"Straight Scoop" or Straightjacket?
Over the past several years, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has been peppering the airwaves with a bevy of anti-marijuana advertisements aimed specifically at teenagers and their parents. Advertisements created by high-powered public relations firms have tied marijuana use to terrorism, date rape, running over little kids on bicycles, unwanted pregnancies and gun violence.
An independent, federally funded report entitled "Evaluation of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, 2003 Report of Findings" -- released in January of this year -- declared that there was "little evidence of direct favorable Campaign effects on youth, either for the Marijuana Initiative period or for the Campaign as a whole. The trend data in marijuana use is not favorable, and for the primary target audience, 14- to 16-year-olds, past year use increased from 2000 through 2003."
In addition, the 2003 CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey -- released in May of 2004 -- found more U.S. teens reported smoking marijuana in the past 30 days ("current use" in drug research terms) than smoked cigarettes.
As a result of these failures, the Office of National Drug Control Policy's National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign has devised another strategy -- get teenagers themselves to spread the anti-drug message. Enlisting a number of prominent journalistic organizations as partners, the ONDCP has created the Straight Scoop News Bureau.
According to its web site, the Straight Scoop News Bureau is "an important component" of the Office of National Drug Control Policy's National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign and is designed "to provide student journalists with information about the realities of drugs and drug abuse." The aim is to have teenage journalists equipped to "disseminate that information" to other teens through the mediums they're most familiar with -- school newspapers, webzines, radio stations or television programs.
To some longtime observers of the drug wars, the Office of National Drug Control Policy's National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign has been a dismal failure. "In fact," says Bruce Mirken, the Director of Communications for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, who recently discovered the Straight Scoop web site, "the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign has brought America years of misleading, inaccurate and costly ads." Over the years, the government has spent more than $1 billion on its anti-drug media campaigns; the budget for the current year is $145 million, a slight decline from previous years.
With such prestigious partners like the Chicago Tribune Syndicate, the New York Times Newspaper in Education Program, the Newspaper Association of America, Pacific News Service, the Associated Student Press and several college journalism departments, one would expect that whatever specific goals Straight Scoop has, it would also encourage student journalists to be fair, accurate and balanced in their reporting. (Pacific News Service didn't respond to my phone inquiry about their involvement in this project.)
That's not what Mirken, a former freelance journalist, has found. He was surprised to see that despite the participation of so many reputable news organizations the facts Straight Scoop are providing about marijuana is far from the "straight scoop."
When Mirken clicked on "Feature Story Ideas" and then "Marijuana," he found that Straight Scoop encourages aspiring journalists to write about marijuana because it gives them an "opportunity to inform" their "fellow students not only of the physical, psychological and social consequences of using marijuana, but the benefits of living a marijuana-free life."
Another web site resource, called "Fast Facts," offers "as documented facts, a variety of false or misleading statements," says Mirken. For example, Straight Scoop claims that "Studies show that someone who smokes five joints a week may be taking in as many cancer-causing chemicals as someone who smokes a pack a day of tobacco cigarettes."
"Conveniently omitted," says Mirken, "is the fact that studies have never documented increased rates of lung or other smoking-associated cancers among marijuana users who don't smoke tobacco, or the extensive research showing that marijuana's active components can slow or stop tumor growth."
Straight Scoop maintains that "Some marijuana users develop something called 'amotivation syndrome' in which they become extremely lazy, unmotivated, and they lose interest in things they used to enjoy." According to Mirken, "Left unmentioned is that this 'syndrome' has been thoroughly debunked. A 1999 White House-commissioned Institute of Medicine report on marijuana concluded, 'No convincing data demonstrate a causal relationship between marijuana smoking and these behavioral characteristics.'"
Evidently, Mirken says, the source for Straight Scoop's so-called fact about "amotivational syndrome" is The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign Communication Strategy Statement, which can hardly be considered an impartial source.
"Among the many sources of information listed as dealing with drugs and drug abuse, there is not one single mention of any organization or expert that questions drug prohibition or offers any perspective other than 'just say no,'" Mirken pointed out. Why doesn't Straight Scoop provide a full array of sources so that student journalists can evaluate both sides of this and other issues?
While he recognizes that as Director of Communications for the Marijuana Policy Project he isn't a "disinterested observer," Mirken wonders why news organizations or groups that train and support student journalists would be partnering with a government public relations effort. "How on earth can journalistic organizations justify participating in an overt, unapologetic effort to turn student journalists into propagandists?"
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
Other Recent Articles by Bill Berkowitz
to the Resurrection