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SILENT MESSAGES FROM GOVERNMENT

It's hard to oppose anti-drug messages on television shows, yet there is a disturbing element to the TV networks' financial arrangement with the federal government to evangelize about the evils of drugs in the scripts for popular programs.

The issue is clarity, not drugs. Government is so pervasive and so inclined to intrusion that we ought to know when it is speaking to us. That goes double when it is pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Here are the facts: A 1997 law required networks to match each government anti-drug commercial with a free one. Ad rates have soared since then, with a 30-second spot on NBC's "E.R." going for more than half-a-million dollars. In response, the government agreed to forgo some of its ad time if the networks would include anti-drug messages in some of their programs. That benefited the networks by freeing them to sell time that might otherwise have been donated.

It's unusual, to be sure, but there is nothing illegal or even unseemly about the purpose of this deal. Nobody can deny the debilitating influence of drug abuse or the influence that mass media can have on behavior (see Joe Camel). If the networks, which broadcast a steady stream of violence and casual sex, want to proselytize about the dangers of drugs, more power to them. Right?

The tempting response is "Yes, of course." After all, we're not talking about news divisions with ethical requirements to avoid such conflicts. The networks are businesses entitled to make legal financial decisions that benefit them.

But there is more to it than that. On their own, the networks are powerful tools of persuasion. When a public entity as vast and often over-reaching as the government secretly uses it to transmit messages of which it approves, we enter a new and intensely troubling area.

It doesn't take much imagination to understand the possibilities of abuse: What if the government dangled cash in front of the networks to write scripts supporting or opposing the right to abortion? What if LBJ had squeezed a financially strapped network to write shows in support of the Vietnam War?

There are only two ways to avoid these problems, the better of which is for all media to maintain an arm's-length distance from the government. With that kind of commitment, Americans can be comfortable that their government is not using its money, not to mention its licensing power, to send them clandestine messages, however public-spirited they may be.

Second best is for the government and media to 'fess up when they have come to an arrangement such as this. Full disclosure will go a long way toward easing the concerns that would be raised by an agreement that is otherwise too cozy and potentially abusive.

At a minimum, that's what should have happened in this case. That it didn't can be ascribed only to carelessness or a specific plan to deceive the public. Neither is acceptable.

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