By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
FOR DECADES, NETWORK TV news shows have been interrupted by commercials. Now, they also get interrupted by apologies.
And with each on-air apology--usually prompted by a corporate takeover--network news dies another public death. If you watched 60 Minutes on November 12, you witnessed an historic non-event. The most profitable news program ever was under orders from CBS management to kill an interview with a former Brown & Williamson tobacco-company executive who would expose the industry's dirty deeds.
The show aired without the explosive interview--and ended with an embarrassing "personal note" from a humbled Mike Wallace, who grumbled about management's decision. He expressed hope that 60 Minutes would soon return to its investigative tradition.
Wallace seemed less comfortable with the mea culpa role than ABC's Diane Sawyer, who smoothly apologized on air to two tobacco firms last August as part of a deal to settle a defamation suit.
Question: If network news divisions no longer have the power to expose even a pariah industry like tobacco--detested by many Americans for continuous lying about its deadly product--can we trust network news to investigate any powerful industry?
When ABC chose to apologize and pay $15 million to Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds in repentance for a TV report that accurately revealed the tobacco industry's manipulation of nicotine levels in cigarettes, the pending acquisition of ABC by Walt Disney loomed large in the decision.
While damaging the reputations of the journalists who worked diligently on the story, ABC's cave-in cleared away litigation and paved the way for the lucrative ABC/Disney merger. ABC General Counsel and Vice President Alan Braverman--the main force behind the capitulation in the tobacco suit--had reportedly assured Disney during merger negotiations that the suit could be settled.
The recent cancellation of the 60 Minutes interview was ordered by top CBS management--just days before stockholders were scheduled to vote on a merger with Westinghouse that would enrich key CBS shareholders and officers.
Why risk irritating the tobacco industry when big money sits just around the corner?
What's striking about the 60 Minutes affair is that the interview with the Brown & Williamson tobacco executive wasn't squelched because the firm had sued the network. Or threatened to sue. There's no evidence the company even considered threatening a suit.
The report was killed, the story goes, because CBS management and lawyers conjured up the possibility of a novel suit based on an obscure legal theory.
CBS brass supposedly feared that Brown & Williamson might sue 60 Minutes for "interfering with a contract"--since the cigarette executive has signed an agreement not to publicly disclose company practices.
Never mind that no one can recall such a suit ever succeeding against a news outlet. Or that the First Amendment protects journalistic inquiry. Or that a noble tradition of investigative reporting, based on "whistle-blowers" who reveal malfeasance seen firsthand, might come to a screeching halt.
So, what's really going on here? In effect, network TV news is being strangled to death--in a long, slow public execution. (After 60 Minutes aired its sanitized report, The New York Times article on the subject, "CBS Executives Killed Story," appeared fittingly on the obituary page.)
The executioners are not so much those who threaten to sue journalists as those who employ journalists--the giant, merged corporations with federal broadcast licenses (subsidized by us, the taxpayers). These firms seem to suppress as much news as they report. Sometimes they conceal news about their own industries; the company that owns CBS, for example, has tobacco interests.
Their hyphenated names include Disney-ABC-Capital Cities and General Electric-NBC. With Westinghouse-CBS, two of the top three networks will be in the hands of nuclear power companies.
And what about CNN, soon to become Time Warner-Turner Broadcasting-CNN? The all-news channel recently prevented a group critical of the monopoly-promoting "telecommunications reform" bill from even buying its way onto CNN with paid ads. The bill--dubbed "The Time Warner Enrichment Act"--deregulates cable TV rates.
After CBS yanked the tobacco interview, Morley Safer of 60 Minutes told a reporter the TV networks have changed character since the conglomerates took over: "CBS is in the insurance business, the tobacco business, the hotel business," he said, referring to current CBS owner Laurence Tisch and his Loews Corp.
"We're going from one company that does all these things," said Safer, "to a company (Westinghouse) that does nuclear reactors and God knows what else."
And God knows what will become of network TV news.
Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon are syndicated columnists and authors of the new book Through the Media Looking Glass: Decoding Bias and Blather in the News (Common Courage Press).
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