Q: LET'S START WITH YOUR EXPERIENCE AT NBC. DID YOU FIND YOURSELF WELL
PROTECTED BY FIREWALLS FROM THE CORPORATE SIDE OF THE NETWORK?
Grossman: When I was in charge of the news division at NBC which was in
the days before G.E. took over and Grant Tinker ran NBC, there's no question
that we had - were totally free to do whatever we wanted to do as long as we
did it responsibly. And indeed, even when G.E. came in and there were issues
such as a major lawsuit involving a libel action, in Las Vegas where we had
lost in the initial trial and got a 20 something million dollar verdict against
us, G.E. fought very hard and was determined to fight it through to the end and
in the end it was overturned. So there was - I can say unequivocally, before
G.E. came in there was no interference, no editorial sense of control or limit
as long as you acted reasonably and responsibly. In the beginning at G.E. we
had some rough patches because they had no real experience with broadcast but
they learned very quickly to keep their hands off.
Grossman is the former president of NBC News and PBS as well as the author of "The Electronic Democracy: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age."
Q: HOW DO YOU THINK THAT ASSURANCE THAT PEOPLE WOULD GO TO THE MAT FOR THE
NEWS DEPARTMENT AFFECTED PEOPLE WHO WERE REPORTING AND RUNNING THE DEPARTMENT?
Grossman: Well clearly it meant there was always a love-hate
relationship between news and the entertainment side and the sales side because
news people tend to be kind of arrogant. They never apologize, they never admit
they're wrong and they have a sense of having a higher calling than those who
merely make money or entertain. And it's resented, by the way, often and
understandably, on the part of those who run the network. But there was also a
sense that they would be protected if they acted responsibly and somebody came
after them, either with a lawsuit or some political pressure.
Q: WOULD IT BE FAIR TO SAY IN THOSE DAYS THE DIVISION WAS BETWEEN THE
NETWORK AS A WHOLE IN THE OUTSIDE WORLD WHETHER IT WAS THE GOVERNMENT OR
CORPORATE PRESSURES RATHER THAN BETWEEN THE NEWS DEPARTMENT AND THE CORPORATE
SIDE OF A NETWORK?
Grossman: Oh yes. I mean to the outside world it was a unified
enterprise and the network and the people in charge of the network felt an
obligation to protect the news division against attack by and large. Now there
have been notable periods, Fred Friendly's resignation at CBS because CBS
refused to run deliberations on Vietnam at the time when they were running I
Love Lucy and various other episodes. But by and large there was a sense
that news was central to the enterprise and they had to protect the news
Q: HAVE THINGS CHANGED?
Grossman: Well I've been out of it myself so I can't speak firsthand.
But clearly things have changed in the sense that news is no longer a
centerpiece of most of these large owners. It is a fringe operation. In many
ways it's changed for the better because there's more news, there's more focus
on news. It serves many of the major multi-media corporations to have a news
division. They come for their other communications projects then. News becomes
an adornment to them. You now they're not just business moguls seeking
privileges in China or Europe and licenses. They become important news moguls
and so they can have access to prime ministers and foreign ministers and
commerce ministers and license givers. But the whole atmosphere has changed
and I think many of the news people have changed. They no longer fight as hard
for their integrity, if you will, as they might. And I think that may be part
of the problem both on the ABC and particularly on the CBS side that the heads
of the news division did not fight for the story at CBS.
Q: AND WHY DO YOU THINK THAT WAS THE CASE?
Grossman: I think there was some concern about the story itself and how
good it was, how strong it was. There's no question that there was some
pressures by the company. But what struck me in the CBS case particularly was
that Don Hewitt himself in a press club speech said they were going to get out
of the way. He tipped his hand instead of really saying we want to see what the
judgment of the lawyers is. Lawyers are paid to put up question flags and say
what risks are and managers are paid to say, okay we're going to take those
risks or we're not going to take the risks. And it was very clear that neither
the executive producer of 60 Minutes nor the then-president of CBS News
put up much of a fight when questions were raised about running the tobacco
Q: THERE ARE ALWAYS RISKS OF SUIT. WE ALL LIVE UNDER THIS SORT OF A THREAT
AT ANY MOMENT OF OUR LIVES. IF IN FACT YOU'RE GOING TO ANTICIPATE EVERY
CONCEIVABLE, POSSIBLE THREAT OF A LAWSUIT, NOTHING WOULD EVER GET DONE IN THE
NEWS, WOULD IT?
Grossman: No that's right. And interesting, Bob Wright at NBC, came to
understand that and gave a ringing speech at the Columbia Journalism School
saying it's the job of the corporate owners to fight very hard. Otherwise you
have an emasculated news division that has no clout, no power. But there have
been many changes in the environment as well. There's a sense that much of news
is irresponsibly done, much of it is no longer done under the auspices of
network news with its guidelines and its traditions. It's done through
syndicated news magazine shows that are not done by news departments. People
don't trust a lot of it any more and there is continuing kind of arrogance and
simple-mindedness in the tabloid wars of television news. So that the
atmosphere has changed a good deal too.
Q: DO YOU THINK THAT WE HAVE ENTERED AN ERA WHERE THE MAJOR THREAT IN TERMS
OF FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IN THE WORLD OF JOURNALISM IS NOT SO MUCH FROM THE
STATE BUT FROM CORPORATE POWER?
Grossman: I think there's a real problem there yes. It's clearly huge
concentrations of corporate power. News and information are sideline
undertakings. They're not in the mainstream of their - even Time Warner and
CNN, the merger with Time Warner and Turner, news is a small piece of the pie
which - where there are much more important elements. The animation channel and
the movie channel and sports. When Eisner, the head of Disney took over the
merger with ABC, he was asked at the press conference what prompted it. And I
thought his initial remark was very revealing when he said it's tremendously
increasing global appetite for non-political entertainment and sports. It's
the non-political side. So news is important but it's no longer the centerpiece
as it used to be.
Q: THAT'S INTERESTING. I TALKED TO A GUY IN HONG KONG WHO'S A BIG SINGAPORE
MEDIA MOGUL AND WHO HAS BEEN MOST SUCCESSFUL IN CHINA. AND HIS UNABASHED MOTTO
IS: NO SEX, NO VIOLENCE, NO POLITICS. THIS IS ALMOST ON HIS LETTERHEAD. I THINK
IT'S EMBLEMATIC OF A -
Grossman: Well you had the well publicized incident of Rupert Murdoch
pulling the BBC off of his satellite channel in China because the Chinese were
upset about having BBC news on there. And in the end, that is a big danger.
But I also do not want to under-estimate the need for news people, the
journalists themselves and certainly the news management to fight or what is
important to them and what is important to the nation. And I think one of the
most serious problems is that there is no longer as much of a tradition of
holding out for that kind of integrity by the news people as there used to be,
as the news people themselves become part of this corporate establishment.
Q: DO YOU VIEW THAT AS BEING A REAL CONTRADICTION BETWEEN THAT IMPERATIVE
AND THE NEED FOR A LARGE COMPANY OR A NETWORK TO MAKE MONEY?
Grossman: Not necessarily. There are certain areas though where there
are conflicts. When news people get paid huge amounts of money and become part
of the corporate establishment as opposed to the rebels, traditionally the role
they play, then they tend to think like everybody else thinks on the corporate
side. It's very rare in my experience when anybody who is a corporate leader
would call up anybody from news and say, you can't talk about that or you don't
dare take that point of view. On the other hand, the whole atmosphere, the
whole environment is such that idiosyncratic people, people with strange ideas
do not tend to thrive in a corporate world and do not tend to rise to
leadership. So it becomes sort of a greater obligation of the news people to
stand up for what they think is important and what they think is right. And
when they do, they usually win, in my experience.
Q: LET'S TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE ABC STORY. WHAT DO YOU THINK WENT AWRY
Grossman: Well as with many of these, they're complicated stories, and I think
we are too ready to find simple bad guy-good guy kind of motives, you know. The
management sold out because ABC was on the verge of merging with Disney, or
they were afraid, as a massive telecommunications bill was coming down, I've
heard somebody assert that they were afraid of offending a key congressman who
was the chairman of the committee that oversaw the bill who was very concerned
with tobacco, Congressman Wiley. I think it was a complicated story.
There was legitimate concern on the part of Tom Murphy, the then-head of ABC
and his counsel that some mistake was made. It was a fringe mistake if it was a
mistake in the report about whether more nicotine was added rather than less
nicotine being added. And they made a terrible misjudgment I think in using
that to settle the lawsuit and in agreeing to paying $15 million and more to
settle the lawsuit. IF a mistake was made, it should have been apologized for.
I think that's one thing that news people are guilty of is they rarely admit
that they're wrong even when they are wrong and then pursue the lawsuit as
aggressively - defense of the lawsuit as aggressively as possible. I don't
believe that the management sold out the news division. That's not in Tom
Murphy's character to do that. Or sold it out even for the sake of preserving
the merger. I think he genuinely felt that there was a mistake made in the
reporting and that news should apologize for it. And then there was a tumbling
of outcome that proved to be very damaging and very serious both for ABC and
also for CBS. I think the largest single reason that CBS ended up killing the
60 Minutes piece on tobacco was probably the influence of the settlement
that ABC agreed to.
Q: IN A STORY AS COMPLICATED AS THE ONE THAT ABC DID ISN'T THERE BOUND TO BE
SOME SLIGHT ERROR OR FUZZINESS IN THE REPORTING? WOULDN'T WE BE AN ENDLESS
SERIES OF MYTHOLOGIES IF IN FACT EVERY LITTLE STORY HAD TO BE COMBED THROUGH
Grossman: Yes I've never been involved in a story that didn't have - no
matter how meticulously prepared and how carefully it was edited and overseen
where some mistake wasn't made or some wrong sort of emphasis put. The
mainstream of the ABC story as ABC itself said was accurate. There may have
been and by the way there's still some question about it, there may have been
error. Ironically, the error was not very serious because the real issue in
the nicotine question, everybody knows that nicotine is a problem, everybody
knows that tobacco is bad for you and smoking is bad for you. The Day
One series on ABC did some really remarkable reporting on the nicotine
sickness that pervades in the harvest which has been totally ignored, of
tobacco leaves and did some very strong reporting on the extracted nicotine,
the fact that it's manipulated by the cigarette companies and not just a
natural process. The whole issue was on the so-called spiking issue which is a
fringe issue. And the real question is not whether they add more nicotine or
less nicotine back into the cigarettes. They probably do add less nicotine but
the kind of nicotine that they add is different from the kind that they took
out. It is processed, it s therefore more potent and potentially gets into the
brain and the blood stream a lot more quickly.
Q: THIS IS AMMONIA.
Grossman: Partly through ammonia. It's not as dangerous in cigarettes as
it is in chewing tobacco, for example, because the lung absorbs nicotine so
quickly whereas chewing tobacco and other forms do not get it quickly. So there
is where it really makes a difference. But the essence of the story that
nicotine is addictive and that the cigarette companies know it and use methods
to make sure that it reaches into the blood stream, that story was reported
accurately and was a strong story and a critical story.
Q: SO THEN WHY DID THE NETWORK FEEL COMPELLED TO CAVE IN AND TO DO SUCH A...
Grossman: I'm not sure what the answer to that is. The Washington Post
did a very strong piece analyzing that with a very good reporter who concluded
that they drove the story a little too far. The chairman of the company was
convinced, persuaded by the general counsel that the story was not totally
accurate. President Roone Arledge and Paul Friedman, the top two people in the
news division, were persuaded that maybe they were right about that. And then
sort of events took over. As I say, I think the judgment, the misjudgment was
not an apologizing which if there was a mistake there's no reason not to. The
misjudgment was tying that to settlement of a lawsuit and paying a penalty as a
result. And then letting Philip Morris use that and exploit that--
Q: WHY DO YOU THINK ALMOST NO ONE AT ABC WAS WILLING TO GO ON RECORD
PUBLICLY AND TALK ABOUT THIS CASE?
Grossman: Well there might be several reasons. One, that they made
an agreement and, by the way that's a very dangerous thing--I think that
insufficient attention has been paid--they made an agreement to keep all of
this under seal as part of the settlement of the lawsuit so that it would be
violatin the confidentiality agreement for anybody to talk about it.
Q: SO IN ESSENCE THEY HAVE SIGNED EXACTLY THE KIND OF CONFIDENTIALITY
AGREEMENT WITH PHILLIP MORRIS THAT MR. WIGAND FOUND HIMSELF CRIPPLED BY IN HIS
TANGLE WITH CBS, IN HIS EFFORTS TO REVEAL WHAT HE KNEW.
Grossman: That's my understanding.... That's a very critical issue
because much of the information that would've come out in a trial the
depositions, the evidence that was given, the processes that tobacco companies
use to manufacture cigarettes which would've been important for the public to
be aware of were put under seal in confidentiality and some of it has been
leaked of course, that's the other thing everybody learns is that you really
can't keep things secret that people sufficiently wanna get out.
Q: YOU THINK SOMEBODY LIKE ROONE ARLEDGE OR THOMAS FRIEDMAN OR FOR THAT
MATTER EVEN FORREST SAWYER, ANCHORED THE SHOW, HAVE AN OBLIGATION TO THE PUBLIC
TO SPEAK OUT ON AN ISSUE LIKE THIS?
Grossman: News divisions have an obligation to get the story out,
not to bury the story or to agree to kill a story if it's a legitimate and
important story. Now the fact of the matter is of course that they want, did
run three major pieces all of which were very strong pieces, and all of which
have produced huge outcry and a lot of publicity in part because of the
controversy over them. But too often when these things are settled in some
agreement the agreement is to put everything under seal and that goes directly
counter to the responsibilities and obligations of journalists.
Q: SO THEN YOU HAVE ANOTHER PARADOX, YOU HAVE ONE JOURNALISTIC
ENTERPRISE TRYING TO INVESTIGATE ANOTHER AND SUDDENLY IT'S NOT THE TOBACCO
COMPANY, IT'S ABC WHO ISN'T WILLING TO ILLUMINATE THE CASE ...YOU THINK IT'S
POSSIBLE FOR US REALLY (UNCLEAR) CAN OVERSEE THE PRESS IN TERMS OF THE PUBLIC
NEED TO KNOW.
Grossman: That has always been an issue and the result is, by the
way, an outpouring of press criticism, many books including mine are coming out
on the subject, of institutions that exist at universities, academic centers to
criticize and analyze the press, but more importantly what's happening is the
people have become much more aware of the press's limitations and is saying in
effect I'll see the stuff for myself, I wanna see the briefings, I wanna watch
the candidates in the political sphere uh and I'll make up my own mind as to
who's right and who's wrong and I don't have to rely entirely on the press any
more and now with the telecommunications revolution with interactive, y'know
the internet, the world wide web, people's ability to put things on outside of
the mainstream press. We're seeing a much greater flow of information coming
out, and I think that's a very healthy move.
Q: IN THE CASE OF CBS, PETER LUND, ERIC OBER, ELLEN KADEN ALL STOOD TO
MAKE MILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN BONUSES AND STOCK OPTIONS IF THE MERGER WENT
Grossman: Well first of all, I think people can rise above that and
I think we have to be careful to impute selfish motives. Ellen Kaden, the
general counsel of CBS has a very good reputation, as a strong lawyer, perhaps
she had to gain, but I don't think any realistic judgment has ever persuaded me
that a merger with Disney would not have gone through just because of this
lawsuit. The notion that CBS is gonna lose billions of dollars, on a lawsuit
that had not been filed, where there's no precedent for ever losing anything
more than a token amount on any liable defamation lawsuit, would've stopped the
merger I think is ludicrous I mean there's no evidence of it, I don't think
anybody believed it, for a minute, who analyzed it any fashion--the merger
with Westinghouse--so that, I think there were legitimate reasons that they
felt for raising questions about the story, and in the end they felt
themselves validated because the head of the news division obviously--then
head--did not fight very hard for it, nor did the executive producer of the
series. Now Mike Wallace and others screamed loud and hard about it, and
eventually the story was turned around, but it's interesting in journalism if
the golden rule or the first rule is get it first and get it right the only
condition under which CBS ended up being willing to run the piece was if
somebody beat them to their own story, namely it had appeared in the Wall
Street Journal and the Daily News first and then they felt free to run
it. Well there's something bizarre about that kind of situation. And I think
that's more a reflection on the news leadership than it is on the corporate
Q: IF IN FACT THESE MERGERS WERE NOT SEMINAL EVENTS, WHAT HAPPENED ON
DOWN THE LINE? WHY WOULDN'T WE HAVE SEEN HOW NUMEROUS OTHER CASES OF STORIES
MUCH MORE ERRONEOUSLY REPORTED THAN THESE, WHICH NETWORKS HAVE NEVER BOTHERED
WITH AT ALL. I MEAN SURELY THE THREAT OF THE LAWSUIT IS A PRIME SUSPECT AND THE
SECOND PRIME SUSPECT MUST BE ITS IMPACT ON SOME CORPORATE WELFARE AND MERGERS
SAILING RIGHT BY AT THE TIME.
Grossman: Well all of that is part of the environment in which these
decisions are made. But that's where I think the ABC settlement was a major
influence, not only on the CBS lawyers who said, yeah, we have a risk here, oh
by the way no lawsuit had been filed or even threatened as far as I know at
that point--- but it also impacted very clearly from Don Hewitt's public
speeches on the attitude and the determination of the news people. Ironically
there has never in the history of news been a lawsuit in which the news
division has lost any significant amount of money. The biggest verdict was $3
million against CBS back, many years ago, by Brown & Williamson by the way.
And the huge verdicts that we read about are always overturned and it's
inconceivable that a news division doing its work trying to serve the public
by getting out the facts would lose billions of dollars in a lawsuit even if a
jury were to vote that, they've always been overturned and in the case of ABC
they had mock juries going through the case and in every instance the mock
jury gave the verdict to ABC so there wasn't---Real people may've felt that
there was a threat, but I don't think there was any realistic threat that a
company would go bankrupt because of a lawsuit of that kind.
Q: SO HOW ARE WE EXPLAINING THAT?
Grossman: I think a series of mistakes were made. Not enough hard
fighting by news people. Too much influence on the part of the lawyers, who
are paid to raise flags of caution but don't have to be necessarily listened
to. I mean it was clear cut in the Pentagon Papers case in the New York
Times where the New York Times law firm came in, said that the
New York Times must not publish. The New York Times said we think
it's important to publish and they found other lawyers who gave them different
Q: UPON REFLECTION, WHAT IS THE MESSAGE WITH THESE TWO CASES FOR
Grossman: The reflection is that you do a lot more damage to
yourself, to your business, to your integrity, and to your reputation by caving
than you do by fighting hard for what's right. It also suggests that if you do
make a mistake and it's not insignificant mistake that you're better off going
out front than to, and saying hey we made a mistake but the basic story is
accurate than to let that become your vulnerable point and to use that in
settling what should've been a lawsuit that was vigorously pursued and
undoubtedly would've been won.
Q: HOW DO YOU THINK THESE CASES REFLECT THE CREDIBILITY OF NETWORK
Grossman: Well it's very hard to see where the long term effort
would be. Dateline: NBC suffered a terrible embarrassment in General Motors
situation where they really did rig an explosive device and Dateline: NBC is
the center of NBC's success and profit, going on virtually every night of the
week so whatever damage was done, was done for a very limited time. I think
it's clear that CBS under its new management and its new ownership can recoup
if there's a sense that it is being aggressive and honorable. And ABC news has
always been a strong news organization so, these are maybe temporary setbacks I
hope so. And perhaps lessons have been learned of the kind that we're just now
Q: WHAT LESSONS DO YOU THINK MIGHT'VE BEEN LEARNED?
Grossman: Lesson number one is don't be intimidated by $10 billion
or some outlandish number lawsuits, look at the facts and see what really is
likely to be the damage. Lesson number two, to fight hard and make sure that
your news reports are as accurate as possible, Lesson number three is don't
hesitate to admit when you make a mistake, and deal with it on your own terms
and not be forced into it by somebody else. And lesson number four is, and
perhaps the most important of all, the need for a central, free inhibited news
division to pursue investigative reports wherever they may lead. And we've had
too little of that, we've always had too little of that. It's not a proud
record that the networks had from the beginning of the existence of
I think the, the biggest concern I would have in analyzing these or in
coming to conclusion is the immediate impulse-- and we in news are much too
guilty of this--of finding simple explanations, y'know evil motives--somebody
was gonna make money or somebody was too cowardly or somebody sold out for
.... Whereas usually they're much more complicated and the
responsibility is not just on the part of the corporations but on the part of
the people who are doing the news, producing the news, managing the news and
the reporters to get the facts right and to stand up for what they think is
important and in the end they always win. Always, and not, and don't know of a
single instance and I've been a part of many of them including covering a
terrorism and other things which have been very unpopular, But if you stand up
and explain and stick to your guns, and you're doing it in a responsible way, a
free press will always win out over an attempt to subvert or censor the
Q: [DO YOU] THINK A REPORTER OR A NEWS EXECUTIVE WILL ALWAYS HAVE THE COPY OF
THIS, RESIGNATION IN HIS BACK POCKET?
Grossman: Well, probably doesn't hurt. That's an unrealistic
expectation and there's a lot of showmanship that goes on--flag waving that
goes on. But you gotta be prepared to fight for what you think is, important,
it's even true in public television. Every time public television is caved and
it hasn't been that often it's been damaged, every time public television has
stood up for a major documentary that's been controversial, whether it's "Death
of a Princess", or "Day Without Sunshine" about migratory workers, the
government has had to retreat.