Where there's smoke there's pressure

VIEW FROM NEW YORK: Fear of the tobacco industry has led the mighty CBS network to censor itself
Click to follow
The Independent Online
We are ensconced in one of our favourite lunchtime eateries in Manhattan this weekend when a man with a worried look settles in a booth just a couple away from our own. He talks in grumbling tones to his companion, rarely lifting his eyes from the table. He is Dan Rather, the veteran newsreader at CBS.

Of course, it may be the grey weather that is weighing on Mr Rather's mood. It is a good bet, however, that he is pondering work matters - the pending takeover of CBS by Westinghouse Corporation, or perhaps last week's brouhaha over revelations of self-censorship at 60 Minutes, his network's flagship current affairs show. Or, indeed, a combination of both.

What happened at 60 Minutes, a Sunday-night fixture, rattled the rafters not just of CBS but of the whole industry. Under pressure from network lawyers, the producers emasculated a planned story on efforts by the tobacco industry to suppress the results of its own research into nicotine and cancer by yanking an interview with a former employee of a large tobacco company - Brown & Williamson, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco - for fear that it would provoke a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit.

The legal department at CBS was especially concerned that the interviewee had signed a confidentiality agreement with B&W on leaving the company and was in effect being invited to breach it on air. In theory, B&W could have accused CBS of so-called "tortious interference" and hit it with a very hefty lawsuit indeed. In the mid-1980s, Texaco was sued for tortious interference for trying to break up the merger of the Pennzoil Company and Getty Oil and was forced to pay $10.5bn in damages. The episode pushed Texaco into bankruptcy protection in 1987. CBS evidently took fright.

But the journalistic uproar was instant. It did not help that this was 60 Minutes, the very bastion of no-fear, no-favour television journalism. It also tweaked unusually raw nerves because it was the tobacco industry that was involved. While from some angles the cigarette-makers seem to be on the run from journalists and the US government - the Food and Drug Administration is considering classifying tobacco as an addictive drug - they still wield awesome power. Power to sway politicans - the industry is the biggest contributor to the Republican Party - and also to cow television networks.

Editorialists, columnists and commentators expounded widely on the crisis of the corrosion of free expression in the press. "This act of self-censorship by the country's most powerful and aggressive television news programme sends a chilling message to journalists investigating industry practices everywhere," boomed the New York Times. Among journalists at CBS who joined in the chorus was Mr Rather, who argued that whatever the cost to his employer of a lawsuit from B&W, "it wouldn't cost as much as it's going to cost us if we get a reputation for folding every time somebody threatens us".

Most poignant was the display of embarrassment and chagrin on 60 Minutes itself when the neutered version of the tobacco story was aired two Sundays ago. In what he called a "personal note" at the end of the programme, the veteran reporter Mike Wallace bitterly explained that CBS had, "seen fit to give in to perceived threats of legal action against it". He later said on radio that he would resign if the same thing were to happen again.

Then there is the Westinghouse factor. Cynics might wonder at the coincidence of timing between the broadcast date of the show in question on 12 November and the meeting of CBS shareholders that was scheduled for just four days later to approve Westinghouse's $5.4bn takeover offer for the network. It is not inconceivable that CBS managers were unwilling to risk a big lawsuit at the very moment when the Westinghouse takeover was so close to consummation, especially when you consider that many among them stand to make huge profits from the buyout.

The scenario is more convincing still if you know of a similar saga that recently beset CBS's rival, ABC. A year and a half ago, Philip Morris, home of the Marlboro Man, walloped ABC with a $10bn suit - the biggest libel action in history - after one of its current affairs programmes, Day One, which has since been axed, alleged that the company had been deliberately spiking its cigarettes with nicotine to raise addiction levels among its smokers. ABC did nothing for 18 months, until, lo and behold, in August this year it settled out of court, paying Morris a reported $15m to cover legal fees. And what else happened to ABC at about that time? It, like CBS, also proposed climbing into someone else's bed - Walt Disney's.

Some easy conclusions can be drawn. For one, the tobacco industry, for all the battering it has been taking of late, is still a power to be reckoned with. For another, in this country certainly, lawyers are on the up escalator in the news business while journalists appear to be riding down, taking the First Amendment of the American Constitution with them. Another is less certain, but perhaps more worrying still. As industrial combines gradually become the masters of all media outlets - remember that NBC, the other network, is already controlled by General Electric - so corporate concerns of profit and protection against risk take over from journalistic principles.

This is the fear expressed by Frank Rich of the New York Times. "If this is how cautiously ABC and CBS are behaving before they are swallowed by Disney and Westinghouse, what will happen to these networks' news divisions after the sales are completed and they are owned by even larger corporate behemoths? If bottomless corporate coffers can buy off elected officials and scare off news organisations as huge as CBS, who will defend the public interest?"

No wonder Mr Rather seemed to be looking at his omelette askance.

David Usborne