ACLU Sharply Criticizes White House Propaganda Scheme

January 14, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Revelations that the federal government has secretly inserted its propaganda into popular television sit-coms and dramas brought sharp criticism today from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“In our view, the government acted unconstitutionally when it sought to alter the content of television programming,” said Ira Glasser, Executive Director of the ACLU.

“That the government would try to do an end run around the First Amendment is no surprise,” Glasser added. “What is surprising — and profoundly disturbing — is that the networks would be accomplices to this scheme.”

The scheme was revealed late yesterday by the online magazine Salon, which reported that over the past year and a half, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy was requiring networks to offer lucrative advertising time to the government at half-price, and then waiving that requirement if the networks submitted scripts for government review.

According to news reports, the government paid five television networks a total of $25 million to allow it to incorporate drug themes into specific prime-time shows. Government officials and their contractors have approved — and in some cases, altered — the shows’ scripts to better convey the government’s message. Officials at the drug czar’s office and at some of the networks involved have admitted participating in the scheme.

It is not yet clear whether the arrangement violated so-called payola laws, which require networks to inform viewers if any political party is funding or otherwise influencing a program.

“Legal issues aside, the government and the networks have combined to violate the public’s trust and engaged in an unethical propaganda campaign,” said Marvin Johnson, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “The government is attempting to become the Ministry of Information that George Orwell famously warned us about.”

The ACLU said that it is no accident that drugs are the issue involved, as the government has consistently used its war on drugs to justify violating Americans’ civil liberties. But, Glasser said, “even more alarming is that if the government is willing to use such tactics in this context, it will almost surely be willing to do so again to promote other interests.”

“If the government is allowed to influence television programs for drug policy, they can do it for any public policy — whether it’s campaign finance reform, tax plans, health care, abortion, AIDS, foreign affairs or the environment,” he added.

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