Media Beat, Aug. 23, 1995
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Cig Smoke Made ABC/Disney Flinch

Only a few weeks have passed since the Walt Disney Co. announced its takeover of ABC -- but already the TV network is living up to the Mickey Mouse image.

In a cowardly capitulation, ABC has settled a defamation suit brought by cigarette giants Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds.

ABC used its national airwaves to apologize to the tobacco companies not once, not twice, but three times -- including on ''Monday Night Football.''

The network also agreed to pay millions of dollars to cover the legal bills of the tobacco lawyers. (The settlement apparently didn't include a pledge to dangle cigarettes from the mouths of Disney's cartoon characters.)

For journalists, ABC's surrender was a white flag seen 'round the world -- dramatizing the awesome power that big-money firms can wield with lawsuits and other threats against investigative reporting.

Let's face it: To most owners of national media, serious journalism is a nuisance. It costs money, takes time and doesn't always deliver top ratings. And when your staff engages in tough reporting about corporate interests, they can retaliate.

Sometimes those interests are major sponsors. Philip Morris can't advertise cigarettes on the air, but it does hawk dozens of products from its Kraft General Foods and Miller Brewing subsidiaries. Along with filing suit against ABC, Philip Morris also threatened to withdraw advertising on that network -- an annual tab of $ 100 million.

The $ 10 billion defamation suit stemmed from an in-depth and overwhelminglyaccurate Feb. 28, 1994, report on ABC's ''Day One'' program, documenting how cigarette companies ''control levels of nicotine'' -- the ingredient that keeps smokers addicted.

Documentation in the 13-minute segment came from internal tobacco-industry memos, a former R.J. Reynolds manager (interviewed in silhouette), current Reynolds scientists, tobacco processors and an independent research lab hired by ABC.

Reporter John Martin began by pointing out that cigarettes are not simply ''leaves rolled in white paper'' -- but rather ''a scientifically engineered product.''

Martin proceeded to detail how cigarettes are made from tobacco leaves and a filler known as ''reconstituted tobacco,'' produced by grinding tobacco stalks and stems. In the process, nicotine is removed -- which would be good news for smokers trying to kick their addiction.

The bad news, as ABC showed, is that nicotine from tobacco extract is then added back into the cigarette. According to the former R.J. Reynolds manager, it can be added in virtually any strength.

The ABC segment quoted from a once-secret 1972 memo in which a Philip Morris official wrote: ''Think of the cigarette pack as a storage container for a day's supply of nicotine. Think of the cigarette as a dispenser for a dose unit of nicotine.'' To win this defamation case at trial, the tobacco firms would have had the difficult task of proving recklessness or dishonesty by ABC journalists. On the subject of honesty, remember that the chief executives of seven cigarette companies testified before Congress last year that nicotine is not addictive.

The trial, which might have shed needed light on the secretive cigarette-manufacturing process, was likely to focus on one disputed word: reporter Martin's statement that cigarettes are ''spiked'' with nicotine. But that word was factually explained in full context by ABC's report.

We haven't found a single ABC journalist who supports the network's apologetic settlement of the suit. Why settle, even in a tobacco-friendly court in Richmond, when the broadcast was fair and accurate?

Journalists had reason to see a sell-out in a management apology -- ''we should not have reported that Philip Morris and Reynolds add significant amounts of nicotine from outside sources'' -- repenting for claims never even made in ABC's news story. Reporter Martin and producer Walt Bogdanich refused to sign the settlement.

Given that the well-documented ''Day One'' report helped prod the Food and Drug Administration to consider action against the tobacco industry for dispensing a drug, it made some sense for cigarette makers to file suit as a PR counterattack. The ABC apology now gives them a huge propaganda victory.

But why did ABC settle? It's clear that one goal was to smooth the way for the Disney merger.

ABC's capitulation will probably invite more lawsuits by powerful interests with the money to intimidate. It could also make mainstream journalists a bit more shy about investigating deadly enterprises like the tobacco industry.

And that's not Mickey Mouse.

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