60 Minutes' Black Eye: The Jeffrey Wigand Interview
By Stuart Miller -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/21/2008 8:00:00 PM
There have been a few notable misfires on 60 Minutes, and probably the most famous was the mishandling of the story of Jeffrey Wigand's attempt to take on Big Tobacco. It's a saga that eventually gained even greater notoriety with the making of the movie The Insider.
Wigand had worked in the tobacco industry for years, and to prevent a lawsuit or harassment when he left Brown & Williamson in 1993 he had signed a confidentiality agreement.
Soon after, 60 Minutes investigative journalist Lowell Bergman asked Wigand to review documents he had received from a source about Philip Morris's alleged “fire-safe” cigarettes. Wigand agreed because he was using his own scientific knowledge, not company secrets. (He was paid for the task.)
By 1995, Wigand decided to speak out publicly against the entire industry, including his former employers, and went back to 60 Minutes. News of the interview with Mike Wallace made its way into the press, and the tobacco industry went on the attack. CBS intruded, fearful that Brown & Williamson would sue CBS for billions for being party to helping Wigand violate his confidentiality agreement.
“My understanding is that the gorillas at Black Rock from CBS stomped on 60 Minutes because they didn't want to jeopardize their financial gain,” Wigand says. (The network was in the process of being sold.) CBS showed only a small portion of the interview, and didn't identify Wigand or show his face. Wallace, on the air, said he and 100 co-workers were “dismayed” by CBS management.
It was only months later, after a secret deposition that Wigand had given in another lawsuit leaked and the The Wall Street Journal published it, that 60 Minutes finally aired the segment.
Wigand felt betrayed by the program and the network. “I was livid. I had put my life on the line and my family's life on the line and they got intimidated. Lowell was very apologetic, Mike Wallace less so. Don Hewitt was arrogant. I personally think they were frustrated by it. But I think Mike Wallace could have done more—a man of that stature has the capacity to do great things, which he didn't do.” He's patched things up with Wallace, but not with Hewitt.
Looking back, Wigand, who has devoted his life to the anti-smoking cause since then, says, “I got to see the truth and I believe I did the right thing. I think it saved lives, so all in all I have no regrets.”
Mike Wallace's report on tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand:
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