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Agency of Fear

Opiates and Political Power in America

By Edward Jay Epstein

Chapter 20 - The Manipulation of the Media

 Control over the flow of information emanating from the political center will be our most important weapon....



The extraordinary measures that the White House planned to undertake in its war against crime depended heavily for their success on the organization of public fears. If Americans could be persuaded that their lives and the lives of their children were being threatened by a rampant epidemic of narcotics addiction, Nixon's advisors presumed they would not object to decisive government actions, such as no-knock warrants, pretrial detention, wiretaps, and unorthodox strike forces-even if the emergency measures had to cross or circumvent the traditional rights of a suspect. To achieve this state of fear required transforming a relatively small heroin addiction problem-which even according to the most exaggerated estimates directly affected only a minute fraction of the population in 1971-into -a plague that threatened all. This in turn required the artful use of the media to propagate a simple but terrifying set of stereotypes about drug addiction: the addict-dealer would be depicted as a modern-day version of the medieval vampire, ineluctably driven to commit crimes and infect others by his insatiable and incurable need for heroin. The victims would be shown as innocent youth, totally vulnerable to the vampire-addict. And the federal law-enforcement officer would be shown as the only effective instrument for stopping the vampire-addicts from contaminating the rest of society. The most obvious medium available for projecting these stereotypes on the popular imagination was television. 

The plan to mobilize the media developed in March, 1970. President Nixon had instructed his chief domestic advisor, John Ehrllchman, to "further utilize television as a too] in the fight against drug abuse." Ehrlichman then turned the project over to Egli Krogh, his assistant, and Jeb Stuart Magruder, the deputy director of the Office of Communications in the White House. Magruder, a thirty six-year-old former advertising salesman and merchandise manager for a department store, found initially that officials in the various federal agencies resisted his plans for a publicity hype of the drug issue. He recalled in his autobiography, "The first meeting we called was hilarious-I couldn't believe those people [in the federal agencies] were working on the same problem.... We encountered the usual hostility the White House people meet in the bureaucratic world." But eventually "everyone agreed that television was the single most effective means to reach young people and alert them to the hazards of drugs." On March I I the White House held a press conference, and the memorandum by Magruder summing up the "feedback" noted that the media interest sparked by the press conference had been favorable.... We have been getting calls from all over the Country ... ranging from network television to rural weeklies to professional journals.... A pod many of those calling indicated enthusiastic support for the Administration [press] programs and inferred [sic) that they would be doing supportive and follow-up pieces, including editorials, 

The White House strategists, however, were more interested in primetime television. On March 18, 1970, Jeffrey Donfeld, the enterprising assistant to Krogh, sent a memorandum to the White House proposing that since "the President expressed his desire to have more anti-drug themes on television," the president should personally attend a meeting of television producers that Donfeld was arranging for April 9, 1970, at the White House. Among those being invited, Donfeld noted, were:

1. The vice-presidents in charge of programming of the three networks. 

2. The vice-presidents in charge of continuity acceptance [who approve the contents of the programs] of the networks.

3. The heads of production of the six major television production companies.

4. The producers of select programs which can accommodate narcotics themes ... this group will represent at least 90 percent of prime-time shows.

5. Television programming vice-presidents of the three major advertising agencies.  

Donfeld explained that the day-long program would be held in the White House theater and that the purpose of the meeting would be to stimulate these producers to include in their fall programming antidrug themes." In a March 19 memorandum John Ehrlichman recommended personally that the president meet the television executives in his office for a "photo opportunity." On April 2 a detailed scenario was drawn up for the meeting of the following week. "To expedite the meeting and give It a little novelty," it recommended: 

The Attorney General will just be finishing his remarks before the group in the White House theatre [at 9:30 A.M.]. At that time Steve Bull [the White House assistant] would enter and hand the Attorney General a note. The Attorney General would then announce that the President has asked us to step over to his office. Prior to that time, the men attending the conference would not know when they would be seeing the President. Therefore, the Attorney General's announcement would be the first indication that they were about to go over and meet with the President. 

H. R. Haldeman approved this spontaneous moment in the scenario; even though it broke "the President's rule of not doing something before 10:00 A.M." After this minor success, Magruder sent a background paper to Attorney General Mitchell, stating: 

We intend to make available to the television industry information on anti-drug themes that could be used in a broad expanse of appropriate television programs.... The President thought that an effort should be made to have one television series with a drug theme analogous [sic] to the FBI Storv la continuing series on ABC television].... As a consequence, invitations to forty-eight persons who were responsible for over 90% of prime-time television between 7:30 P.m. and I 1:00 p.m. were sent over your signature on behalf of a President greatly concerned over the drug problem.  

Magruder further explained, "The individuals being invited think in dramatic terms. We have therefore tailored the program to appeal to their dramatic instincts. Your personal presentation will be virtually the only 'straight' speech. The remainder of the program will consist of audio-visual and unusual presentations." The unusual presentations that Magruder had planned were described as follows: "The Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs will have one of its special agents interview one of its undercover agents"; "The Bureau of Customs will bring in shepherd dogs to demonstrate how they are used to detect concealed marijuana"; "The National Institute of Mental Health will conduct a group therapy session with addicts"; "The Department of Defense will present a slide and film presentation depicting the relationship of ... dissent and drugs." One specific goal of this program was to "provide a telephone number in Washington which television writers [could] call in order to obtain information for inclusion in their scripts, plus access to federal activities (training sessions, Customs Inspection points) so that their scripts would have a high degree of realism." Finally, Magruder sycophantishly reminded the attorney general, "National attention will properly be focused on you as the principal individual in the Nixon administration whose concern is with drug abuse." Mitchell agreed to give the "straight" speech and announce that he had just received an impromptu message from the president.

John Ehrlichman got a slightly different explanation for the purpose of this "White House Theater." Jeffrey Donfeld stated in an April 3 memorandum, "The government has a difficult time changing the attitudes of people.... Television, however, is a subliminal stimulus." In other words, viewers would receive a hidden, or subliminal, message, which they would not be conscious of receiving but which would all the same stimulate their fear of heroin addicts. "If indeed television is a subliminal stimulus," Donfeld suggested to Ehrlichman, "you are urging the producers to focus their creative genius to effect changes in people's attitudes about drugs ... [and offering] to guide them in presenting efficacious programs." The talking points Donfeld prepared for Ehrlichman included such instructions as: "Program content should be carefully designed for the audience that is likely to be tuned in at a given time"; "It would not be accurate to portray the drug problem as a ghetto problem .... It i,, a problem which touches all economic, social and racial strata,, of' America"; "You will receive a drug information kit.... Included in that kit will be a telephone contact list so that you or your script writers can call government officials for clarification and additional information"; "Television subtly and inexorably helps to mold the attitudes, thinking and motivations of a vast number of Americans."

The remarks that the president made to the television producers were prepared by Buchanan, the speech writer who delighted in writing hard-line speeches which closely paralleled the rhetoric then being used in New York State by Governor Rockefeller. In this "impromptu" speech the president warned ominously that "the scourge of narcotics has swept the young generation like an epidemic.... There is no community in this country today that can safely claim immunity from it.... Estimates of it are somewhere between five and twelve million people in this country have used illicit drugs." (When Buchanan redrafted this speech for Nixon six months later, he increased the estimates to "between twelve and twenty million people", he thus added some seven million new drug users to government estimates. The president then pointed out to the television producers that "between the time a child is born and he leaves high school, it is estimated he watches about 15,000 hours of television.... The children of this country are your captive audience for a good segment of their growing years in which their whole future can be determined." Then he warned, "if this nation is going to survive, it will have to depend to the great extent on how you gentlemen help raise our children." Finally, the advanced scenario called for the president "spontaneously" to summon the press to the Oval Office to photograph the television producers.

The conference went precisely as scheduled by the scenarists. The executives and producers, rounded up for the president by John Ball,, of J. Walter Thompson advertising agency (where Haldeman had formerly been employed), met at the White House and were greeted by the attorney general. At 9:30 A.M., In the midst of his introductory remarks, Mitchell received an "urgent message" from the president, summoning the television producers to the Oval Office, where he delivered the "off-the-cuff" remarks prepared by Buchanan. The production then adjourned to the White House Theater, where the German shepherds demonstrated how they could sniff out marijuana in mail pouches. At lunch, in the State Department dining room, John Ehrlichman added drama by saying that the dogs had actually discovered a packet of hashish during the demonstration. Afterward, the forty guests were shown one and a half hours of "shocking" films of narcotics addiction in the president's private projection room. The carefully staged demonstrations were highly successful, as Krogh recalled. One television producer at the conference, Robert Lewis Shayon, later commented, "Up front in the fifth row I sensed that there was hardly a dry eye in the whole hard-boiled crowd-so genuine, touching and fraught with universal significance [was the program]." Meanwhile, the advertising agency executives, who provide sponsors for most of the programs on television, were brought into the East Room by Jeb Stuart Magruder. To their surprise they were greeted by the president himself, who listened attentively as Magruder explained how the advertisers could use their influence to encourage television producers to incorporate the drug-oriented scenes, selected by the White House, into their programming. Never fully realizing the extent to which they themselves were part of a production, most of the television producers and executives left the White House that night believing, at least according to subsequent interviews, that they were part of a war on drugs.

"The producers loved it, and in the weeks following they flooded us with letters about new drug-related programs," Magruder later noted, and added, "Shows like The Name of the Game and Hawaii Five-0 added segments on the problem, new series were planned, and dozens of documentaries were produced." Such programs as The FBI, Mod Squad, Marcus Welb M.D., Matt Lincoln, Room 222, The Young Lawyers, and Dan August all promised to produce segments on the narcotics problem. In addition, producer Jack Webb began negotiations with the Treasury Department for an entire television series called Treasury Agent, which would give continuous coverage to the administration's heroin crusade. On September 21, 1970, Magruder advised Ehrlichman in a memorandum, "At least twenty television programs this fall will have a minimum of one anti-drug theme in it as a result of our conference" and recommended in the following month that there be a "White House Conference on Drugs for the radio industry." 

The purpose of the meeting with radio-station owners and managers would be "to urge increased drug education programming and to curb pro drug music and jargon of disc jockeys," according to an October 13 memorandum for the president prepared by Egil Krogh.

"This conference is a continuation of the effort to enlist mass media's support ... to fight against drug abuse," Krogh further explained. In the press plan for the conference he advised the president that there would be "no press coverage of your remarks to the group in the Cabinet Room, but there will be press coverage of the German Shepherd marijuana sniffing demonstration." To add weight to the conference, Dean Burch, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the broadcasting industry, agreed to attend this meeting of seventy leaders of the radio industry. The scenario further suggested that "the President will have a colorful opportunity to emphasize the stepped-up federal law enforcement effort against illicit drug traffic and can praise the initiative of law enforcement people" on news cameras that would televise the event.

As scheduled in the press plan, the White House conference on the radio industry began promptly at nine, the morning of October 14, 1970, with a speech by Dean Burch on "The FCC and Public Service Time." He suggested that the Federal Communications Commission would look favorably on licensees who provided more time for antidrug commercials. Then came the same dog show that had been prepared for the television producers, complete with German shepherds, shock films, and demonstrations of law-enforcement techniques. John Ehrlichman repeated his lunch remarks. The president continued by telling the radio owners, "We have brought you gentlemen here today because we very much need your active help to halt this epidemic.... Ninety-eight percent of the young people between the age of twelve and seventeen listen to the radio.... No one is in a better position than you to warn our youth constantly against the dangers in drugs." Again, according to White House evaluations, the conference proved successful in injecting the drug menace into radio programming. "Our costs were minimal and the results, measured in terms of television and radio programming, were remarkable," Magruder concluded.

The media campaign continued with the highly publicized Drug Abuse Prevention Week; the National Drug Alert (to coincide with the opening of school); high-level briefings for media executives; drug seminars, in which dramatic law-enforcement stories were given to newspapers; and a White House meeting for religious leaders on the drug problem. By 1971, responding to continual White House pressure, television stations and sponsors had donated commercial time worth some $37 million (at times which may have gone unsold anyway) for administration messages about the war on drugs, according to an estimate done by the Advertising Council in 1972. In large part because of this massive "subliminal stimulation" campaign in the media, President Nixon could point out in his June, 1971, declaration of a national emergency that "the threat of narcotics ... frightens many Americans." The generation of fear had succeeded: even in cities which had few, if any, heroin addicts, private polls commissioned by the White House showed that citizens believed the drug menace to be one of the two main threats to their safety.



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