Citizen Dan

  Citizen Dan

Posted by FoM on November 05, 2000 at 11:15:07 PT
By Ken Krayeske  
Source: High Times  

Mention Dan Forbes to most people and they'd draw a blank. But the Office of National Drug Control Policy certainly knows who Dan Forbes is. In January, Forbes, 44, broke the story on about how the ONDCP secretly gave financial incentives to television networks to insert the government's zero-tolerance War on Drugs message into the scripts of prime- time shows. Forbes, a graduate of Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, with experience in social work and acting, wrote and researched most of the story from his Brooklyn apartment.  
Forbes followed with articles about how the ONDCP used the same cash-for-content method to convince major national magazines to print anti-drug propaganda and how the successes of the November '96 California and Arizona medical-marijuana initiatives helped spark this paid media campaign strategy. HIGH TIMES: What was your area of expertise prior to breaking this story? DAN FORBES: I used to publish a lot on business in two areas-finance and labor policy. I wrote for Dunn and Bradstreet in their monthly publication, Dunn's Review. That's where I really learned the nuts and bolts of journalism. You could spend two and a half weeks on a story. That folded and I found myself going more and more into writing on finance. It pays really well, but boy, it's dry as dust. After a certain point, I was like, what the hell am I doing with my life? [HT] How did you uncover the ONDCP pot-ola story? [DF] In the spring of '98 a friend of mine, David Kiley, who was features editor for Brandweek, told me that the federal government was moving away from the donated ad time and space model that the Partnership for a Drug-Free America had been using for eight, nine years. The federal government was proposing to spend a billion dollars of taxpayer money to run the same sort of ads, only now it would be on a paid basis. Seeing how there was now taxpayer money at stake, I wondered, what's the research paradigm that supports the effectiveness of these ads? Kiley suggested I do the library research involved, approach it from an academic point of view. I figured there would be some decent research, four or five things published and a couple would hold water pretty well. I went and checked it out and was astounded that the PDFA refers to only three articles. Two of them had never seen the light of day at that point. The third one was done by a woman named Dr. Evelyn Cohen Reese, who had never studied drug policy before or since, had a one-year, post-graduate fellowship at Johns Hopkins and checked out the supposed effect of the ads. She stood by her paper, though she told me she couldn't vouch for the effect of the ads. [HT] What was your next step? [DF] During the course of the Brandweek article I had an interview with the ONDCP's Alan Levitt. He's Media Campaigns Director for [ONDCP chief Barry] McCaffrey. Levitt told me that program and content may count as a match, that all advertising is sold-this is my phrase not his-on a two-for-one basis, but that TV networks can escape that requirement if their programming content has the right anti-drug messages. Enormous bells went off in my head-that the federal government was providing financial incentives for the nation's sitcoms and dramas. I was astounded. This was the spring of '98, but the TV ads weren't really going to kick in until the fall of '98. In the spring of '99 I made some very preliminary calls indicating that indeed programs were being valued by the federal government. I got an assignment to pursue it for Mediaweek. I started reporting the hell out of the story in mid-May '99. I made-counting calling some people fifteen times before they'd talk to me-800 phone calls. [HT] 800 calls? [DF] I called one hundred people and that entailed at least eight hundred phone calls. I've been accused of sleazy, manipulative tactics, but the first words out of my mouth- "Hi, Dan Forbes, doing a story for Mediaweek magazine on the ONDCP paid media campaign. May I ask you a couple of questions?" -nothing could be more straightforward. Little did I know people in Hollywood would rather have bamboo shoots under their fingernails than take an unscheduled phone call from somebody they don't really know. [HT] Why was there fear about this story? [DF] Part of it is just working for the bureaucracy of the federal government and part of it stems from the "take-no-prisoners" personality of McCaffrey. He does not tolerate much dissent. He's a career military man and is used to giving his marching orders. And network television is certainly not an atmosphere where dissent is tolerated. I had one guy tell me that there are twenty people in Hollywood who run the industry. If you piss one of them off, you don't work. [HT] Did your approach change once you confirmed that "pot-ola" was going on? [DF] I realized there was payola from day one, that there were financial incentives operating. I'm not an advocate for drug use and I'm not an advocate for drug legalization, but I'm also not an advocate for what could be characterized as covert government financial incentives to attempt to shape the content of popular culture. It is government propaganda. That motivated me from day one. It was a hell of a story and it needed to get out. [HT] If you don't think that legalization is an answer, than what is? [DF] I certainly don't think imprisonment for possession is the answer. That's just ludicrous. Starting in a couple of months you're not going to be able to get a federal loan for college if you've ever been found guilty of possessing minor personal-use amounts of marijuana. What kind of nonsense is that? "We're going to ruin your life because you smoke minor amounts of dope, Mr. Nineteen-year-old." What's going on in this country? [HT] What did you think of the altered television shows you watched? [DF] I saw two-thirds of them. Some of them are relatively benign. The ones they trumpet deal with parents not freaking out and keeping lines of communication open. But the ones they don't trumpet involve blanket drug tests at work, which is a real political agenda, or blanket drug tests for a basketball team. There's this myth that drugs are glamorized on television. There hasn't been any glamorization of drug use on TV in fifteen years, except for a nudge-nudge, wink-wink on That '70s Show. [HT] How did the story end up at [DF] The vast majority of Mediaweek's advertising is from media conglomerates who own the TV networks. That led them to have a particular take on how the story should be written. They said, "We want to run this story, but we don't want to be critical of the government and we don't want to be critical of the networks for their participation in this story." That was on a Friday. I went home and I stewed over it. I walked in Monday morning and I said, "I'm sorry, but I can't publish it under those conditions." I called The New Yorker, but it didn't work out. Then, boom-I thought of the Internet. What publication has the best, as far as I can tell, editorial standards on the Internet? That would be Salon. I had no dealings with them before. I called them up. I was given the brush-off at first, told to e-mail the story. Aside from the fact that I didn't have e-mail at the time, I was not sending the story off into ether. It was heavy-duty enough that somebody should call me back. After the third call that day to Salon somebody did call me back and jumped on it. [HT] So you submitted the story, Salon published it and it ended up being quoted on the front page of the New York Times. How did that make you feel? [DF] It was something akin to your wedding day. You wish you could just slow the whole thing down so you could really savor it. Surreal is not the word. You had to constantly remember that this is a high- stakes endeavor, that you're making accusations against the federal government and that some of the best reporters in the country have a dual motivation to a) corroborate your story and b) to punch holes in it. The phone started ringing and a couple of hours later black town cars were pulling up in front of my building to take me to TV studios. The neighbors must have been wondering, "Why isn't he wearing his green sweatpants today like normal?" [HT] The ONDCP's Robert Housmann faxed Salon demanding a retraction. What did it say? [DF] Salon sent me a copy of the letter and this image of the White House comes out on your fax machine and you realize, Wow, this is a letter saying that you're a liar and you're full of shit. The letter shows their sort of tawdry intellectual combat. Housmann questioned my ad budget for Family Circle by making the fiscal year that ended in July '99 where my story indicated clearly that it was calendar year '99. That wouldn't fly in a fifth-grade debating society. There wasn't a single error they nailed me with. [HT] Is it possible to have an honest debate with the ONDCP? [DF] I don't think you can in this administration. I would love to have a real honest exchange of ideas, but they're trying to defend the indefensible and the best way to do that is to deny and to lie. Housmann, in a very mild way, actually physically assaulted me at American University's political club after my story came out in late January. After McCaffrey gave a speech, there was a formal question period. I tried to ask some questions from the floor and I was shouted down by students who said it was inappropriate. Then McCaffrey said, "I'm not answering questions from you. I'll set up an interview, if you want." The thing ended and they gave out Parade magazine's laudatory story about McCaffrey. [HT] With McCaffrey on the cover next to an American flag. [DF] Right. So, as forty students rushed up to get his autograph, Housmann charged out of the crowd and slammed into me. He put his hands on my chest. Technically speaking, I could have charged him with assault. He said, "Well, I'm standing here." It was comical. I walked away, but he shadowed me. It was like he was boxing me out under the boards to keep me away from McCaffrey. It's just so absurd that that's the level of discourse. [HT] Does the corporate conglomeration of the media worry you? [DF] Sure. How many places could I have taken this story if Salon didn't have the balls to print it? It's getting tougher and tougher if you don't dance to the piper's tune. It's really scary. I've got stuff that wants to get out, and how many credible publications are there? [HT] Has this story changed your opinion about the media? DF: To have U.S. News and World Report, which has always been a well-respected publication and even stodgy in its respectability, admit they submited articles for evaluation is an eye opener. [HT] What do you think this signifies for the future of journalism on the Internet? [DF] A friend of mine says that when they write the history of the Internet as a medium this story will be mentioned. How many real heavy-duty scoops have there been on the Internet prior to this? This was one of the first pieces that could have been published anywhere. [HT] Surely, your stories have added to the rising tide of voices against the Drug War? [DF] It seems that the public is open to a broader array of opinion than was the case two, three years ago. There's a concept out there called the tipping point where enough small little things accrue, then tip things over to the other side. It seems like there's sort of a paradigm shift happening about the War on Drugs. My stuff needs to be put in perspective, but it's still pretty scary that an ONDCP paid consultant told me on the record, "If this works with drugs, why not go to sex?" And now you see on the sides of buses in New York City, State Department of Health ads with Governor Pataki's name on them advocating sexual abstinence among teenagers. I don't need the government telling me as a teenager what kind of sexuality I should be expressing. [HT] You testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee and various other congressional committees. What effect does testifying before Congress have? [DF] It remains to be seen. The TV folks will be a lot more aware of it, but they are still receiving financial incentives to promote the government's line on the Drug War. What this is really all about is promoting acceptance of the current drug policies and the current anti-drug budgets. And it's directed at adults. Ultimately, I haven't gotten any indication that that's going to change. HT: Where do you go from here? DF: Bigger-picture issues. Why is the government doing this and what's their ultimate motivation aside from the politically-correct one of everything in politics is for the children? So that's what I'll be talking about next, and then I don't know if I'll have anything more to say about it. The Media Awareness Project Source: High Times (US) Author: Ken KrayeskePubdate: Dec, 2000 Copyright: 2000 by Trans-High Corporation Page: 78 Address: THC Letters, 235 Park Ave. S., 5th Floor, New York, NY 10003 Contact: letters Website: Note: Since the MAP clipping service can not highlight in text the questions and responses, we have added [HT] and [DF] below. See: The MAP Exclusive Update: Dan Forbes Details The Breaking Of The ONDCP Incentive Story: Related Articles:White House Blasts Salon House Defends TV Drug-Ad Deal for Dollars, 90210 Script Doctors Money, How the White House Secretly Hooked TV 

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Comment #1 posted by nopex on January 10, 2001 at 12:23:14 PT:
my though on legalization
It's not fair for us to be though out as criminals , and its not fair for us to keep hiding from what we think is right for us .1.You'v never herd of a pot over-dose.2.You'v never herd of a person killing someone while driving, because he/she smoked a doobie.3.god said rule over all the land , and for us to do what we want.4.50% of the local police force us maryjuana .
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