Did Disney Censor The Insider?

Chatterbox thinks The Insider, the new Al Pacino film about Jeffrey Wigand and 60 Minutes, is a pretty good movie. Much of the story is fictionalized, of course–intentionally in most instances, unintentionally in a few others, like when a 60 Minutes associate producer played by Debi Mazar makes a terrible hash of “Milo Geyelin,” the name of a Wall Street Journal reporter on the tobacco beat.*

Chatterbox is willing to believe that the deliberate changes made to the tobacco story in The Insider were done in the interest of making it a better movie. (Whether fictional characters should be permitted to keep the names of real people, like “Mike Wallace” and “Don Hewitt,” or real corporations, like “CBS” and “Brown and Williamson,” is another matter, but one that has been amply discussed elsewhere.) Still, there’s one change to the story that left Chatterbox wondering whether the pressures were more corporate than dramatic: the omission of any mention of ABC’s February 1994 Day One broadcast alleging that cigarette manufacturers were spiking their products with additional nicotine, the stuff that makes cigarettes addictive.

Three things ought to be remembered about the Day One broadcast:

  1. ABC News producer Walt Bogdanich and reporter John Martin became the first to break the important story that tobacco companies were manipulating the degree to which cigarettes pumped nicotine into smokers’ bloodstreams. In addition to making Big Tobacco look even more corrupt than was previously believed, this made it more difficult for Big Tobacco to say that it wasn’t in the drug business–a claim it was using to avoid regulation by the FDA.
  2. The term “spiking” turned out to be ever-so-slightly inaccurate, because the nicotine put into the cigarettes had been taken out earlier in the manufacturing process; the way tobacco companies were boosting the nicotine hit was actually more complicated than that and involved the addition of ammonia. (If you want to know more, click here to read the FDA’s findings on the matter.
  3. Philip Morris filed a $10 billion libel suit–the biggest libel suit in U.S. history–against ABC over the broadcast. Despite the essential triviality of Day One’s error, in 1995, ABC–possibly under pressure connected to its pending takeover by Disney–chose to settle the libel suit for a reported $15 million and to issue an apology.* * This prompted widespread disgust among journalists, who viewed ABC’s move as a sellout. (Bogdanich, who never conceded that his broadcast was in error at all about “spiking,” refused to sign the apology.)

The Insider leaves viewers with the impression that it was Wigand who first told America that the tobacco industry was fine-tuning the way cigarettes delivered nicotine to the body. In fact, it was Bogdanich and Martin. (The Wall Street Journal’s Alix Freedman subsequently published a fuller account that also predated Wigand.) In the scenes in which Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace agonize over whether to cave in to corporate pressure not to broadcast their Wigand piece, The Insider neglects to alert viewers to the likelihood that the ABC lawsuit is weighing heavily on their minds. (At CBS, as at ABC, the pressure to surrender seemed linked to a pending sale of the network.) And The Insider never shows that Wigand himself became a consultant to ABC’s lawyers on the libel suit.

It’s certainly possible these omissions were made because including them would have made the plot less tidy. But The Insider is a movie that asks you to think hard about how corporate interests affect what media companies do. As it happens, The Insider was made by Touchstone, which is a subsidiary of … Disney! Did Disney lawyers demand the film not include any material that might remind viewers of ABC’s cheesy surrender to Philip Morris?

Chatterbox posed the question to Lowell Bergman, the 60 Minutes producer (played by Pacino in the film) who fought CBS’s initial decision not to air the Wigand interview for fear of being sued. Bergman (who now works for Frontline and teaches journalism at Berkeley) was a paid consultant to the film. “As far as I know, there was no pressure from Disney of any kind,” he told Chatterbox. Bergman said that an early version of the script did allude to the Day One broadcast, but it was cut out. “If you look closer in the credits,” Bergman said, “you will see there is a set of acknowledgements that includes all the Day One people.” Bergman says he was the one who urged the film’s director, Michael Mann, to include this tip of the hat to Bogdanich and Co.

Clifford Douglas, an attorney and anti-tobacco activist, has lately published letters in the Christian Science Monitorand the New York Post touting Bogdanich–not Bergman–as the real journalist who “lit the fuse of public outrage” over tobacco. As it happens, Bogdanich is now a producer for … 60 Minutes! A few days after Douglas’ letters appeared, a pronouncement quite similar to Douglas’ emanated from Don Hewitt in Army Archerd’s column in Daily Variety (click here to read the whole thing):

The real hero/reporter of “the tobacco wars” is not Lowell Bergman, but it was Walt Bogdanich, now of 60 Minutes, who did the “tobacco wars” work for ABC news. … Bogdanich refused to apologize–and came to work for 60 Minutes.

What Hewitt neglected to point out, of course, is that apologizing for a perfectly good piece of journalism is not so great a sin as preventing that piece of journalism from coming to light in the first place. But the question of why Disney’s movie eliminated Bogdanich from its narrative remains an intriguing one.

*Chatterbox was himself at the time a Wall Street Journal reporter on the tobacco beat, and could gripe about how The Insider didn’t even trouble itself to mispronounce his own name. But the narrative doesn’t really dwell on the tobacco rulemaking process at the Food and Drug Administration, which was Chatterbox’s piece of the story. Chatterbox will simply observe that the great American film epic derived from the Federal Register’s fine print has yet to be realized.

** “We now agree that we should not have reported that Philip Morris and Reynolds [which had also sued] add significant amounts of nicotine from outside sources. That was a mistake that was not deliberate on the part of ABC but for which we accept responsibility and which requires correction. We apologize to our audience, Philip Morris and Reynolds.”