Tobacco Co. Threatens CBS Over '60 Minutes' Leak
Nov. 18, 1995
NEW YORK (AP) _ A ``60 Minutes'' report that never aired could bring CBS News the kind of legal trouble it had hoped to avoid by killing the story.
The Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. on Friday threatened legal action against CBS, accusing it of leaking a transcript of a ``60 Minutes'' interview with a former B&W executive to the New York Daily News.
The executive, Jeffrey Wigand, a former Brown & Williamson vice president, has been highly critical of the tobacco industry.
In a letter Friday, Brown & Williamson said CBS News would be ``held responsible for any libel'' contained in the transcript leaked to the tabloid.
CBS has steadfastly refused to comment on any aspect of the story.
But CBS correspondent Morley Safer complained in an interview published in today's editions of The New York Times that he felt he was misled about the story before he went on the ``Charlie Rose'' television show to defend it.
The Times reported on Nov. 9 that CBS News managers spiked the ``60 Minutes'' interview with Wigand because they feared, in part, being held legally responsible for violating Wigand's confidentiality agreement with B&W.
``60 Minutes'' ran a different tobacco story, and media critics accused CBS News of buckling under the mere threat of costly litigation with an aggressive, well-heeled adversary like Brown & Williamson.
That impression was buttressed when ``60 Minutes'' senior correspondent Mike Wallace told viewers in a personal aside on the Nov. 12 edition of the program that he and his colleagues were ``dismayed that the management at CBS had seen fit to give in to perceived threats of legal action.''
CBS News sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, however, told The Associated Press that B&W lawyers had written an earlier letter threatening legal action against CBS.
That letter was received by CBS on Nov. 10, the day after the Times reported that CBS News managers had spiked the story.
Don Hewitt, executive producer of ``60 Minutes,'' and other CBS News executives have refused to confirm or deny the existence of B&W's Nov. 10 letter, but the tobacco giant went public with a second letter on Friday.
``The publishing of the interview transcript to the New York Daily News constitutes a further violation of B&W's legal rights, including intentional, knowing, and malicious interference,'' B&W lawyer F. Anthony Burke wrote.
``It is indeed ironic that CBS was properly unwilling to air the interview on `60 Minutes,' knowing full well that the interview was obtained in violation of B&W's rights, and yet has accomplished the same result by a backdoor leak to another news organization,'' Burke's letter concluded.
Sandy Genelius, spokeswoman for CBS News President Eric Ober, said, ``For valid, confidential legal reasons, we cannot comment.'' Hewitt was in London and did not return phone calls.
On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported several seeming weaknesses in the original ``60 Minutes'' story:
_ Wigand, the source, was paid $12,000 as a consultant on an earlier ``60 Minutes'' report in 1994;
_ Wigand had been promised that his interview wouldn't air without his permission _ but never gave that permission;
_ and, that CBS had made a highly unusual agreement to indemnify Wigand against any libel action resulting from the story.
``We are outraged about the revelations in The Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News,'' B&W spokesman Tom Fitzgerald said. ``Based on these reports, it now appears that CBS deliberately induced a former B&W employee, Jeff Wigand, to break his confidentiality agreement with Brown and Williamson.''
Fitzgerald said his company had no written correspondence with CBS until after the Times story on Nov. 9. He wouldn't confirm the existence of the Nov. 10 letter.
Safer told the Times that he felt Wallace left him ``twisting slowly in the wind'' during the Rose interview by not telling him about the payment to Wigand and the agreements to protect Wigand from libel and only run the story with his permission.
To add to CBS' misery, the tobacco company's Nov. 17 letter also demands that CBS issue a correction for the substitute ``60 Minutes'' story it ran in place of the Wigand interview.
That story was on Merrell Williams, a paralegal accused of stealing secret Brown & Williamson documents.
Williams said his lawyer, J. Fox DeMoisey, was forbidden by court order to discuss the documents. But Burke, in his letter, said that was ``simply false'' and attached a copy of the injunction.
``This modified injunction shall not prohibit the defendant, Merrell Williams, from speaking with his counsel ... about the documents which are the subject of this case,'' the injunction stated.