This article is from Vol. 1, Issue No. 1 pages 60-63 (Winter 1999/2000)
2000 CENTER FOR COGNITIVE LIBERTY AND ETHICS
All rights reserved worldwide.  ISSN: 1527-3946

 

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Big Brother Puts a
New Twist on the Telescreen

The Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, people were under the near- constant surveillance by the Government via two-way televisions known as Telescreens. On January 13, 2000, reporter Daniel Forbes of the online magazine Salon.com, published an investigative article exposing the US Government’s new twist on the telescreen – you watch messages secretly implanted into your primetime network shows. The Salon article detailed how Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) struck a deal with the major television networks to embed anti-drug propaganda directly into the scripts of shows such as Beverly Hills, 90210, ER, and Chicago Hope. Scripts were pre-approved by the government and, on occasion, even re-written by ONDCP staff. Networks that joined the Propaganda machine benefited to the tune of some $25 million dollars in 1999.1

On January 18, reacting to public outcry over such government misbehavior, the ONDCP has issued a new policy that it will no longer pre-approve scripts or alter them prior to broadcast. However, the ONCDP will continue to financially credit the networks for the cost of airtime whenever a television show “voluntarily” presents an anti-drug message.2 Clearly, this is an ineffectual response. Given that the government has already made it clear what sort of propaganda pays, pre-approving scripts and altering them is unnecessary.

Like lab monkeys in a cage, the networks have been taught what they have to do to receive a reward. And, there’s every reason to think that they’ll just keep on clicking the propaganda paddle. The only way to end such an invidious manipulation of the media is to end the financial incentive for implanting the propaganda. In addition, the government and the networks ought to be punished for what appears to be a violation of a federal law that requires the disclosure at the time of broadcast of anyone financially influencing or contributing to programming content.

The Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics detests the government’s efforts to surreptitiously manipulate the content of prime-time television and thereby manipulate the minds of viewers. With over 100 million television households in the US, this recent action by ONCDP was equivalent to slipping a propaganda pill into the nation’s water supply.

To register our objection to such government action, the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics has joined in signing the following statement prepared by the Emergency Coalition Against Propaganda and Censorship:


In a democratic society, the government can only derive its legitimacy from the informed consent of its citizens. The clandestine manufacture or manipulation of such consent by public servants poses a grave threat to democracy and civil society. Whether an issue is popular or controversial, there is no place in a democracy or its civil service for a Minister of Propaganda or a Censorship Czar.

In 1998 and 1999, an office in the White House undertook to review the scripts and make suggestions for stories and dialogue in many of America's most popular television shows. The television networks received important financial concessions in exchange for conforming these artistic and entertainment works to government cultural and political preferences. The specific content of these changes is not relevant to the intolerable offense of covert government intervention in the shaping of artistic and cultural material. The artists and the public were not told that government reviewers rewrote or approved the presentations. This is surreptitious government-directed expurgation of contemporary screenplays. This is completely different from open government funding for the arts. This is completely different from the right of private citizens to protest cultural materials they find objectionable. This is censorship. This is the twisting of art and entertainment into government propaganda.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, run by General Barry McCaffrey, defends this manipulation as simply a public health campaign—akin to programs to promote seat belt use or blood pressure checks. This is false. Such public health campaigns are not covert, they are identified as written and funded by a government agency. The dishonest and cavalier dismissal of reasonable concerns regarding government manipulation of domestic media betrays a manifest disregard for the cardinal principle of democracy: freedom of thought and expression.

As human beings, we are only as free as our minds allow us to be—censorship and propaganda shackle the human spirit. The White House, General McCaffrey, and any other government agency or well-meaning public servant can never be permitted to regulate what enters our minds. The exercise of democratic rights depends upon unfettered access to ideas.

A free political culture cannot exist without freedom of expression. Artistic expression communicates truths about humanity, society, and the world no less than the communication of data and scientific research. To convert art and entertainment into propaganda is as nefarious as the censorship of textbooks, scientific journals, or newspapers and magazines. Those who secretly censor and corrupt our ability to consume independent cultural materials usurp our ability to act as informed citizens. Ultimately government censorship and propaganda pose more pernicious threats to our democratic governance than any ideology, or any terrorists in distant lands. Terrorists may threaten our lives or the operations of our economy on a temporary basis, but toleration and acceptance of government-directed propaganda against our nation's people permanently undermines the foundation of our democracy and the legitimacy of our government.

Tolerating propaganda and censorship because the government's goal is to send anti-drug messages which may, in themselves, be approved by large majorities will inevitably lead to other government-approved messages: family planning, condom use, energy conservation, firearms ownership, dietary practices. Americans are entitled to make decisions regarding their morality and intimate matters at the direction of their religious leaders, not under the influence of government social engineers, whether open or secret. Public attitudes about controversial political and social questions must never be shaped by government involvement in the work of artists, entertainers, writers, journalists or other cultural workers.

Plotting and defending clandestine government social engineering, such as that initiated by Gen. McCaffrey and the Clinton administration, is an act unworthy of a soldier, a public servant or a democratic government. Having engaged in covert domestic operations against the people he has sworn to serve, General McCaffrey has disgraced his uniform and violated his oath of office.

We the undersigned organizations and individuals oppose government manipulation of public opinion and vow to defend arts, entertainment, scientific research, news and communications against such assaults on democracy.

We call for the resignation of General Barry McCaffrey and other public servants who directed the manipulation or censorship of cultural programming and independent media.

We call upon President Clinton to disavow propaganda for any domestic purpose, and to issue an Executive Order forbidding any Federal agency from engaging in propaganda or censorship.

We call upon the Congress to pass legislation forbidding any Federal expenditure for propaganda directed at any part of the American people.

People wishing to sign the statement may do so by e-mailing Sanho Tree at the Institute for Policy Studies (stree@igc.org) or Eric Sterling at the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (cjpf@igc.org).

Notes

1 The Salon article is viewable online at: www.salon.com/news/feature/2000/01/13/drugs/index.html [Accessed: 24 January 2000.]

2 General McCaffrey’s statement is viewable online at: www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/news/press/2000/011800.html [Accessed: 24 January 2000.]