As Hollywood releases "The Insider," a controversial new movie dramatizing how CBS executives spiked a "60 Minutes" investigation on the tobacco industry, FRONTLINE presents an encore broadcast of "Smoke in the Eye," its 1996 investigation of that journalistic debacle.
The report features interviews with "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace, former "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman (who is portrayed by Al Pacino in the movie) and Jeffrey Wigand, the Brown & Williamson tobacco company executive whose revelations about the tobacco industry are at the center of the FRONTLINE story and Hollywood's movie. The controversy began when CBS lawyers, citing a little-used legal concept, blocked the airing of Wigand's interview.
In addition to examining how and why CBS caved--killing the "60 Minutes" segment before Brown & Williamson had even threatened a suit--this report also looks at how, just three months before CBS's capitulation, another network news organization, ABC, backed off from a $10 billion lawsuit brought by tobacco company Philip Morris.
With access to CBS and ABC journalists, tobacco company officials, First Amendment lawyers and whistleblower Wigand, FRONTLINE correspondent Daniel Schorr probes the record of events, the strength of the potential lawsuits, and the role of each network's financial interests in the decisions to avoid court battles. FRONTLINE's report shows how Brown & Williamson's potential lawsuit came at a time when CBS owner Laurence Tisch was in the final stages of selling the network to Westinghouse. ABC abruptly settled its lawsuit with Philip Morris just three weeks after the announcement of its own $19 billion merger between Capital Cities/ABC and the Walt Disney Company. And this is just some of the context surrounding the CBS/Wigand decision that made it so critically significant and telling.
In his interviews with media analysts like Ben Bagdikian and former network executives and journalists such as Walter Cronkite, and Lawrence Grossman, correspondent Schorr poses the question--as media companies increasingly come under the control of large corporations, what is the threat posed to newsgathering and the public's right to know?