When conspiracy for good is bad

By

Outrageous, what the television networks have done. I don't mean poisoning the American mainstream with sex and violence. Much worse, they've been caught red-handed conspiring with the government to spread propaganda against drug abuse.

The law requires television, in return for the free use of the public airwaves, operate "in the public interest, convenience, and necessity."

In their defense, it should be said that the networks didn't act out of some high-minded notion of obligation to society, but for money. But that's not enough to excuse this departure from profit over everything.

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You see, Congress appropriated a billion dollars for antidrug ads in the media, reckoning that this was a good investment, since illegal drugs cost America $100 billion and 2,000 lives a year. To get a bigger bang for the buck, Congress required the media to match dollars for ads with free antinarcotic messages.

At first, the networks did that through public-service ads, shown mainly when few were watching.

When prosperity made these time slots more valuable, the networks shifted to inserting antidrug messages into entertainment shows.

That is actually much more effective, as I learned some years ago when I attended a public-health conference on smoking.

It found that just having the hero not pick up a cigarette in a sitcom was more helpful than any number of ads.

Having a character in "Friends" swear off cocaine, for example, or somebody in "Beverly Hills 90210" say "no" to marijuana is a constructive way of not glamorizing drug abusers as role models for teenagers. Drug czar Barry McCaffrey's office would then check the scripts to make sure the mandate of Congress was being fulfilled.

There was no secret about this arrangement to anyone who followed the public appropriations hearings. But the Internet magazine Salon, looking for a scoop, exposed this act of public-private cooperation.

Then, the white knights of the printed press rode to the rescue of the First Amendment, which was being imperiled by letting government officials see sitcom scripts.

"A deeply unhealthy arrangement," said The New York Times.

"Networks trade integrity for a few commercials," said USA Today.

But then, guess what? It turned out that 250 newspapers, including The New York Times and USA Today, have similar arrangements, matching paid antidrug ads with free antidrug ads.

And so, this government-media conspiracy for the public good turns out to be bigger than we thought.

It makes one wish that television would go back to making money the old-fashioned way - with sex, violence, and million-dollar quiz shows.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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