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U.S. magazines' anti-drugs ad deal sparks concern

Magazines that run stories with approved anti-drug messages can get a financial break on advertising from the White House office that fights drug abuse, a deal raising concern among journalists and in Congress.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), headed by Barry McCaffrey, has no problem with the arrangement, and neither do some of the magazines that have benefited from it.

"We are proud of the success of the (media) campaign which is driving drug use down, it is an American team effort," Bob Weiner, a spokesman for the drug policy office, said in a telephone interview this week.

"We do not make editorial content decisions ... We are very sensitive to First Amendment issues," Weiner said.

The program, sanctioned by Congress in 1997, was set up to encourage cooperation between the anti-drug office and the media and has a $1 billion, five-year advertising budget.

When the anti-drug office buys an advertisement from a magazine, the magazine is required to publish a second ad free of charge, or it may get advertising credit if its articles have an appropriate anti-drug message.

This is determined by a panel of advertising experts affiliated with the drug office, Weiner said.

The program also deals with prime-television advertising, with credits offered for anti-drugs messages included in entertainment programming.


Some magazine officials said in interviews and statements that they would have published anti-drug articles anyway, and the advertising deal had no effect on editorial content.

"No editorial content was ever commissioned as a result of the ONDCP advertising and we would never compromise our editorial integrity," Marcia Bullard, president, CEO and editor of USA Weekend, said in a statement.

"For me it's not even murky," said John Rawlings, editor of The Sporting News, which got anti-drug advertising credits for a series of columns it ran. "I had a chance to do the right thing and I did the right thing and we'll do more stories and columns about issues and sports."

Patrice Adcroft, editor in chief of Seventeen magazine, said she only learned that her publication got advertising credits for anti-drug articles after it was reported in the online magazine Salon, at www.salonmagazine.com, on March 31.

"We were never asked to include (anti-drug coverage) and nobody edited our articles," Adcroft said in a telephone interview. "The only problem would come if we were asked to either step up our coverage or to have someone vet our coverage and that I would never agree to."

Rep. Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican who heads a House panel that approved the deal to encourage a drug-fighting partnership between the government and the media, was "concerned" about even the appearance of editorial impropriety, a spokeswoman told Reuters.


That also bothered David Abrahamson, an associate professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and an expert on the development and history of U.S. magazines.

"I don't think it's squishy at all, I think it's flat-out wrong," Abrahamson said by telephone.

"There's a presumed social contract between a magazine and its readers that there be a level of disinterest applied in the editorial decision-making ... That's because editorial enjoys something that advertising does not, a presumption of veracity."

The notion that the program is for a cause that most magazines would support in any case does not make it right, Abrahamson said.

Stephen Smith, editor of U.S. News and World Report, said his publication participated in the anti-drugs ad program in 1999 but received no advertising credits for its articles and was not taking part in the program this year.

He said U.S. News never submitted articles for review by the anti-drugs ad panel, but the panel examined some anyway, and found them not sufficiently in line with its policies to award credit.

"What we're dealing with here ... is the appearance that's created when there's any kind of link between editorial content and advertising," Smith said by telephone on Wednesday.

"The point here that is being lost is that being concerned about illegal drug use doesn't mean that we have to be a cheerleader for McCaffrey's office," Smith said.


Deborah Zabarenko, April 5, 2000, news.excite.com

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