Networks limiting expression

EAST LANSING, Mich. (U-WIRE) — Last week, some good investigative journalism by an online magazine reporter unearthed what we all had feared — the government is trying to control us with subliminal messages.
Well, it’s at least trying to convince us that drugs are bad by molding our favorite prime-time television characters into goody-goodies who don’t use drugs. Salon magazine broke the story, revealing that for two years, six major broadcast television networks have quietly handed over at least two dozen scripts from shows including “ER,” “The Drew Carey Show” and “Beverly Hills 90210” to the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy for “suggestions.”
In exchange for their “advice” on how to make the programs more anti-drug, the networks were freed from having to provide $2 million in public service advertising to the government at half price.
The networks are estimated to have brought in $25 million by selling the advertising time to corporate giants like Nike, Coca-Cola or other companies that can put those this-is-your-brain-on-drugs commercials to shame.
In an age when television has to compete with the booming Internet, I suppose the million-dollar networks did what they must to keep themselves in business. I know what that’s like. If I were approached with a similar deal, say, posting anti-drug messages on my car for a hefty million dollars or so, I can’t say I would think twice.
At any rate, First Amendment advocates — which should be everyone with a pulse — are up in arms about the government controlling TV programs.
Isn’t this activity only supposed to happen in communist dictatorships? Of course not.
First Amendment junkies must learn this freedom is always for sale. This is America — everything is for sale.
A Jan. 15 Washington Post editorial warns, “Where does it end? Could the government pay the networks to slip idle comments into ‘ER’ about the virtues of a particular health care policy?”
The television networks wave the First Amendment flag when they want to illustrate violence or sex in prime time, but once U.S. drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey opened his checkbook, it was over: the networks surrendered. McCaffrey boasted that drug use by America’s youth declined 13 percent last year. He believes if they continue this “emphasis” in drug prevention, juvenile drug-use rates will drop further.
President Bill Clinton, who I love just because he somewhat admitted to using drugs, reportedly spent more on his anti-drug campaign in his first four years in office than both his predecessors combined. His administration says there are 52,000 drug-related deaths per year, and drugs cost the nation more than $100 billion.
McCaffrey wrote in a Washington Post letter to the editor that they are proud to have experts in the fields of drug use, prevention and public health available to the entertainment industry.
He writes, “At no time has this office vetoed, cleared or otherwise dictated the content of network television or other programs. We will continue to offer scientific and technical advice to anyone who wishes to take advantage of it.”
We can judge for ourselves the role McCaffrey’s office has taken. Personally, I think Clinton was trying to do a good thing, but in a very bad way. The government should have been less discreet in its dealings.
If I’m watching a commercial, not just a TV program, I want to know. But let’s talk about television, that vast vacuum of entertainment. It’s sad that kids get so much of their education from television.
We should teach our children that television programs are horrible creations that perpetuate stereotypes, and do not show us what’s cool, funny or important.
The world is oversimplified in television’s formulaic shows.
When we are grasping for answers — which come so readily before the end credits in TV shows — we should be examining ourselves.
Peer pressure to use or abuse drugs can’t be solved in one show, one day or one year. We encounter it haphazardly throughout our lives — sometimes it gets resolved, sometimes it doesn’t.

Mary Owen’s column originally appeared in Friday’s edition of the State News (Michigan State University).