by Rob Waring
by Rob Waring
The Insider, now out on video, is based on the experiences of a producer for the CBS program 60 Minutes. The tension-filled story focuses on the events leading up to and following CBS refusal to air a 60 Minutes interview with a fired tobacco company executive. The interview revealed, for the first time, the extent of the industrys exploitation of its customers and ultimately set the stage for the two-hundred-billion-dollar-plus payout in the recent tobacco lawsuits by States Attorneys General. Without revealing too much of the plot, one sticking point for CBS was the fact that the executive had signed a confidentiality agreement with Brown and Williamson, his former employer. CBS was worried it might be drawn into litigation over the agreement.
Much like another Pacino film, The Devils Advocate, The Insider is a morality play about professionals "selling their souls" for fame and fortune. Here, however, Pacinos role, as seen through the eyes of producer Lowell Bergman, is the anti-Satanthe man in the white hat.
The first group of professional sellouts is illustrated by the career of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, the fired executive. He left a research career in the pharmaceutical industry, where he was presumably attempting to improve the health of consumers, in order to take a more lucrative position at a tobacco company whose mission was to make profits at the expense of its customers health. In the scientific world, there are at least four castes of researchers, and members of each higher caste view themselves as morally superior to members of lower castes. In the highest caste are scientists who perform purely scientific research, with no immediate commercial objective. These researchers are either at universities or, more rarely, employed at one of the few corporate research campuses. (IBM is a notable example of a company that funds such self-interested philanthropy.) Below this group are university researchers who work under grants provided by government or industry for specific defense or commercial goals. Underneath this are industry-employed scientists who work on developing products. Finally, in the lowest caste, researchers employed by or contracted with certain industries use their research to hide from government and the public the societal harm their employers cause. Descending from one level to the next, usually because of lack of talent or for greater compensation, reduces ones standing in the scientific community.
After descending into the lowest caste for higher wages and then being forced by his employer to cover up damaging scientific evidence, Wigand realizes too late that he has paid the ultimate price. When the tobacco company fires him, he has nowhere else to go. The tobacco industry doesnt want him and he could never return to the health care industry after previously selling out. With his career and family in ruins, he tries to redeem his soul by teaching high school and going public with Big Tobaccos misdeeds.
Another group of sellouts is the journalists. Producer Bergman (Pacino) has a fanatical attitude towards his journalistic integrity and prides himself on never having failed to protect a news source. Repeatedly, Bergman brags that 60 Minutes is at the top of the journalism food chain, and that the name gets his phone calls returned and opens doors that otherwise would remain closed. He and Mike Wallace, played by Christopher Plummer, are an arrogant, yet principled team. In one telling scene, they refuse to be bullied by trigger-happy Muslim fundamentalists who object to the placement of Wallaces chair during an interview with their leader.
When up against an internal foe, however, the team disintegrates. In the face of CBS lawyers who warn that running the Wigand interview might cost the network hundreds of millions in legal damages, Wallace relents, rather than risk being blamed for bringing down CBS. For Bergman, who vehemently insists that the segment air, this is an unforgivable breach of ethics and trust. He launches a personal crusade to rescue Wigand from a tobacco public relations counter-attack, fueled in part by his anger at CBS and Wallace for selling out to concerns about the networks stock price.
A third group of sellouts is the lawyers. The journalists discover that the upper echelons of CBS legal department own significant amounts of CBS stock, which biases their judgment about the Wigand interview. However, it may be hard for the viewer to distinguish between the responsibility of good lawyers for shielding their client/employer against potential liability and the pull of these lawyers personal greed.
The larger question not answered by the film concerns the litigators, the tobacco industrys hired guns who zealously and successfully (prior to Wigand) defend their clients from all product liability suits, both on screen and in real life. To what extend are these defense attorneys selling out? On one hand, they are simply representing their clientswho are entitled to as much justice as they can afford, just as any other individual or corporation in our civil justice system. On the other hand, do lawyers have any responsibility for the kinds of clients they represent? Perhaps outside counsel for the tobacco companies were kept in the dark about their clients efforts to hide the truth about the dangers of tobacco, perhaps not. When it is clear, however, that there was a conspiracy of misrepresentation that harmed the public and the government, does that change the ethics of being a tobacco lawyer? Wigands revelations do not appear to have generated much corporate law firm flight from Big Tobaccos sinking ship. While this is an impressive display of client loyalty, it also makes it harder for the public to see much difference between the actions of the tobacco industry and those of its attorneys.
Posted July 1, 2000
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