I call you a dirty, low-down, good-for-nothing son of a gun. You sue me. Your lawyers furnish solid evidence that you shower daily. I publicly retract “dirty” while standing behind “low-down, good-for-nothing son of a gun.” I pay your legal fees and we call it quits.
At that point, are you going to crow to the world about your great victory?
The answer is yes, if you manufacture a product that is addictive, a chief cause of lung cancer and emphysema and a contributing cause of heart disease and which most users become habituated to while they are children or teen-agers. If you are in so desperate a moral position, you savor what small victories you can.
That, at any rate, is what Philip Morris did last week. On Aug. 22, ABC News apologized on the air to the tobacco industry, settling out of court a defamation suit brought by Philip Morris and joined later by R.J. Reynolds. ABC agreed to pay tobacco company legal fees as part of the settlement. This was all with reference to an ABC News “Day ne” segment early last year that alleged the tobacco industry manipulates the amount of nicotine in cigarettes to help ensure smokers’ addiction. The apology was for asserting that the nicotine came from outside sources rather than, as the manufacturers declared, from processed and recombined cigarette tobacco. ABC held in its apology that the thrust of its story was not the source of the nicotine but the fact that its level is manipulated in manufacturing.
By the end of the week, Philip Morris had full-page ads in newspapers across the country declaring “Apology Accepted” and patting itself on the back for its commitment to truth.
Of course, the American media do have a lot to apologize for in their coverage of smoking. In the early 1950s, in the wake of the first broad national publicity about the scientific evidence linking smoking to lung cancer, the tobacco industry instituted a massive public relations campaign that has continued to this day. Their initial effectiveness was impressive, including the broad use of industry-written pro-smoking editorials in small dailies and weeklies and interventions that prompted the revision or killing of stories on smoking and health in national television and print publications.
In 1962, former Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, urged broadcasters to voluntarily “make corrective moves” in regulating the use of cigarette advertising on programs children might be exposed to. His colleagues turned him down flatly.
When consumer groups lobbied Congress for a ban on tobacco television advertising in 1970, broadcasters lobbied to prevent the ban--even after the tobacco companies stepped aside, preferring the ban to stronger health warnings on the cigarette packs.
After the TV ad ban, tobacco companies shifted advertising dollars to newspapers and magazines. Magazines avoided publishing articles on the health dangers of smoking, apparently as the price of continued tobacco advertising. A 1992 University of Michigan study of 99 American magazines published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that magazines without cigarette advertisements were 40% more likely to run stories on smoking and health. For women’s magazines, those not dependent on tobacco advertising were 230% more likely to run stories on smoking and health. Even Time and Newsweek have soft-pedaled tobacco hazards.
In 1985, lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the No. 1 cancer killer of American women--not something one often hears about in the popular press.
So there is a lot to apologize for. But not to the tobacco industry. ABC might begin by apologizing to its own journalists who in this instance did exactly the kind of work the First Amendment is supposed to protect: hard-hitting investigation on a major issue of public policy. The “DayOne” report might be taken as down payment on reparations for decades of under-reporting the century’s biggest health scandal.
The real apology should come from the tobacco industry to the public. But don’t hold your breath--especially if you have limited lung capacity.