Tobacco can be harmful to journalism's health

The scrapping of a news report critical of a cigarette manufacturer raises questions about the power wielded by giant US corporations, says Edward Helmore
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The first signs that investigative journalism on US TV is falling prey to the interests of the megacorporations created during last summer's merger mania between ABC-Capital Cities and Disney and CBS-Westinghouse Electric has, as the nation's leader writers predicted, pitched management against news editors. The sore point? A decision by CBS to scrap part of its current affairs programme 60 Minutes that was critical of the tobacco industry in the face of a threatened multibillion-dollar lawsuit from Brown and Williamson, the third- largest cigarette manufacturer in the US.

The cancelled segment featured an interview with a former vice-president of the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corporation, Jeffrey Wigand, in which he alleged that B&W had scrapped plans to develop a safer cigarette and knowingly used a pipe-tobacco additive that causes cancer in laboratory animals. True or false? We'll never know. Mike Wallace, the show's front man, says: "It became obvious to me that we were caving in."

Dan Rather, presenter of CBS's evening news, also warns that a lawsuit "wouldn't have cost as much as it's going to cost us if we get a reputation for folding".

The producer of 60 Minutes, Don Hewitt, says the network was "looking down the barrel of a gun". Instead of an expose, the show opted for a report on how cigarette manufacturers prevent information from reaching the public.

The dispute has been compounded by details of the arrangements between 60 Minutes and Jeffrey Wigand. Though Wigand's face was blanked out, he was promised that the interview would not be aired without his permission (which he did not give). It also transpires he was paid $12,000 for helping on a previous 60 Minutes - also on the tobacco industry - and guaranteed indemnity against any legal action that might result.

Although 60 Minutes did not reveal Wigand's identity or name Brown and Williamson, the New York Daily News published leaked transcripts. B&W has responded with a breach of contract suit against Wigand. CBS has cause to be nervous. In 1993 it had to pay B&W $3.05m when a CBS TV station in Chicago said B&W's cigarette promotions were less advertising and more propaganda, identical to lobbying for, say, marijuana.

And last summer ABC/Capital Cities paid $15m reimbursement toward legal fees to settle a $10bn lawsuit brought by Philip Morris over a report on the news show Day One that said PM had added nicotine to it products. All this comes when the tobacco industry faces the possibility that the Food and Drug Administration may declare nicotine an addictive drug.

The ABC suit, the largest in US history, was settled shortly before the network's merger with Walt Disney Co - a coincidence not lost on observers. They suggested that nothing could be allowed to stand in the merger's way. Another coincidence: the $5.4bn merger of CBS with Westinghouse Electric Company was being considered by shareholders when the 60 Minutes report was dumped. Many CBS executives stood to gain from the lucrative stock options attached to the CBS merger. "The conflict of interest between business and journalism is naked," observes Joan Konner, dean of the School of Journalism at Columbia University.

This timidity stems not only from a shift in decision making but also a cooling of the public's relationship with the media, juries' increasing apathy in cases featuring press freedom, and the rising cost of defending a lawsuit. More significantly, news is less profitable than entertainment and carries less clout.

The 60 Minutes case is fast becoming a symbol of changing values in the news business - news editors report to lawyers who in turn answer to management - a chain of command that many say is inconsistent with investigative reporting. "Press lawyers have lost sight of the fact that for press freedom to exist, it's a constant fight," says James C Goodale, a First Amendment lawyer. For the corporations now dominating the media landscape, such freedoms are awkward.