Three years ago, the federal government dangled a big financial carrot in front of the television networks: It would buy up to $1 billion in air time to run antidrug commercials over five years if the networks matched the time with similar public-service ads.
But the networks balked at the offer because it meant losing ad revenue. So the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy decided instead to give a "credit" to a network - or let it not run the matching ads - if it wrote an antidrug message into the storyline of prime-time programs.
In effect, to win federal dollars, networks altered many scripts. The shows - and sometimes the scripts - were shown to the White House, whose criterion was that a show include such concepts as "peer refusal skills" or "parent efficacy."
It's a practice with a noble purpose and no official censorship. But it undermines the creative independence of a major commercial media and violates a trust with TV viewers.
If it continues, this official carrot for self-censorship could easily be expanded to inject any government message into TV programs. Let's not allow the "war on drugs" to drift into a war on the First Amendment.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society