What led 2 news shows to butt out TV preview: PBS' 'Frontline' examines ABC, CBS investigators' retreat from probe of tobacco industry.

April 02, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The network news divisions all claim to be fearless in their pursuit of truth through investigative reporting. Suggesting there is no one too powerful to go after on behalf of its viewers, advertisements for ABC newsmagazines even boast, "It's us against them."

If you believe such claims, then you need to see "Frontline's" "Smoke in the Eye" at 9 tonight on PBS (Channels 22, 26 and 67). The hourlong report with correspondent Daniel Schorr examines how investigations into the tobacco industry by ABC and CBS News were affected respectively by a lawsuit from Philip Morris and the threat of another from Brown & Williamson. The picture that emerges of the two networks and their news organizations is not a pretty one.

"Have the networks' corporate interests undermined the integrity of their news divisions?" Schorr asks. "Frontline" never really manages to nail a scarlet "yes" on the screen, but it does build a large enough mountain of evidence that the denials by network news executives sound somewhere between tinny and false.

The report follows two tracks. The first involves ABC's decision last year to settle a $10 billion libel suit with Philip Morris in part with a fulsome on-air apology by anchorwoman Diane Sawyer. The suit was a response to allegations made in "Day One," a now-defunct ABC newsmagazine, that tobacco companies manipulated nicotine levels in cigarettes to keep smokers addicted.

"Frontline" fails to make its case that the lawsuit was settled primarily so as not to throw a monkey wrench into the then coming takeover of ABC by Disney. Circumstantially, that certainly appears to be what happened, but there is no new or compelling evidence to that effect in this report.

Almost as damning to the reputation of ABC News, though, are the denials from Paul Friedman, an executive vice president of the news division. Friedman, the former executive producer of "World News Tonight With Peter Jennings," sounds especially sorry when he tries to explain why ABC News backed off any further investigation of the tobacco industry in the wake of the Philip Morris lawsuit.

"Frontline" also looks at CBS' decision to pull the plug on an expose of the tobacco industry that had been scheduled to run on "60 Minutes," the archetype for muckraking network newsmagazines. Network lawyers ordered "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman and correspondent Mike Wallace off the story and away from their chief source, former Brown & Williamson executive Jeffrey Wigand, without the tobacco company even threatening to sue.

The thesis that "60 Minutes" was muzzled because CBS management was then in the process of negotiating a sale of the network to Westinghouse is made much more convincingly than the ABC/Disney scenario laid out by "Frontline." Most condemning of CBS management is a document showing that Ellen Kaden, the very CBS lawyer who pulled the plug on the report, made $1,197,300 in profit on the sale to Westinghouse. Kaden declined to be interviewed by "Frontline," according to the version of the tape sent to critics.

And, then, there is the relationship between Laurence Tisch, who sold CBS to Westinghouse, and the tobacco industry. In addition to CBS, Tisch's Loews Corp. owned Lorillard, a manufacturer of tobacco products. Tisch's son, Andrew, was its president. Andrew Tisch is also one of the seven tobacco industry executives who swore before Congress that nicotine is not addictive and that cigarettes do not cause cancer.

A warning: Don't be too impressed by Wallace's postures of shock, dismay and moral outrage during his interviews with Schorr. Wallace and the rest of the "60 Minutes" crew are working overtime these days to paint themselves as the helpless victims of corporate weasels at CBS -- most of whom have conveniently departed since the Westinghouse deal. Nobody at "60 Minutes" seemed willing to risk his or her job to get that expose on the air. Certainly, no one at "60 Minutes" ever challenged Tisch while he still owned the company. Mainly what the "60 Minutes" gang did at the time was leak information to friendly television writers at various newspapers.

Another warning: This is public television reporting on commercial television. There is some self-serving bias at play in the report.

Furthermore, Schorr, himself, has a few axes to grind from his days at CBS News. So, too, does Walter Cronkite, who once again clucks about how far standards have fallen since the days when he sat at CBS' anchor desk. Standards have fallen, but it's not exactly paradise lost, Walter.

A last warning: Even though it is understated, don't miss the recognition in this report that when ABC and CBS News flinched, someone in the media did step up and take the heat. According to "Frontline," the Wall Street Journal and New York Times printed the stories about the tobacco industry that the networks were afraid to touch -- and they did it using the same sources.

Remember that the next time you see a network advertisement boasting of its fearless investigative reporting.

Pub Date: 4/02/96

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