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The drug war gravy train
How the White House rewarded U.S. News, Seventeen and other magazines for publishing anti-drug articles.

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By Daniel Forbes

At least six major U.S. magazines have submitted anti-drug articles they have published over the past year to the government's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in an attempt to qualify for thousands of dollars of financial credits under the same federal advertising program that has benefited the television networks, Salon has learned.

Those magazines whose articles have been deemed by the drug czar's office as "on-message" have qualified for the credits, which are awarded in lieu of advertising obligations. Those that failed the test have not.

The drug-control office has made some of the most lucrative ad buys from magazines that maintain an anti-drug editorial environment that it considers hospitable to its messages.

The ONDCP, which is overseen by Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, an officer in President Clinton's Cabinet, did not review the articles before they were published. But the office did allow the six magazines -- U.S. News & World Report, Sporting News, Family Circle, Seventeen, Parade and USA Weekend -- to submit their editorial content to qualify as a substitute for advertising pages owed the government under single-year advertising contracts. Executives at all six magazines have confirmed the relationship with the drug office in interviews with Salon. The ONDCP refused to comment on this and all other matters. (The office demanded that questions be faxed to it, which Salon refused to do.)

The editors of the six publications denied that their content or editorial decisions were affected by the relationship with the White House drug office -- although some of the articles were apparently planned and assigned out of a desire to help spread the ONDCP's anti-drug message. Several of the editors denied any knowledge of the relationship, while others claimed to have only a partial awareness of it.

Given their ignorance and the fact that the articles weren't vetted before publication, several editors said, there was nothing unseemly about trading them for the ad credits. It was unclear whether, now that they knew about it, the editors would continue to engage in the practice.

Some industry insiders defended their colleagues' decisions to take part in the program. Jacqueline Leo, president of the American Society of Magazine Editors and former editor of Family Circle, said, "Given all the things editors can be pressured about, this doesn't ring my chimes. This one is at least not completely toxic. If U.S. News is trying to get credit to meet their numbers, I can't fault them for that. To say you don't owe [ONDCP] a half a page, I'd do that." Retroactive valuation is especially not a problem, says Leo, because "it means nothing if you take preexisting features and say, 'Here, give me credit.'"

Other commentators, however, were less sanguine.

Tom Goldstein, dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, said, "It strikes me as highly dubious. Editors should edit and the sales side should sell. Sure, I'm concerned. The way you describe it, it seems the editorial function has been compromised." He added, "There shouldn't be arrangements that are hidden from readers."

Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's, expressed no great shock: "The only surprise here is it hasn't happened sooner. Most consumer magazines a long time ago turned themselves into delivery systems for advertisers."

One of the writers whose story was submitted to the White House drug office for valuation stated, "This is a clear violation of journalistic ethics. It's really egregious."

"This shapes the type of reporting you're doing and what editors are asking for," continued the journalist, who requested anonymity. "If we ever did something like this as a writer -- showed a story to a source ahead of publication, say -- our career would be finished."

What is indisputable is that the U.S. government is using taxpayer money to, in effect, reward publications whose editorial content matches the government's views on drug control.

Besides the six magazines listed above, 20 others captured $11,935,000 of the drug-control office's ad budget in 1999. These included Essence ($124,000); Ladies' Home Journal ($148,000); Newsweek ($207,000); Reader's Digest ($1,392,000); Teen ($199,000); TV Guide ($232,000); and Vibe ($106,000).

A number of Time Warner publications also participated, including Sports Illustrated ($1,385,000); Time ($1,344,000); People ($743,000); People En Español ($160,000); Life ($111,000); and Family Life ($74,000). To date, Salon has obtained no evidence that any of these publications sought to swap editorial content for drug-czar financial credits.

Overall, the drug office's five-year, roughly billion-dollar ad buy enriched a wide range of media. Television, both local and network, got well over $80 million in fiscal year 1999; radio got more than $10 million; billboards, transit and the like got over $5 million, and in-school efforts got a similar amount. Print, both newspapers and magazines, received some $17 million, with about $10 million of that going to magazines, as detailed above.

The manner in which the ONDCP works with magazines is similar to its relationship with the major television networks, which was revealed in Salon earlier this year. When Congress appropriated nearly $1 billion for the anti-drug program in late 1997, it added the stipulation that the drug-control office get all of its advertising at a 50 percent discount.

Specifically, Congress required any media outlet selling advertising to the drug-control office to either give the office one free (that is, "bonus" ad) for each paid ad or trade some other form of ONDCP-approved content for its obligation.

Salon's earlier investigation detailed how the five major TV networks, which rushed to get a piece of the ad buy but then resisted having to sell their increasingly valuable airtime at half-price, were eventually able to cut deals with the drug-control office to substitute programming for some of the extra ads. In certain cases, the drug czar's office was allowed to review scripts and suggest changes before a show was broadcast. In some cases, the networks inserted government-approved anti-drug messages into TV sitcoms and dramas in order to satisfy their obligations to their government "client."

By following the guidelines set by the ONDCP, which is primarily a law-enforcement agency, the networks freed up nearly $22 million worth of advertising time that they could then sell for even more money, given the current red-hot TV ad market.

As for magazines, the drug-control office sent formal instructions called "Strategy Platforms" to publishers detailing its wishes for editorial content. It distributed formal, printed instructions on what sort of articles to run in which months. In at least one case, that of USA Weekend, the ONDCP made it clear to a magazine that it wanted a certain type of anti-drug story to be published. In another case, it actually picked the writer for a story that appeared in the Sporting News.

Magazine executives interviewed by Salon explained how the arrangement worked. The drug-control office would buy a specific amount of advertising in individual magazines. Under Congress' mandate, each publisher then owed the drug-control office advertising of an equal value. But magazines were allowed, if they chose, to submit editorial features to be "valued" in lieu of the extra ads owed the White House.

The drug office has employed two well-known ad agencies, Bates USA and subsequently Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, for the print-media campaign. Rich Vietri, currently a senior partner at O&M, has helped manage the magazine component for both agencies. He stated last year that editorial content is one way to meet the drug-control office's stipulation for a second ad. "With magazines, we get a one-for-one dollar match," he said, adding, "Straight news wouldn't be the match, but features would be -- stories that they might run already as a matter of course."

Vietri noted that an article in the May 24, 1999, issue of the Sporting News "counted as a match." In addition, according to Vietri, two articles in Parade counted, as did at least one in Family Circle. Last year, Vietri said he was anticipating a meeting with Gregory G. Coleman -- Reader's Digest's president of U.S. magazines, but in this instance representing the Magazine Publishers Association -- to discuss "not just running [ad] space, but featuring editorial material across a variety of titles. It's an industrywide initiative ... over a broad dispersion of magazines."

Salon's investigation has documented six magazines that have cooperated with the drug czar under this matching program.

At U.S. News & World Report, which is owned by real-estate magnate Mortimer Zuckerman and has a weekly circulation of 2,205,000, the drug office bought a total of $652,000 in ads last year. (All ONDCP ad-buy figures are from Competitive Media Reporting, an ad-tracking service.) Under the rules established by Congress, therefore, the drug-control office was "owed" an equal amount of free ad inventory by the magazine. Rather than incur the costs for this much valuable real estate, however, the magazine submitted several of its feature stories with anti-drug themes to the drug czar.

U.S. News publisher Bill Holiber explained his reasoning for this relationship to Salon: "If we luck out over the course of a year, our editorial fulfills [the obligation]. If not, we offset with ad pages." Holiber said that Ogilvy makes the evaluation on behalf of the drug czar's office.

The editor in chief of U.S. News, Stephen G. Smith, told Salon he was completely ignorant of the magazine's relationship with the drug czar's office. "You have my ironclad assurance we never do a story in an effort to win ad pages," said Smith. "It seems to me [publisher] Holiber acted appropriately in not making me privy. I guess the ad sales department has all sorts of arrangements I'm not privy to." Given his ignorance about the situation and the fact that his editorial content was not shaped to suit the drug czar, Smith stated: "I can't make any great moral pronouncements."

Holiber noted that a feature article earlier this year on prescription drugs for children might conceivably count as a match (though probably not, given the drug-control office's focus on illegal drugs). Holiber added, "I don't know how many stories counted." He said about half the stories submitted have been rejected by the drug czar's office and that "the editor does not know, he has no clue."

USA Weekend, the nation's second-largest magazine in circulation with 22 million copies distributed inside Sunday newspapers, received a $418,000 drug-office ad buy in 1999, according to CMR. USA Weekend's match to make up $418,000 in free ad inventory was "primarily made in editorial," according to ad director Jim Hackett, although it also gave the ONDCP a bonus ad page. "We show [the drug-control office] that we cover drugs and alcohol -- stories that we would do regardless -- and we provide issues [of USA Weekend] that have editorial that supports an anti-drug message."

The CEO and editor of USA Weekend, Marcia Bullard, said she had the final word on whether to cooperate with the drug czar. "I didn't stand in the way," Bullard said. "I had a rudimentary understanding of it." But Bullard added that "in retrospect, I don't think it should be done. It treads too closely to a conflict of interest ... If that [ONDCP] contract exists, it can raise questions in readers' minds if editorial is creditable or produced by advertising. It all gets to be very murky." Bullard said that "very few things in life are black and white," but added, "There should be a clear separation between what's being paid for and what's not. It's a publisher's duty to keep things separate for the readers. This muddies the waters."

In perhaps the most unusual example of the quid pro quo arrangement between publications and the ONDCP, the sales staff at USA Weekend (which is owned by Gannett Co.) submitted paragraphs culled from four different articles in an attempt to cobble together enough government-endorsed column inches to physically add up to one full page, said Gannett account executive Lisa Helbraun. Helbraun told Salon, "We're waiting for approval. We haven't gotten a valuation as of yet. But their initial reaction is we'll probably have to submit more."

Helbraun said that the drug-control office wanted editorial content on parents talking to their kids about drugs. "We've done alcohol and tobacco [articles], but that doesn't count. It has to be strictly drugs."

USA Weekend's anti-drug material could be acceptably embedded, though, in a story with a different focus. Helbraun said a paragraph on drugs could be snipped from a story on the dangers of drunken driving, for example. "Different paragraphs from different stories -- they measure the paragraphs just as long as somehow, some way they're hitting home on this topic" of parents talking to their kids about drugs.

Negotiations apparently continue on how Gannett will fulfill the government's requirement for a match -- in addition to the bonus advertising it has already provided. Helbraun said, "If they want more, we'll have to talk to editorial and see if they're planning more [anti-drug] stories." Then, "see if they [the articles] work."

Helbraun believes the arrangement does not interfere with the magazine's editorial independence, saying that editors maintain their prerogative to run whatever they want. But, speaking generally, she acknowledged that it's not unheard of for editorial material to be indirectly influenced by big clients, such as food companies that buy large blocks of space. In a similar vein, the editors might decide that another anti-drug article "could be a possibility," Helbraun stated.

The Sporting News, the 114-year-old, 550,000-circulation newsprint weekly owned by Times Mirror (though Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen recently announced his intention to buy it), received $414,000 from the drug office in 1999. Its editor, John D. Rawlings, said he "was told that Gen. McCaffrey was going to use the magazine" to disseminate an anti-drug message. Referring to publisher Francis X. Farrell, Rawlings added, "Fran and I talked about doing anti-drug columns."

Farrell said, "I send John [Rawlings] notes saying I admire what the drug-control office has done" and suggesting more features of an appropriate nature. The magazine published about half a dozen "appropriate" features, all one-pagers, in 1999, Rawlings said.

In fact, ONDCP even helped pick the writer for two of the anti-drug articles. According to Richard Lapchick, director of the Northeastern University Center for the Study of Sport in Society, he had already severed a longstanding relationship with the Sporting News in favor of writing for another sports publication. But then he heard from Rawlings that ONDCP had "asked for me specifically."

When asked whether he was aware that a financial value was being placed on anti-drug articles, Rawlings said that it was "not a factor in my [editorial] decisions," and "I know only what I've read about television" (i.e., Salon's earlier report). He added that he and publisher Farrell "didn't talk details" about the matter.

Farrell said the deal did not represent a financial quid pro quo. Told of Ogilvy executive Vietri's quote that an article in his magazine "counted as a match," Farrell says, "I never viewed it that way."

Times Mirror Magazines Chairman and CEO Efrem Zimbalist III, in a written statement, said, "We stand by the integrity of the editorial product of the Sporting News and the decisions of the editor, John Rawlings." He declined to be interviewed.

Seventeen, the leading magazine for young women, with a circulation of 2,384,000, received $144,000 in drug-office ad money in 1999. The magazine, which is published by Primedia Magazine Group, ran a sobering feature in its January issue about a teenage drug dealer locked up in jail. She describes herself as "a pretty 17-year-old girl, scared, alone and sitting in prison. Sitting with killers, rapists and lunatics ... Just left with the reality that drugs put her here, and now she's stuck."

The article reported that after failing in a court-ordered rehabilitation program, the young woman landed a 10-year sentence for possession, distribution and auto theft. Though the article left it unclear, it didn't appear that she was a major dealer: The only amount of drugs mentioned was a quarter-gram of methamphetamine found at her home. Getting caught in a "drug-free" school zone apparently boosted her jail time, however. Regarding her fellow inmates, the article warned, "A lot are mean and want to fight, and some are big. Many of them are gay, and I was like fresh meat. That scared me, it still scares me, because sometimes they still mess with me."

Asked how this article was valued under the ad sales arrangement with the drug-control office, Seventeen ad salesperson Jackie O'Hare said, "It was huge." She noted that the drug-control office "wanted to make sure" there was anti-drug content in the magazine. She says, "There's another anti-drug feature in May or June; I'm sure they'll be happy about that."

Seventeen's Web site normally runs independently generated material that hasn't appeared in print. But an exception was made to feature the teenage-dealer article on the Seventeen site the entire time the January issue was on newsstands. That alone was valued at more than $70,000 toward the magazine's obligation to ONDCP, O'Hare explained.

Editor in Chief Patrice G. Adcroft denied having any knowledge of the arrangement with the drug czar's office, but added that discouraging drug use is "part of the daily menu" at Seventeen, and that, therefore, no unusual editorial steps would be necessary to create an editorial environment that the ONDCP would view as favorable. Adcroft noted that such a relationship "may be a dilemma for magazines [unlike Seventeen] that don't cover this issue, if the government says you have to have a match component." Adcroft points out that her personal commitment to maintaining the church-state line in publishing led her to quit Omni magazine in 1990 rather than subject herself to what she says was sales-side interference.

Discussing how her magazine achieved its required "match," Seventeen spokeswoman Jennifer McGuire explained, "We do exactly what Congress asks us to do. We totally comply with the drug-control office requirements."

The fifth known publication to submit anti-drug articles to the ONDCP for matching was Parade, the largest-circulation magazine in the country, with a whopping 37,340,000 copies distributed through Sunday newspapers every week. Parade is owned by the same privately held firm as Condé Nast and Fairchild Publications Inc. Given its huge circulation and the attendant high cost per ad page, Parade captured more drug-office ad money in 1999 -- $1.85 million -- than any other publication.

John J. Beni, the president of Parade Publications Inc., acknowledges that Parade has submitted editorial features to the drug czar's office for valuation under the ad-buy program. And Ogilvy's Vietri confirms that Parade's editorial content was allowed to make a "match" under the arrangement.

Beni says that the "anti-drug content is a normal" part of Parade's editorial mix. "They [the anti-drug office] can do that -- why not?" he says of the valuation program. "Any client can look at the editorial environment and see this type of environment." (But no other client benefits from a congressional mandate for a two-for-one deal.)

Indeed, in January, the magazine featured McCaffrey himself in a highly favorable cover story about the drug czar. The cover features a beaming McCaffrey flanked by flags and encircled by a diverse group of children. The cover headline promises: "The nation's drug czar has a clear message and a battle plan: Keep Our Kids Drug Free For Life."

The glowing feature inside includes the recommendation that readers visit ONDCP's Web site.

Beni refused to say whether the McCaffrey profile was assigned a valuation by the ONDCP.

The final publication was 5 million-plus circulation Family Circle, published by Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing, and the third of three magazines (along with Parade and the Sporting News) identified by Ogilvy as making a "match" with its editorial content in lieu of ad space. Family Circle snared the drug-control office's second-highest magazine buy: $1,425,000 last year.

Susan Kelliher Ungaro, Family Circle's editor in chief, notes that her publication does "two anti-drug special reports a year." Family Circle's publisher, Jim McEwan, refused to be interviewed, but relayed his thoughts through Ungaro. She says McEwan told her the drug-control office did demand a second ad page for every one purchased, but that McEwan refused. Ungaro believes the sales staff told the drug-control office that the magazine covers the drug issue, since "the sales people know our editorial calendar."

Given Family Circle's refusal -- as stated by its publisher -- to supply two ad pages for the price of one, either the drug-control office violated Congress' mandate on that two-for-one buy or editorial material was valued as a match.

The drug czar's involvement with magazines began at the October 1998 annual joint meeting of the Magazine Publishers of America (MPA) and the Society of Magazine Editors, where McCaffrey asked for publishers' and editors' support for his war on drugs.

The headline on a subsequent MPA press release announced its response: "MPA Accepts Anti-Drug Ad Challenge. MPA Board to Encourage and Coordinate Member Participation." The release went on to say the magazine industry "urged members to" actively promote the national anti-drug program "by running compelling anti-drug ads in their magazines and providing editorial support appropriate for their audiences." The MPA Board also approved a resolution to that effect.

One aspect that differentiates the drug czar's deal with the magazines from that with the TV networks is the government agency's decision to work only with those magazines that provide a congruent editorial environment. The government grants vastly different amounts of taxpayer money to different magazines, depending on how effective their content is deemed at building support for the war on drugs.

As one insider explained, "There were very specific, individual aspects" to picking which magazines got drug-office ad buys. It was a complicated process: "Everyone received the Request for Proposal [RFP] to submit their best shot," which could then be further refined, presumably after the drug-control office feedback. The final decision was based on "who gave the best value" regarding eyeballs delivered per dollar spent, says this source. Just as important were certain qualitative issues: "Anyone without the right editorial environment wouldn't even have gotten approached."

A sales executive then at a publication that had profited from a large ONDCP advertising buy said, "At the beginning, when [the ONDCP's ad agency] Bates had the business, I'd say to them, 'Look at this good [anti-drug] article.' Each magazine would go over there [to Bates] and show them editorially how great [i.e., on-message] the magazine was. There at the beginning, we thought we'd get credit if it happened that there were articles twice a year."

And indeed, the ONDCP rewarded publications that ran the "appropriate" anti-drug editorial content. Take the case of two magazines: Family Circle and Woman's Day, the latter published by Hachette Filipacchi Magazines Inc. To the average reader, these books probably appear about as different as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. But appearances can be deceptive. According to Hall's Magazine Reports Inc., an industry research group, Family Circle ran a hefty eight-and-a-half pages of anti-drug editorial matter in 1999. Woman's Day, on the other hand, ran none, states Hall's research director, Sandy Santora. Family Circle was the recipient of a $1.4 million drug-office ad buy, second only to Parade. The Woman's Day buy? Zero.

The differing ad-buy fates of the Sporting News, a weekly, and the monthly Sport are equally instructive. As noted above, the Sporting News' editor, Rawlings, said that he "was told that Gen. McCaffrey was going to use the magazine" to disseminate anti-drug messages, conferred with his publisher about running anti-drug stories and ran about half a dozen anti-drug features in 1999.

Sport magazine, published by EMAP Petersen Inc., a glossy monthly with roughly twice the circulation of the Sporting News, had a different editorial calendar. Editor John Roach said there was "nothing in 1999 that can even remotely be construed as an anti-drug feature."

The Sporting News received a fat 15-page ad buy from the government; among the other 23 magazines, the next highest page total was nine. In contrast, Sport captured just a single-page, $50,000 ad buy from ONDCP last year -- $364,000 less than the Sporting News got. For the Sporting News, a publication that according to the New York Times loses about $2 million a year, the revenue was significant.

The ONDCP "Strategy Platforms" guidelines specified that magazine articles should "target ... marijuana, inhalants and other drugs (cocaine, heroin)" and should focus equally on "Tweens" (kids ages 11 to 13), their parents and teenagers ages 14 to 18.

The main body of the document featured a platform called "Parenting Skills," which the drug office suggested should run in April and either October or November (editors got to choose between the latter two months). Among the skill sets that editors were to inculcate was: "Monitor: always know where [children] are, who they're with." Another was: "Set clear rules and enforce consistently with appropriate consequences."

In December and May, the "Your Child at Risk" months, editors were to inform readers: "All kids are potential targets for experimental drug use, regardless of where they live or how young they are."

Apparently, whether coincidentally or not, some editors took the "Platforms" literally. An article in the June 1 Family Circle instructs, "Monitor your child's activities." It then quotes an expert saying: "'Establish clear rules and expectations about what's OK and what's not, and consistently enforce them.'"