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 Salon.com about how the ONDCP secretly gave financial incentives to television networks to insert the government's zerotolerance 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 follomed mith articles about horn the ONDCP used the same cashfor-content method to conuince major national magazines to print anti-drug propaganda and horn the successes of the Nouember '56 California and Arizona medical-marijuana initiatiues helped spark this paid media campaign strategy.
HIGH TIMES: UJhat mas 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 Reuieuu. That's where I really learned the nuts and bolts of journalism. Vou 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?
Horn did you uncouer the ONDCP pot-ola story?
In the spring of '9B a friend of mine, Dauid Riley, who was features editor for Brandweek, told me that the federal gouernment was mouing 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 gouernment 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 effectiueness of these ads? Riley suggested I do the library research inuolued, approach it from an academic point of uiew.
I figured there would be some decent research, four or fiue things published and a couple would hold water pretty well. I went and checked it out and was astounded that the PDFR refers to only three articles. Two of them had neuer seen the light of day at that point. The third one was done by a woman named Dr. Euelyn Cohen Reese, who had neuer studied drug policy before or since, had a one-year, postgraduate 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 uouch for the effect of the ads.
UJhat mas your next step?
During the course of the Brandweek article I had an interuiew with the DNDCP's Rian Leuitt. He's Media Campaigns Director for [DNDCP chief Barry] McCaffrey. Leuitt told me that program and content may count as a match, that all aduertismg is sold—this is my phrase not his—on a two-for-one basis, but that TU networks can escape that requirement if their programming content has the right anti-drug messages. Enormous bells went off in my head—that
`People in HolI~wood would rather haue bamboo shoots under their fingernails than take an unscheduled phone call from somebod~i the~, don't realI~,j know.'
the federal gouernment uuas prouidmg financial mcentiues for the nation's sitcoms and dramas. I uuas astounded. This uuas the spring of '98, but the TU ads weren't really going to kick in until the fall of '98. In the spring of '99 I made some uery preliminary calls indicating that indeed programs were being ualued by the federal gouernment. 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—8DD phone calls.
I called one hundred people and that entailed at least eight hundred phone calls. I'ue been accused of sleazy, mampulatiue tactics, but the first words out of my mouth—"Hi, Dan Forbes, doing a story for Mediaweek magazine on the 8N8CP 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 haue bamboo shoots under their fingernails than take an unscheduled phone call from somebody they don't really know.
UJhy was there fear about this story?
Part of it is just working for the bureaucracy of the federal gouernment and part of it stems from the "take-no-pnsoners” personality of McCaffrey. He does not tolerate much dissent. He's a career military man and is used to giumg his marching orders. And network teleuision 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.
□ id your approach change once you confirmed that "pot-ola" was going on?
I realized there was payola from day one, that there were financial mcentiues operating. I'm not an aduocate for drug use and I'm not an aduocate for drug legalization, but I'm also not an aduocate for what could be characterized as couert gouernment financial mcentiues to attempt to shape the content of popular culture. It is gouernment propaganda. That motiuated me from day one. It was a hell of a story and it needed to get out.
If you don't think that legalization is an answer, than what is?
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'ue euer been found guilty of possessing minor personal-use amounts of marijuana. What kind of nonsense is that? "We're going to rum your life because you smoke minor amounts of dope, Mr. Nmeteen-year-old." What's going on in this country?
What did you think of the altered teleuision shows you watched?
I saw two-thirds of them. Some of them are relatiuely benign. The ones they trumpet deal with parents not freaking out and keeping lines of communication open. But the ones they don’t trumpet muolue 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 teleuision. There hasn't been any glamonzation of drug use on TU in fifteen years, except for a nudge-nudge, wink-wink on That 70s Show.
How did the story end up at Salon.com?
The uast majority of Mediaweek's aduertismg is from media conglomerates who own the TU networks. That led them to haue 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 gouernment 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 ouer 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 Vorker, but it didn't work out. Then, boom—I though 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 giuen the brush-off at first, told to e-mail the story. Aside from the fact that I didn't haue e-mail at the time, I was not sending the story off into ether. It was heauy-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.
So you submitted the story, Salon published it and it ended up being quoted on the front page of the New Vork Times. How did that make you feel?
It was something akin to your wedding day. Vou wish you could just slow the whole thing down so you could really sauor it. Surreal is not the word. Vou had to constantly remember that this is a high-stakes endeauor, that you're making accusations against the federal gouernment and that some of the best reporters in the country haue a dual motiuation 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 TU studios. The neighbors must haue been wondering, "Why isn't he wearing his green sweatpants today like normal?" The DNDCP's Robert Housmann faxed Salon demanding a retraction. What did it say? Salon sent me a copy of the letter and this image of the White House comes out on your fax machine and you realize,
LU CHU, 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 '39 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.
Is it passible to haue an honest debate with the ONDCP?
I don't think you can in this administration. I would loue to haue 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 uery mild way, actually physically assaulted me at American Umuersity's political club after my story came out in late January. After McCaffrey gaue 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 mteruiew, if you want.” The thing ended and they gaue out Parade magazine's laudatory story about McCaffrey.
With McCaffrey on the couer next to an American flag.
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 haue 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 leuel of discourse.
Does the corporate conglomeration of the media worry you?
Sure. How many places could I haue taken this story if Salon didn't haue 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'ue got stuff that wants to get out, and how many credible publications are there?
Has this story changed your opinion about the media?
□F: To haue U.S. News and World Report, which has always been a well-respected publication and euen stodgy in its respectability, admit they submited articles for eualuation is an eye opener.
`It's getting tougher and tougher if iou don't dance to the piper's tune. How many credible publications are there?'
What do you think this signifies for the future of journalism on the Internet?
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 heauy-duty scoops haue there been on the Internet prior to this? This was one of the first pieces that could haue been published anywhere.
Surely, your stories haue added to the rising tide of uoices against the Drug War.
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 ouer 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 perspectiue, 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 Vork City, 3tate Department of Health ads with Gouernor Pataki's name on them aduocating sexual abstinence among teenagers. I don't need the gouernment telling me as a teenager what kind of sexuality I should be expressing.
Vou testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee and uarious other congressional committees. What effect does testifying before Congress haue?
It remains to be seen. The TU folks will be a lot more aware of it, but they are still receiuing financial incentiues to promote the gouernment'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 hauen't gotten any indication that that’s going to change.
HT: Where do you go from here?
DF: Bigger-picture issues. Why is the gouernment doing this and what's their ultimate motiuation aside from the politically-correct one of euerythmg 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 haue anything more to say about it.