"The Insider": Whistleblowing or Sucking Air?

By Steven Milloy

Everyone should go see Disney's new movie "The Insider." It's celluloid proof the anti-tobacco industry has gone overboard.

The plot is the struggle of Jeffrey Wigand, a senior tobacco executive-turned-whistleblower, to get his "compelling" story broadcast on the television news show "60 Minutes." Egged on by "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), Wigand must overcome family and legal problems, and -- supposedly -- intimidation by his former employer to get his story aired.

The story's credibility is hampered from the opening scene when, in an effort to portray "60 Minutes" as the "gold standard" of television news, Bergman persuades an Iranian mullah to be interviewed by Mike Wallace. When the mullah asks why he should do the interview, Bergman says "60 Minutes" can portray the Hezbollah, a terrorist group, to Americans as a "political party." Wigand gets the same sort of "spin."

The movie generates sympathy for Wigand and antipathy towards the tobacco industry by depicting Wigand's former employer, the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company, as an evil corporation willing to do anything to stop Wigand from telling his "compelling" story.

But when you cut through the drama, the story is pretty thin.

Wigand was fired from Brown & Williamson because of a drinking problem. Losing his job forced a significant downscale in his family's lifestyle. What follows next is a series of alleged efforts by Brown & Williamson to intimidate Wigand -- none of which were corroborated.

Wigand is impliedly threatened by Brown & Williamson CEO Thomas Sandefeur in Sandfeur's office. But the alleged meeting, let alone the threat, may never have occurred. A death threat appears on Wigand's home computer. A man glares at the obviously paranoid Wigand at an evening session on the driving range. Wigand's child thinks she hears someone in the backyard one night, causing Wigand to reach for his gun. (I presume when Disney makes the movie about a gun industry whistleblower, he'll reach for a cigarette!)

The most ominous effort of intimidation occurs when Wigand finds a bullet in his mailbox a scene featured prominently in the movie's trailer.

Not only are these scenes uncorroborated, the death threats are doubted -- in real life -- by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

An FBI affidavit concludes that Wigand faked the death threat on the computer. The FBI also concluded Wigand placed the bullet in the mailbox -- a fact hurriedly glossed over.

The movie moves to Wigand's legal struggle, where his confidentiality agreement with Brown & Williamson and a Kentucky state court block Wigand's story. In scenes featuring cameos by former Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore, an anti-tobacco zealot portraying himself, Wigand's story finally emerges.

Wigand acknowledges the tobacco industry does not "spike" cigarettes with nicotine, claims nicotine levels are "manipulated," and offers his opinion that seven tobacco executives committed perjury before the U.S. Congress when they denied nicotine was "addictive." Not shown in the movie, Wigand also admitted he was aware of no criminal or fraudulent behavior by Brown & Williamson.

Pardon me while I yawn. I'm not sure this constituites "whistleblowing" -- sucking air is more like it. Wigand had no revelations of any significance to the public or its health.

The health consequences of excessive smoking have been known for a long time -- from the 19th century coining of the phrase "coffin nail" to Nazi lung cancer research, to U.S. Government pronouncements on the dangers of smoking in the 1950s and 1960s and culminating with the 1966 health warning on cigarette packages. Knowledge of the effects of nicotine and that nicotine levels are altered downward during tobacco processing are not new either.

Wigand comes off as a pathetic character with extensive personal problems who was convinced (conned?) by "60 Minutes" producer Bergman and the anti-tobacco industry to go out on a limb to "expose" the tobacco industry.

Touted on screen by Bergman as "the key witness on the biggest public health reform issue in U.S. history, "Wigand has hardly lived up to that billing, having testified in a tobacco trial only once. That trial was a win for the tobacco industry.

The end of the movie focuses on the internal struggle at "60 Minutes to air Wigand's interview with Wallace (uncannily portrayed by Christopher Plummer). Wallace, incidently, continued to advertise cigarettes on television as late as 1962, well after scientists and the U.S. Government reported that smoking can be harmful.

The movie never shows Wigand's interview -- undoubtedly because, like "60 Minutes," Disney was fearful of a multi-billion dollar lawsuit by Brown& Williamson. But the most revealing part of the movie comes when the almost three-hour borefest ends.

As with the recent "official" biography of President Ronald Reagan, where the author inserted himself into Reagan's life as a contemporary fictional character making it difficult to discern fact from fantasy, Disney makes the same mistake.

The legend at the end of the movie states "Although the film is based on a true story, certain events depicted in the film have been fictionalized for dramatic effect." Which ones? Who knows? This is a recurring problem.

Last year, Disney released "A Civil Action," starring John Travolta as a personal injury lawyer battling a chemical company allegedly responsible for improper chemical disposal and ensuing cases of leukemia among several local children.

That movie also took dramatic license with the facts. No scientific investigation linked the company with the leukemias a fact ignored by Disney. At the time, I wrote that Disney deserved an Oscar for activism, but not for realism. "The Insider" makes Disney a lock for that same award two years running.

Anti-tobacco industry oberfuehrer Stanton Glantz calls "The Insider" a "chilling and important film." I agree, in part.

In the end, the movie is simply the story of an emotionally disturbed man exploited by a slick television producer and hung out to dry by a major media company unwilling to risk its existence on the volatile mix.

"The Insider" does an excellent -- and well-deserved -- job of discrediting the Jeffrey Wigand story before tens of millions of viewers worldwide.

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