Open Letter: Daniel Forbes Responds to Richard Linnett

Advertising Age columnist Richard Linnett's article (6/10/02) on my recently published work demands a response. He wrote of my months-long study published by the Washington think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies. It discusses the covert campaign - pursued by public employees while on the clock - embarked on by the administration of Gov. Bob Taft (R-OH) to defeat a treatment rather than incarceration initiative likely to appear on the ballot in Ohio this November. It's modeled on a similar ballot measure, Proposition 36, that passed overwhelmingly in California in 2000. Among other topics, the report discusses the supposedly apolitical Partnership for a Drug-Free America's cooperation with the Taft administration effort. Its URL: www.ips-dc.org/projects/drugpolicy/ohio.htm.

The PDFA's PR chief, Steve Dnistrian is correct when Linnett quotes him saying the PDFA did not actually create any advertising to influence state elections. My report makes that clear. But his statement does not address the fact that, in league with the Taft administration, the PDFA was up to its eyebrows in planning how to do so.

First though, a certain slur demands to be addressed. Though never raising the topic with me, Linnett blithely quotes Dnistrian: "Clearly, Dan is smoking some of the wacky weed that he has a great affection for when he is sitting down writing these things."

Dnistrian's McCarthyite attack demands either evidence that I produce my work under the influence of "wacky weed" (how precious, how positively fey), or an apology and a retraction from both the PDFA and Ad Age. On what basis does Dnistrian make this accusation? More to the point, on what basis does a presumably responsible reporter give credence to the obviously absurd notion that Dnistrian has any idea whatsoever of my work habits? Just because a PR guy at an organization I write about makes an ad hominem attack, is that alone reason enough to print it? It's not incumbent on the reporter to offer me a chance to respond? Do his editors exercise no fact-checking authority? Do Ad Age's lawyers know this?

All the PDFA has in its corner is smear and attempted character assassination. Dnistrian's slur just underscores the cheapness of its response. It's classic PR: attack the journalist personally, deflect attention, obfuscate.

Let me state that a tightly focused, approximately 22,000 word monograph is the product of hard work and indignation at taxpayer-funded subversion of democracy in this country. No more, no less.

Of course, Linnett cites my work in High Times. But he neglects to mention Rolling Stone, Salon, The Village Voice or Alternet. That said, my HT's articles meet the same standards that have been recognized with awards from a chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism/Online News Association. My work has also engendered congressional hearings on the White House anti-drug media campaign; I testified before both the Senate and the House.

Linnett writes there's "not a whiff of a smoking gun in the [ISP] report other than some publicly available transcripts of meetings between the alleged conspirators ... " That's plain silly, since the entire report is based on FOI-ed documents from the offices of Gov. Bob Taft, the First Lady and his cabinet officials. Oddly enough, Linnett adds that no one returned my calls. Actually, I quote extensively from an interview with Taft cabinet member Domingo Herraiz, who runs Ohio's criminal justice department.

Linnett points out correctly that there is no ad campaign -- I never said there was one. My report focused, in part, on the PDFA's overt, manifest willingness to insert itself into a state election in Ohio.

The PDFA's intent is indicated by the fact it sent its four top executives to a meeting last July to formulate plans to defeat the proposed treatment initiative. Ohio's first lady and two Taft cabinet members participated in this strategy session, which was held in the U.S. Capitol building itself and hosted by a senior U.S. Senate staffer. Employing the canard that the treatment initiative is de facto decriminalization, in a letter on PDFA letterhead confirming the four executives' attendance, the PDFA's Director of Operations, Michael Y. Townsend, termed it a "counter-legalization brainstorm session." Only nuts-and-bolts planning would justify sending four top men rather than one or two; the four traveled to Washington in July to discuss strategy and tactics, not generic politics.

Along with getting a simple fact like the date of my original Salon series wrong, Linnett misquotes me to the effect that the PDFA hasn't returned my phone calls in five years. Well, five years ago I was happily unaware of the PDFA's machinations; they've been ducking interviews only since my original Salon stories broke some two years ago. As I wrote in the ISP report: "With all the evidence scattered in black and white throughout the Taft administration's plans that the PDFA was willing to meddle in Ohio's election, it declined speaking to a reporter who has studied the documents. Rather, in a transparent ploy, the PDFA declared it would speak only to my editor, who - having blissfully not spent months delving into this miasma -- would be less likely to identify any ... inoperative statements."

As a matter of fact, when I made my several requests to the PDFA for comment, I didn't even have an editor. I typically embark on these long investigations on spec since I feel they make a contribution to discussion of public policy. I figure if I nail it, they'll find a home somewhere, and I often attempt placing them only on completion.

Permit some choice excerpts from my IPS report proving the supposedly apolitical PDFA's full involvement in the Taft scheme, material that Linnett was directed to but chose to totally ignore.

Discussing last July's Capitol building strategy session, Hope Taft wrote her husband and his chief of staff about gathering "a group of people to see how some of the national groups like … PDFA, etc. can develop PSAs that highlight the best aspects of the current drug court system." Such PSAs, of course, would sway Ohio voters in favor of the status quo. [Emphasis added.]

Marcie Seidel, Hope Taft's chief of staff, generated a set of minutes from this D.C. session. In boldface, she wrote: "Partnership for Drug Free America is to present a couple page concept on how they can help." Seidel added: "PDFA can do educational PSAs starting now [July, 2001] about success stories of people who were required to get treatment. Ohio has enough treatment systems to do this type of campaign. They could start these educational PSAs before the political season begins." Seidel also wrote: "We have two media tracks: 1) the Partnership's educational, nonpolitical piece and 2) the political ads to get out the vote."

Yet, given their genesis and intent, calling the first set of ads nonpolitical is absurd; indeed, so-called PSAs lend themselves to any number of political applications.

In a summary of the D.C. session written by its host, U.S. Senate staffer William Olson (and sent to Hope Taft), Olson referred to participants' debate over competing proposals: whether to offer "a counter-initiative that tried to take the wind out of the legalization proposal; or … a more straightforward effort to kill the initiative." Olson wrote that "the PDFA participants strongly favored" the ameliorative counter-initiatve, but that a more strident participant [Betty Sembler, the wife of the chair of the Republican National Committee's finance committee from 1997 to 2000] did not. This indicates the PDFA was involved with fundamental, fork-in-the-road planning.

Taft cabinet member Domingo Herraiz's Office of Criminal Justice Services generated a four-page, single-spaced document entitled "Potential Ohio Strategies for a Proactive Approach to Prop 36." A total of 17 strategies fell under the heading, "Public Relations/Media," including, "Develop Public Service Announcement -- before the actual campaign begins in order to promote what is being done and the benefit of treatment -- partner with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America."

In a formal interview, Herraiz told me, "I had the intent to talk to the Partnership to identify what to do in Ohio." He also told me, "The PDFA was slated to produce ads on the benefits of treatment. There's nothing illegal regarding their 501(c)3 [tax] status." Asked whether such ads on treatment rather than prevention would be a significant departure from the PDFA's almost single-minded focus on prevention, Herraiz said they're "talking of branching out to treatment and drug courts."

That is certainly news to this and other observers I quote in the ISP report.

Herraiz told me about "discussions with the PDFA on how to market the message of treatment." But he added that any such ads would not be "political." He said, "If the Partnership had generic PSAs [on treatment] we would encourage that they run in Ohio." Notice that "if": apparently Herraiz has never seen any PDFA ads on treatment either, and he's worked in the field a long time. The Taft administration, he said, would "write a letter of support to local TV stations encouraging using such ads."

Last summer, Herraiz wrote an anti-initiative strategy bible entitled, the "Playbook." It contains a few more PDFA smoking guns. Under its dual headings of "Information Campaign" and "Message Marketing," we find Task Number 2: "Develop Public Service Announcement." The two steps to achieving that goal are: "Contact and confirm meeting with Partnership for a Drug-Free America" and "Meet to discuss creation of a PSA promoting Ohio Drug Reform message." This last referring to the Taft counter-initiative effort, the indicated resources are the PDFA, the governor's office and two Taft cabinet departments.

An additional Playbook Task, slated for February, 2002, is "Develop PSA, with run time concentration only days before election." The corresponding resource is listed as the PDFA. Now, an ad buy concentrated "only days" before an election has an irreducibly political intent. The Playbook, the administration's formal plan of action, underscores the administration's understanding, following their meeting, of the PDFA's political involvement.

But then the PDFA has had a covert political intent for years. As disclosed in Salon (7/27/00) in, Fighting "Cheech & Chong" Medicine -- the phrase is Clinton Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey's -- the initial five-year, White House media campaign was engendered at a meeting McCaffrey convened in Washington nine days after medical marijuana initiatives passed in Arizona and California in 1996. Minutes of the meeting reveal that some forty officials and private sector executives met to discuss the need for taxpayer-funded messages to thwart any potential medical marijuana initiatives in the other 48 states and perhaps even roll back the two that had just passed. They included two policy advisors from the Clinton White House, the head of the DEA, representatives of the FBI, Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Treasury and Education, along with state law enforcement personnel. One private participant was quoted in the meeting's minutes as saying, "We'll work with Arizona and California to undo it and stop the spread of legalization to [the] other 48 states."

PDFA executive vice-president Michael Townsend attended both McCaffrey's 1996 strategy session and Olson's meeting in Washington last July. He was quoted as telling McCaffrey's meeting, " 'National Partnership [PDFA] concerned about what they can do about spending $ to influence legislation.' " In the notes' clipped parlance, Townsend was also quoted as saying that "the effort required '$175 million. Try to get fedl [sic] $.' " Not coincidentally, $175 million was the budget the media campaign's backers, among them, PDFA chairman James E. Burke, first proposed to Congress. (Congress later boosted the figure, not least by demanding a half-priced, two-for-one deal from the media.)

As I wrote in Salon: "PDFA president [in 1996] Richard Bonnette laid out the challenge to the group. 'We lost Round I - no coordinated communication strategy. Didn't have media,' the notes quote Bonnette telling his colleagues. One participant not clearly identified in the notes asked the gathering, 'Who will pay for national sound bites? Campaign will require serious media and serious $.' "

Daniel Forbes (ddanforbes@aol.com.) writes on social policy. His recently published Institute for Policy Studies report is at: http://www.ips-dc.org/projects/drugpolicy/ohio.htm.

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