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‘60 Minutes’ Strikes a Match but Blows It Out

A funny thing happened to “60 Minutes” on the way to an expose attacking the mighty tobacco industry. Smoke got in its eyes.

And its lungs.

The hacking cough you heard Sunday was “60 Minutes” telecasting a diminished, much-revised story--one in part alluding to a brawnier story that CBS management forbade it to air out of fear of being sued.

The original story was to have featured an interview with a “tobacco insider” who reportedly had blabbed damaging information about the industry to “60 Minutes.” But standing in the way is the man’s non-disclosure pact with his former employer, an agreement that CBS believes the network could be sued for breaking should the interview air. Even though the interviewee, not CBS, was the signator. And even though the tobacco company apparently had not threatened to take legal action and there is no record of any other news organization being sued in similar circumstances.

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The “60 Minutes” staff was “dismayed” that management “had seen fit to give in to perceived threats of legal action against us,” Mike Wallace said at the end of Sunday’s program.

Credit “60 Minutes” with exposing some of its own corporate family’s soiled linen Sunday, and with perhaps making the best of a bad situation. What this episode amounts to, however, is the CBS corporate side directly interfering with the news side--in effect halting the news-gathering process, something reportedly unheard of at “60 Minutes,” where executive producer Don Hewitt, Wallace and others have boldly stood their ground through the years and earned reputations for independence and fearlessness.

And if this can happen to “60 Minutes"--for so long the most popular, most profitable and among the most influential news programs on the air--it can happen to any TV institution.

Moreover, “60 Minutes’ ” wheezing on this story may ultimately echo stereophonically if additional news organizations abort tough stories about tobacco companies and other giant corporations out of concern over being litigated into oblivion even when their facts are correct.

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Being right doesn’t matter in a litigious society commanded by the biggest bankrolls. The possibility of being sued--no matter how remote--matters.

Forget about a chill on such reporting. This could turn out to be a hard freeze given that the “60 Minutes” incident comes less than three months after ABC News publicly apologized to Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds for saying in a “Day One” story that those tobacco companies added nicotine to cigarettes. ABC News continues to maintain that its story was essentially correct. Yet its humiliating on-air apology was part of settling a $10-billion lawsuit the tobacco duo had brought against Capital Cities/ABC Inc.

CBS management surely had the ABC experience in mind when deciding the course to take regarding “60 Minutes.” While also having in mind what negative impact an epic lawsuit might have on the company’s pending $5.4-billion merger with Westinghouse Electric Corp.

The decision to yank the interview in question reportedly was made by Ellen Oran Kaden, CBS executive vice president, secretary and general counsel. Kaden reportedly stands to make millions when the merger is completed.

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The biggest beneficiary of the merger would be CBS chairman Laurence A. Tisch, who personifies this era’s corporate incestuousness in which nearly everyone at the top is increasingly related to everyone else. As “60 Minutes” itself noted Sunday, Tisch also owns Lorrilard Inc., a major tobacco company.

The “60 Minutes” replacement story reported the lengths to which tobacco companies go to stop disclosure of their private documents that allegedly confirm that nicotine is addictive and contributes to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. One section of the story addressed a gag order obtained by Brown & Williamson stopping someone associated with that tobacco company from revealing what he knew about its operations. Another section dealt with documents acquired by an anti-tobacco activist that “seem to” affirm that Brown & Williamson knows the dangers of nicotine levels in its tobacco products.

Interesting and nicely told, but hardly anything new.

More significantly, “60 Minutes” also confirmed the lengths to which its own network went to quash that interview with a former “highly placed” tobacco executive that was to have been the guts of its expose. That executive, Mike Wallace said on the program, “might” have provided “critical information about tobacco addiction and public health.”

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Actually, he was being cute with words here, for the interview had been in the can for some time, and “60 Minutes” and CBS knew exactly what they had and what it would provide.

“This was the part of the story that wasn’t already on the public record,” Lowell Bergman, producer of the “60 Minutes” segment, said Monday.

Hence the problem, given the interviewee’s confidentiality agreement with his former firm, Wallace said on the program, prohibiting him from discussing “anything he learned while he was with them.” As a result, Wallace added, network management concluded that, merely by airing the interview, CBS potentially could face a multibillion-dollar lawsuit from the tobacco company.

“60 Minutes” was also prohibited by CBS management from even identifying the interviewee or the tobacco company he worked for, nor could it show his face, Wallace said.

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What “60 Minutes” did present was two questions by Wallace that the anonymous source answered tersely off camera.

“Is your confidentiality agreement with (bleep) still in force?” Wallace asked. “Yes, it is,” the man replied. “So what are they going to do, sue you for making this appearance?” Wallace asked. “I would bet on it,” the man replied.

Even though this was a humbling experience for “60 Minutes,” Wallace insisted in his curious “personal note” at the end of the program that the series had “lost only to some degree” on this story. Actually, it had lost enormously. Continuing his rosy scenario, he added: “We haven’t the slightest doubt that we’ll be able to continue the ’60 Minutes’ tradition of reporting such pieces in the future without fear or favor.”

Provided no one on high objects.

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