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The Insider: A Look at Corporate Influence On The News

By Abigail Beshkin

Vanity Fair reporter Marie Brenner at the Journalism School's First Amendment Breakfast.

(photo by Abigail Beshkin)

When the movie "The Insider" premiers Nov. 5, those who attended the School of Journalism's First Amendment Breakfast Monday, will spot the real issue - corporate ownership's impact on journalism - behind the fictionalized portrayals in the film of CBS News correspondent Mike Wallace and tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand.

The movie, about the 1995 CBS decision not to air a potentially explosive interview with Wigand, is known to take liberties with the story. The movie's director, Michael Mann, has widely acknowledged that he reorganized events, changed dialogue and left out key characters. At issue for panelists participating in Monday's forum, "Hollywood & Journalism: Uneasy Partners?" was whether Mann had the right to present his movie as a true rendering of the Jeffrey Wigand- "60 Minutes" controversy.

Taking part in the panel discussion at the Columbia Club in midtown was former "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman, who originally landed the exclusive interview with Wigand and who is the basis for the movie's main character, played by Al Pacino. Also on the panel were Vanity Fair reporter Marie Brenner, who wrote the article about "60 Minutes" and Wigand on which the movie is based; John Darnton, culture editor of The New York Times; First Amendment lawyer Victor Kovner, and Floyd Abrams, First Amendment lawyer and visiting professor at the Journalism School, who moderated the discussion.

Darnton took a strong stand against fictionalizing real life events in a medium that inevitably becomes the public record on a controversy. Describing "The Insider" as a "book-end" to "All the President's Men," about the Watergate scandal, Darnton strongly criticized the filmmakers for claiming the cover of fiction at the same time they used the real names of participants, among them correspondent Mike Wallace, and executive producer Don Hewitt, as well as Bergman and Wigand.

"When I see something on the screen that's presented as truth... it's such a powerful medium -- it overwhelms me and I say 'that's probably what happened,'" said Darnton. "Once you see it on the screen, it's very, very powerful. I don't think we should just glibly say the truth can't be attained." Darnton said that when movie or television show creators set out to tell a true story, they should tell it as accurately as possible, and not change events and conversations becuase it makes the truth more "convenient."

But Both Bergman and Brenner agreed that despite the changes, what was most important was that the flavor of the story -- Wigand's psychological terror for coming forward, the devastation of knowing a news piece was being squelched because of corporate interests -- stayed true to what really happened.

"When I saw the movie for the first time, I was struck by the integrity of the emotional content," said Brenner. "Yes, you can quibble who said what to whom, but for me as the writer who was actually there in 1995 and 1996, I think 'The Insider' is very accurate in how it portrays the sinister atmosphere of psychological terror that overtook Jeffrey Wigand in his desire to bring these health issues forward."

For Bergman, the essence of the film, and the message he hopes viewers will take from the story, comes through loud and clear: Television news - what gets aired and what doesn't - is driven largely by networks' dollar decision. Bergman said it doesn't bother him that the film leaves out whole pieces of the original incident as he knows it; the intent remains true.

"The fundamental point of this movie is that those of us who work in the business work with an unconscious self censorship if we want to stay in the business," said Bergman. "We can't count on the people who say they're behind us to be there. That's the lesson I learned."

The movie has for months been a topic of controversy, and according to a July article in The New York Times, the film elicited strong reaction from "60 Minutes," especially from Mike Wallace, who wrote a series of letters protesting his portrayal. In the movie, the character of Wallace fails to stand up to the network for the Wigand segment until it is too late. Bergman, who sold his story to the film makers and did have some review of the script early on, said this aspect of the movie is true to the actual events.

The First Amendment breakfasts are sponsored by the Graduate School of Journalism and underwritten by Bell Atlantic. Monthly breakfasts feature leading journalists and legal experts discussing issues of free speech and the press.

Published: Nov 04, 1999
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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