home to watch Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, this is about the only news they get. I'm remembering the figure off the top of my head, it's something like eight million viewers a day, they claim. And they have a similar scheme, with the White House, whereby if their news segments met with White House approval as having the right anti-drug content, then advertising time that Channel 1 owed to the White House -- because they do sell ads on this several-minute news segment per day -- that time would be freed up. And they got approximately three million bucks extra that they wouldn't have gotten.

The funny thing is that the first half of the school year, they submitted several news stories and they just were not deemed hard-hitting enough. They had a social marketing academic expert who was hired by the White House to review them and give tips to Channel 1 on just what was needed. So the first half of the year, again Im speaking off the top of my head, but its something like one out of eight or nine only was approved. The second half of the year, following the dictates from the White House consultant, who was on the White House payroll, they learned their lesson, and something on the order of seven out of eight, or eight out of nine were approved. So they said O.K., we can dance to the government's tune.

HM: Its been about two years since you wrote the Salon articles?

DF: The original series was January 2000.

HM: In the intervening time the ONDCP is figuring out what hit them. And now you're getting some flak? Whats going on with that?

DF: I got some flak back in the first half of 2000. Habeas, let me mention one other story if I may just to put it all in context.

HM: Certainly.

DF: We've talked about the who and the what, lets talk about the why here. And that was a story that is really the single most important one in my estimation. It's published in Salon, July 27, 2000. The title of the story is Fighting "Cheech and Chong" Medicine. That was Barry McCaffrey's phrase for Medical Marijuana. What that article proves is that the entire genesis of this media campaign, the motivation for making the Partnership for Drug Free America's donated ad time and making it a million dollars worth of tax payer funds, was a direct response to the passage of Medical Marijuana initiatives in California and Arizona in 1996. Nine days after the election in November of 96, Barry McCaffrey convened a meeting in Washington with thirty-five or forty very senior folks, the head of the DEA, a couple of White House officials, the head of the Partnership For A Drug Free America, people from the Federal Executive Branch the Department of Justice and Health and Human Services, etc. And they said that we need federal funds to insure that there are no other Medical Marijuana passed. Because the troika of the very wealthy backers of those amendments, George Soros, Peter Lewis and John Sperling, caught the status quo drug warriors by surprise they said, and they wanted to see that never happened again. Of course, ironically, since then, voters have approved seven or eight or nine subsequent Medical Marijuana initiatives despite the advertising campaign that was engendered at that meeting.

In terms of the government response to my work, it sort of blissfully faded from memory. As a free-lancer I have no great institutional support. They have called editors and castigated me and castigated my work. And said that I shouldnt be allowed to publish or should do so under various restraints. You say, well fine, what are the mistakes, can you point to any? In conversation various folks have slammed the door in my face over the phone, saying they won't talk to me because Im a liar. My response to that is, if I made mistakes or lied, please indicate at least one. Can you back that statement up? It's never indicated. And knock on wood, the mistakes are kept to a minimum. The ironic thing is that the government said that I should be precluded from writing on drug policy because my articles are archived on a very useful web site, called the Media Awareness Project, which basically archives any article on drug policy it can get its hands on. Theres seventy or eighty thousand articles on it at this point. When the White House was going after me, they sort of shot themselves in the foot with that, because at the same time I had a dozen or so articles archived there. Barry McCaffrey, the Drug Czar, had thirty or forty himself on the same site. So that didnt really fly.

HM: I noticed he decried the website in a quote stating that they publish recipes for Ecstasy.

DF: As I said, they publish basically anything they can get their hands on, their attitude being let the readers decide. Given the fact that in the press in America, by far the majority of articles are supportive, certainly respectful of the government line of the war on drugs, a rather discredited policy thats been in effect since Richard Nixon's days, but still the vast majority of the press subscribes to it. So given that fact, by far the majority of the articles on are reflective of the status quo.

HM: I've noticed that most of your writing is very dense and actually quite lengthy as well.

DF: [Laughs] That's good. Dense like my head.

HM: How long does it take you to put together an article? For instance the one in High Times, covering the recent NORML convention.

DF: Doing conference coverage is a relative piece of cake. I did an article for the High Times website, just reporting on events at the NORML conference in San Francisco. That just entails sitting in a room scribbling, your hand gets sore, talking to people, etc. That gets written in several days. Thats not investigative work. Its worthwhile work but compare that with the piece I just published, posted on the Institute for Policy Studies website, which is about a twenty-five thousand word article. That took me four and a half/five months to do. The original Salon stuff took several months and hundreds and hundreds of phone calls.

HM: What tipped you off to the ONDCP payola scandal to begin with?

DF: You know it's funny, I had just the average, somewhat politically aware person knowledge of the war on drugs and the drug reform movement. I was out of journalism for a while doing social work and made my way after several years of social work back into journalism. An editor at a trade magazine, called Brand Week -- sister publication to Ad Week -- a guy by the name of Dave Kiely, a very smart editor, was saying, "hey, the government's embarked on paying for these ads after ten years of them being donated. Whats the social science backing up the fact whether these ads work or not?" We both assumed, going in, that there would be four or five studies published in peer review articles, and one or two would presumably be pretty good and one or two not so good, etc. So he said go check it out and I did. It turns out there were no published articles backing up the efficacy of the ads. Which is pretty remarkable as they embarked on a billion dollar public program. In the course of my reporting that initial story, the guy running the program for the White House Drug Czar's office, a man by the name of Allen Levit, let slip really just a single statement or two, discussing the mechanics of how this program would work. He said, "Oh, by the way, were going to also offer the television networks financial credit for programming content." This was a phone interview and my jaw dropped and I didn't say a word, but huge alarm bells were going off in my head like what in the world are you talking about? The government's going to be giving TV networks money for programming? Thats not supposed to happen. So I sat on it for a year because the program hadn't been developed, and then started doing the reporting and was lucky enough to nail it. And again, there's a lot of luck involved.

HM: Is it actually illegal for the government to do that? Or simply poor form?

DF: Its entirely poor form. But what the FCC prohibited them from doing, nine or ten months after the story broke, was the fact that there was what's called a Concurrent Notice obligation they didnt meet. You see, any kind of game show, Jeopardy or something, there'll be credits scrolling at the end and it'll say, the host's suit was provided by Brooks Brothers or whoever. That's done because it's legally required. Anything of value that contributes to the airing of that program has to be indicated, otherwise you end up with all kinds of secret payola. So the government really could have continued doing this legally, if they had indicated that they were doing so. But then they would have shot themselves in the foot with that, because kids and parents -- the messages are aimed at least as much at parents, i.e. voters, remember the Medical Marijuana initiative that gave rise to the whole thing. Viewers of any age who saw [disclaimers] would be like, "Wait a minute, What does this mean? The White House made financial contributions to this program?" And that would raise an eyebrow and get them to discount the message that otherwise secretly they would pay attention to.

HM: What are you currently doing?

DF: After five months work and scrambling around to find a publisher, you talk about dense, this one's as dense as a brick through a window, and I hope it has a similar effect. There's a venerable and estimable Washington think-tank, its been around since 1963, called the Institute for Policy Studies. I hope people can check it out, I ran an article on the home page there that describes a rather wild attempt by the republican governor of Ohio, Bob Taft, his wife the first lady, who's very much in the Nancy Reagan drug warrior mold, members of his cabinet, senior staff, etc., have embarked on a secret campaign -- until it came out last winter -- to defeat a ballot amendment or initiative that voters would vote on in Ohio in November. This was a measure promoting drug treatment, rather than sending the poor hapless addicts to jail. Only if you're guilty of personal use amounts of drugs -- no dealing, no violent crime, nothing. Just the poor mope caught with his own drugs will be diverted into treatment. It seeks to replicate Prop 36 which was passed overwhelmingly in California back in the 2000 elections. So anyway, Soros, Lewis and Sperling, are seeking to replicate the California initiative in Ohio, Michigan and Florida (they've since withdrawn in Florida). But the Ohio administration hooked up with a Senior United States Senate staffer, a guy named Bill Olson, the wife of the chairman of Republican National Committee finance committee, a very rich Republican fund-raiser named Mel Sembler, they hooked up with his wife Betty Sembler. The Partnership For a Drug Free America, which does get some government funding, The Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, etc. The Drug Czars of Ohio and Florida cooked up a political campaign to defeat this initiative. The documents were made available to the press in Ohio, myself, anybody else who wanted them, back in midwinter. The press in Ohio did a couple of six-seven-eight hundred word stories. It just seemed like a real perversion of what's supposed to happen in a democracy and I got a bee in my bonnet about it, and spent five months half looking, messing with the documents and half doing original reporting. Again, hundreds of phone calls. A lot of heavy-duty writing to generate a report that is hopefully readable despite its ridiculous length.

HM: So its bypassing the judicial process, or instead of a fine you get diversion treatment?

DF: Not instead of a fine, instead of jail time. A lot of these folks are sent to jail for many months, a year or more. It doesn't do anybody any good. They go into jail, a graduate school for crime, they're brutalized in jail, they come out mean and angry, it does nothing to address their underlying drug problem. It's dis-proportionately minority. According to figures in Ohio, thirteen-to-fourteen percent of drug users there are black, which is approximately the percentage in the population, fully three-quarters of the people sent to jail for simple possession are black. Theyre not going into Shaker Heights ritzy suburbs to get the drug users there. Its street busts. Street busts are the easiest to make. This [initiative] is saying put these guys in treatment.

HM: So where's the malfeasance in Ohio? Why does Ohio stand out exactly?

DF: Well, as a public official, if these folks wanted to defeat this amendment on their own time, nights, weekends, fine, God bless them, more power to them. But they were on the clock while they were supposed to be performing their functions for the citizens of Ohio. They were using state funds to pay for out-of-town trips and hotel rooms for people who flew in for a big strategy session. They paid a meeting facilitator two grand. Doesn't sound like big bucks, but the principal is the same. The other thing, to get back to my friends at the Partnership for a Drug Free America, they are an avowedly apolitical organization, and yet they made it clear that they were willing to create advertisements that promoted the current rather inadequate treatment system in Ohio. Thus indicating to voters that no change was necessary and they wouldn't have to vote for the initiative to change things. The first lady of Ohio and the four top executives of the Partnership had a meeting in the United States Senate in the Capitol building itself, the one with the dome, to try to plan a campaign to defeat this amendment. Attending that meeting was the current deputy director of the White House Drugs Czar office, she was a publicly announced nominee (I'm sorry, she attended the meeting in Ohio, not the one at the Capitol building, but a strategy session, a high-level meeting in Ohio). You've got the number two person at the Drug Czar's office, pending her confirmation. You're not supposed to have state or federal officials -- a DEA agent was involved, etc. -- inserting themselves into the electoral process like this.

HM: This is a book or lengthy article you've finished?

DF: I call it a monograph, it's a research report. It's forty-five pages in PDF at the Institute For Policy Studies. The funny thing is, it hasn't really been picked up by the press.

HM: Funny isn't it?

DF: There's a little two-page executive summary. I better be right in my assertions, because I'm making some very inflammatory assertions. It would seem that some reporters would be interested in it. I've had a couple of nibbles of interest but no firm response, somebody calling me up and saying, we want to write a story on this, what's this all about, etc. It's not the easiest thing in world to challenge the status quo and get it publicized in this country these days. On the other hand, the Internet of which this show is a prime example, is bouncing all over the net, so will see if it eventually catches fire.

HM: Sounds like youre keeping with the tradition you started with Salon. One last question before we let you go: What do you see as the future of the drug war in this country?

DF: Before September 11th, it seemed like there was a lot of momentum being generated for reform. In terms of domestic policy issues, the drug war and its excess were within the top five issues in the country. Thats been moved back. I think there's going to be a bitter struggle, as part of the wider both cultural struggle and struggle to maintain civil liberties in this country. The public as a whole realizes that thirty years of emphasis on incarceration and interdiction -- and busting people for Marijuana, which is still a keystone for the drug war -- that it doesn't seem to be working and perhaps it's time for something else. I dont know if it's death-throes or not. The excesses are legion. The current Drug Czar, John Walters, with the ads that surfaced during the Super Bowl and have run since, that drugs equals terrorism, is focusing on Marijuana, which doesn't have a whole lot to do with Afghanistan.

HM: Do people buy that?

DF: That's an interesting question. That is something that's on my radar, and thats something that I'm going to endeavor to talk to the experts to find out. But another, absolutely wild excess is in the Higher Education Act. You get caught with a joint, you lose your federal funding to go to college and these are loans which you have to repay. You get caught assaulting someone, or any number of serious crimes of violence, it's not going to effect your college loan situation. But it comes down to an amazing level of petty vindictiveness. The colleges themselves are arresting kids. Their own constituency, and boom, their student loans are in jeopardy when they apply the next year.

HM: This has been a tour de force interview with Dan Forbes.

DF: Thanks for your time. Hey, good luck to independent media! Im a fan, being an independent media person myself.

HM: Dan Forbes, one of the finer journalists covering the drug war in this country...

Tags : psychedelic
Rating : Teen - Drugs
Posted on: 2004-03-04 00:00:00