20. ABC Spikes New Tobacco Expose' When Sued for Libel

Source: THE VILLAGE VOICE Date: 9/12/95; "Up In Smoke" Author: James Ledbetter

SYNOPSIS: In 1993, ABC's "Turning Point" hired Frank and Martin Koughan, an Emmy Award-winning documentary team, to do a broad survey of the tobacco merchants' annus horribilis that followed the Environmental Protection Agency's classification of secondhand smoke as a carcinogen, and the Clinton Administration's proposal to support health care reform by heavily taxing cigarettes.

The final cut, reported by ABC's Meredith Vieira, was a tough, well-narrated takeout on the business responsible for the nation's largest health problem. It focused on the marketing and manufacturing of tobacco products here and abroad, and broke some new ground.

Martin Koughan said the film was passed on and approved by ABC's editorial and law departments," and was scheduled to run in late March or early April 1994.

It didn't. On March 24, Koughan said he got a call from "Turning Point" senior (now executive) producer Betsy West, who told him that he was going to have to "rework" the film.

Coincidentally, March 24 also was the day that Phillip Morris filed a $10 billion libel suit against Capital Cities/ABC for two "Day One" reports on tobacco-doctoring (which prompted the network to cough up an abject apology in August 1995).

What happened next is in dispute. Koughan says there was a dispute about meeting schedules and that ABC never showed up for a planned session to discuss revisions. West says that Koughan "was absolutely uncooperative in making the story better" adding that ABC executives had never signed off on the show. West also swears, "I know this suit is not the reason it didn't air." Paul Friedman, ABC's executive vice president, also said the lawsuit "didn't even enter my mind" when he killed the segment.

Eventually, Koughan was told that the film would not be used. In a settlement agreement, his production company was paid for its work, but ABC owns all rights to the film. Thus, although ABC has spent some $500,000 on the project, the network has no plans to air it, nor can it be broadcast anywhere else.

There are at least two segments of "Tobacco Under Fire" that would have been network scoops. One details how the American tobacco industry is moving production overseas. The documentary claims that American tobacco companies are developing and distributing seeds to be grown in Brazil, Malawi, Guatemala, and Argentina, where tobacco farming costs about half of what it costs here, and where, unlike Kentucky or the Carolinas, there are no regulations about acreage, volume, or pricing. The film predicts that this shift will ultimately undermine American tobacco farmers, who are some of the industry's most powerful lobbyists.

Second, the film claims that during the Reagan and Bush Administrations, the U.S. Trade Representative's office spent an inordinate amount of time threatening trade sanctions against Asian countries that had stalled at letting American tobacco companies advertise. This extraordinary charge came from Reagan's own surgeon general C. Everett Koop, who said "If these trade policies were known right now, they'd be condemned by the American people."

Unfortunately, most Americans will not hear about the trade policies or the other tobacco company transgressions because ABC censored the documentary.

SSU Censored Researcher: Stephanie Horner

COMMENTS: Investigative author James Ledbetter said the "subject received precious little attentionit was covered in the New York Daily News in 1994 and the Washington Post in passing. I believe, however, I am the only one who wrote about the actual content of "The Turning Point' segment."

Ledbetter feels the public would benefit from greater exposure of this issue since "It would gain insight into the realities of tobacco's aggressive overseas marketing; and it points out how difficult it is for network television to criticize tobacco companies."

Those who benefit from the lack of media coverage given this issue, according to Ledbetter, include, "tobacco companies, ABC executives, and the Bush Administration."

Ledbetter concluded, "Obviously, in light of the canned '60 Minutes' story, it is one more chapter in the sorry recent history of networks caving in to powerful interests."