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American Journalism Review
Cigarette Settlement Shames ABC  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   October 1995

Cigarette Settlement Shames ABC   

This surrender will be remembered for a very long time if it foretells a trend.

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     


The ABC surrender to the tobacco industry in Philip Morris' $10 billion libel suit may be recorded in journalism history along with the courageous fight for a free press by Elijah P. Lovejoy, but in reverse. It shows us how ominous the corporatization of the news has become.

ABC's journalists are given special privileges in our society, as the network reminds us when it invokes the First Amendment. And without the people's gift of air, cable and satellite exclusivity, ABC would be a podium on a street corner. It owes the country something better than this.

The decision evidently was made by people far removed from the newsroom, and by lawyers who may be tone deaf about the professional stakes. At the least they should know how much they have encouraged well-heeled special interests to sue ABC.

Philip Morris' full-page newspaper ads gleefully shouting "Apology accepted" were a bit sickening, but at least they won't kill anybody.

ABC probably chose the wrong word in saying the cigarette companies "spike" their products with nicotine: wrong only because it is unclear whether "spiked" meant the companies added nicotine or put back the nicotine taken out in earlier processing of the tobacco.

But, ABC's report on its "Day One" broadcast nailed these companies' hides to the wall for their callous disregard for human life. Just about everybody now knows that nicotine is addictive and cigarette smoking kills people.

ABC was wary of the legal costs that lay ahead. Could it also have thought that it would lose the case and pay Philip Morris a huge amount? That is very hard to believe. In documents turned up in the case, ABC lawyers found what they regarded as a great deal of information damaging to Philip Morris.

Further, although the jury in a trial court might have found against ABC, there is good reason to believe the network would have won on appeal. That is what has been happening in 70 to 80 percent of defense appeals in libel cases.

Philip Morris had to show that the broadcast was not "substantially true" and that ABC proceeded with reckless disregard for the truth.

For multibillion-dollar companies' lawyers and top executives, this kind of settlement may simply seem to be practical: avoidance of further costs in legal expenses.

ABC long since might have done an on-air clarification or correction of its use of the "spiking" word. Instead, it wound up being humiliated: beaten by the biggest tobacco company, awkwardly and formally apologizing twice on the air in late August, and paying Philip Morris' and R.J. Reynolds' legal expenses (estimated at $15 to $17 million by lawyers quoted in the Wall Street Journal).

Now it can't even reveal the documents gathered in the case that might further embarrass the cigarette companies because of their manipulation of nicotine levels.

This hurts all of us, and it is devastating to ABC's credibility. Who would it kowtow to next? Did it do that last night?

Meanwhile, the cigarette companies will be making the most of this and may live a bit longer than expected. That will be tragic for some people you know. l

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