A Letter From the Editor

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Creativity could have been raking in the dough. I just learned from an article on www.salon.com that the government hands out cash to get its anti-drug message into regular magazine articles. You read right: magazine pieces containing the official anti-drug gospel now qualify for fat rewards by Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug czar. This was kept hush-hush, of course: a dirty little backroom deal that the public didn't need to know about.

So when Salon's Daniel Forbes broke the story, on March 31, I felt left out. If only I'd kept my trap shut about Madison Avenue's complicity in the government's misleading anti-drug ads (Creativity, May 1999). And if instead I'd just published some screed saying that all illicit drugs are the work of the devil. Man, we'd be sitting on a big wad of cash right now! It evidently worked for some of the biggest magazines in the country, including Parade (37 million weekly copies), USA Weekend (22 million), and even the once-trustworthy U.S. News and World Report (2.2 million). They and a handful of others took McCaffrey's money, in return for having editorially furthered the White House drug agenda. Parade was the big winner, with $1.85 million in free government lucre. In January, the magazine ran a glowing cover story on McCaffrey. Coincidence, surely.

Just in case you're wondering what led to the sudden erosion of publishers' better judgment: In 1997, Congress authorized the drug office to spend a billion dollars on anti-drug ads over a five-year period. The lawmakers also stipulated that the media receiving this windfall had to consent to a two-for-one deal. For every paid page and commercial time slot, the medium in question had to provide one of equal value, free. As the economy kept expanding, broadcasters and publishers began to grumble. They could sell ad space at a premium to paying businesses, but too much of the space had to be earmarked for the freebie government ads. McCaffrey then offered to lessen or scrap the free-ads requirement for media that `voluntarily' inserted anti-drug messages into their regular programs and articles.

Salon's excellent Dan Forbes (he again) first told the nation about the television deal on January 13. The TV thing irked me immensely, but not half as much as the subsequent revelation that some magazines are in bed with the general, too. It's one thing for entertainment shows like E.R. or 7th Heaven to pander to drug hawks turned sugar daddies; it's another if magazines like U.S. News, whose most valuable asset is their independent voice, their credibility, partake of the same nefarious feast.

Making editorial choices that have nothing to do with serving readers' interests is the fastest away to piss away their trust. Not making readers privvy to glaring conflicts of interests accomplishes the same. It's bad for journalism. Bad for business. It's even bad for the ad makers and media buyers at Bates USA and Ogilvy & Mather, the agencies that took the anti-drug account. Their government-sponsored attempt to blur the line between ads and editorial deserves scorn. They may find that their messages will not be very effective: a predictable fate for ad people (and publishers) who seek to hoodwink the public.

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