Lowell Bergman: an insider's view of '60
Lowell Bergman: an insider's view of '60
Ainsworth, Public Affairs
To the outsider, CBS's top-rated "60 Minutes" is a moniker of the best in television journalism: substantive, hard-hitting, uncompromising. No reporter ever makes a mistake, fails to call the right shots or caves in to corporate pressure.
Not so, according to Lowell Bergman, a lecturer in Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and 16-year insider of the show, until arguably one of his best investigative pieces threatened to blow the whistle on Big Tobacco and subject "60 Minutes" to a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
Bergman is the real-life producer played by actor Al Pacino in last fall's Academy Award-nominated film, "The Insider." Now teaching investigative journalism and busy on the production of his fall "Frontlines" documentary &endash; a look at the prosperous drug cartel operating in Colombia, Mexico and the United States -- Bergman says "The Insider" was the first mass media product to expose journalism's flaws and portray the human side of newsgathering.
"People have become accustomed to perfection as they see it each week on '60 Minutes,' " he said. "They see correspondents who never make a mistake, never mispronounce a word, never learn anything. They're just straight-line all the way through a narrative. When you take out all of the mispronunciations, that is, if you have a hero, a whistle-blower, you don't present the whistle-blower as someone who has a family with a wife who's pissed off and a husband with a lot of emotional problems. And you don't present the 'correspondent' as someone who has second thoughts about the story or who is scared.
"So the movie reveals the production process in a very realistic way. The audience discovers that the person on camera is not the reporter, they're not the person who goes out and makes the phone calls and finds the story and finds the people and gets things going on camera. They may be part of that, but usually it's only 20 percent of the (correspondent's) role."
The movie, now out in video rental stores, is based on the true story first reported in Vanity Fair's highly touted 1996 article, "The Guy Who Knew Too Much." The protagonist is Jeffrey Wigand, a chemist who in 1994 decided to bite the hand of the tobacco conglomerate paying him a cushy $300,000-a-year salary because they lied about the harmful affects of nicotine. According to Wigand, who worked for Brown & Williamson, the company was trying to find ways to enhance the addictive qualities of nicotine to hook more people on cigarettes.
Bergman met Wigand while working on an investigative piece in 1994 about death in the United States caused by cigarette fires. Although Bergman did not know it then, Wigand, who was vice president of research at the nation's third largest tobacco company, had been fired in March 1993 after his research to help develop a less harmful cigarette proved unsatisfactory. Part of Wigand's severance package included a confidentiality agreement that he would not reveal trade secrets about the tobacco industry's unscrupulous practices. But deciding that it was worth great personal risk to go public, Wigand told his story to the accomplished former "60 Minutes" producer, who was working with Mike Wallace on the story.
"60 Minutes" was one of only three television news programs willing to broadcast the tough issues with iron-clad journalistic integrity, Bergman said. Perhaps he stayed as long as he did &endash; 16 years when all was said and done &endash; for that reason.
"The show was one of the only places where you could do stories of substance," he said. "'60 Minutes,' '60 Minutes II' and 'Nightline' are the three network broadcasts that are basically interested in their images and the substance of their stories, which I call news or news-related nonfiction.
"But there's suppose to be this firewall between the editorial side and the business side, and CBS had very proudly proclaimed that firewall since the quiz show scandals of the late '50s," he said. "It didn't go down that way this time."
When CBS ultimately decided to kill Wigand's story before it aired, Bergman discovered that it was because of a lawsuit launched by the tobacco industry against the network. The network had knuckled under to the pressure, thinking that airing the piece would invite a multimillion-dollar lawsuit from the tobacco industry and jeopardize its then-pending sale to Westinghouse Electric Corporation. So like Wigand, Bergman became a mutineer to force CBS into running the segment.
"I told them that I was going to make sure the story got out," he said. "I didn't tell them what I was going to do or how I was going to do it."
By then, he knew his days at CBS were numbered. As he began to plan his departure, the network aired a watered-down, edited version of the story, against Bergman's wishes. Bergman left "60 Minutes" to become a CBS freelance producer and consultant on "The Insider" movie script.
He and the leading journalism scholars in the country agree that the real story behind "The Insider" is a story about TV news practices, policies and ethics.
"This it the first movie to talk about self-censorship. If you look at the story, it had all kinds of conflicts, it was a minefield from the beginning," he said, pointing to the show's ties with the Tisch family and Lorillard Tobacco Company, as well as Wigand's breach of contract with Brown & Williamson. "But it was that kind of minefield that defines serious journalism. Every news organization has a limit to what it will do, but the closer you get to the publisher, the more dangerous the turf becomes.
"Ever since Vietnam and the civil rights movement, the press has been able to basically write or broadcast almost anything about the government," he said in a "Frontlines" interview. "It's not true when we're talking about private power, especially major Fortune 500 corporations, or people with more than, say, a billion dollars."