Wigand's Case

More than a decade ago, Americans believed that cigarettes were safe because tobacco companies concealed researches on dangerous cigarette compounds and smoking-related illnesses. However, seven American states doubted this and filed a massive lawsuit, seeking reimbursement from smoking-related illnesses. Even the United States congress sought tobacco regulation for possible nicotine addiction.

Whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, former research and development head of Brown &Williamson (B&W), America’s third biggest tobacco company, was star witness against the cigarette industry. He, however, endured a media which was used by B&W in a smear campaign against him, and which was controlled by businessmen not newsmen. He faced an industry which lost journalistic instincts because of conflict-of-interest, and newsmen who treaded boundaries of professional and personal source-reporter relationship.

B&W tried to discredit Wigand by exaggerating his previous offenses. Sadly, a number of media institutions sensationalized these, reporting them without verification. This ran against truth-telling which demanded factual and contextual accuracy; justice, demanding that every side in an issue be presented with equal space and time; and humaneness or journalists’ duty to respect sources as equals.

Noteworthy in this issue was the decision of CBS, an American television station, to censor the report of its investigative program 60 Minutes containing an interview with Wigand on false health safety of cigarettes. Corporate officers of CBS argued that Wigand’s confidentiality agreement with B&W meant a multibillion-dollar lawsuit for the station for inducing him to break the agreement.

A deeper analysis, however, revealed conflict-of-interest because CBS Chairman Laurence Tisch’s son was the chairman of Lorillard, another tobacco company. Furthermore, a lawsuit caused by the report might endanger the approval of a $5.4 billion CBS-Westinghouse merger deal. Clearly, money was a deciding factor.

These go against independence which demanded journalists to place the public’s right to know first, divesting themselves from associations that compromise integrity; autonomy or the absence of control and conflict-of-interest; and stewardship or journalism’s duty to keep the public forum “free from contamination” to help citizens make intelligent decisions.

The relationship between Lowell Bergman, 60 Minutes’ news producer, and Wigand as reporter and source was dangerous because it blurred the line between journalistic and personal accountability. In a way, Bergman romanticized the idea of being a whistleblower, in an attempt to convince Wigand to be on the record. When CBS initially refused to air the 60 Minutes report, however, Wigand felt betrayed, blaming Bergman for his fate and questioning his failure to fulfill his promises.

Clearly, Wigand is the first affected because of becoming a national figure, endangering his life, family and career. The public is at stake because it is a health issue, and they need to know the dangers of smoking. Media is also at stake because of ethical dilemmas on independence, truth-telling, humaneness and stewardship. Lastly, even tobacco companies are affected because the issue spells regulation and sales decline for the industry.

This web of issues can be solved using the rights and fairness and justice approaches which demand respect for others as equals and fair treatment of news figures respectively. Add to this the utilitarian and virtue approaches—the former, dealing with the most good and least harm; the latter, with ideal human values.
The perfect example in addressing sensationalism and smear campaign in media is Wall Street Journal’s verification of the information in the W&B’s dossier against Wigand. Instead of ascribing to McCarthyism, the media must go the extra mile to check the veracity, balance and fairness of its reports. It must enjoin citizens and non-government institutions to be its watchdogs.

When it comes to issues of independence and conflict of interest, media organizations must remind everyone in their ranks that journalism is public service first before business. Further, CBS, to prevent lawsuit but still remain loyal to its duty of informing citizens, should have verified Wigand’s claims on cigarette hazards through other scientists who can interpret the Philip Morris tobacco documents. This move should have strengthened their case against cigarettes and minimized harm on Wigand’s character and family.

Lastly, Bergman should have been more careful in dealing with his source, remembering the harm he can inflict as journalist on Wigand. He should have drawn the journalistic line, clarifying the dangers of becoming a whistleblower and the spins media can do to bury the truth. At the same time, Bergman should have worked with authorities early on instead of owning the responsibility of protecting Wigand and his family. One positive note, however, was his decision to work closely with other media organizations when CBS refused to back him up, shunning competition in favor of public interest.
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  1. Hi Paul. Re interview on internet privacy, I'm not sure if I can free my sked anytime soon. Pwede bang gabi na lang? That's about the only time I'm in the dorm these days.