Not just blowing smoke

"60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman reveals the real story behind "The Insider."

Topics: CBS, Movies,

Not just blowing smoke

Lowell Bergman has been one of journalism’s better-kept secrets over the past 25
years as he’s labored in the shadows to produce work for much more famous
figures such as Mike Wallace and Ed Bradley on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
But within the business, he is known to be among the best of his breed — an investigative reporter,
producer and researcher.

Bergman’s relative anonymity is evaporating now with the release of “The Insider,” which
may make him better known as “the character Al Pacino plays.” The film dramatizes how CBS
News bowed to corporate pressures when it decided to pull a damning interview Mike Wallace
conducted with a whistle-blower from the tobacco giant Brown & Williamson.

In the film, Bergman is cast favorably as a man of his word, the moral force who eventually persuades Wallace to come around to the side of good — a detail Wallace has
vociferously
challenged.
But those of us who have worked closely with Bergman over the years know him as one of the premier
reporters of his time. (I’ve collaborated
with him on and off since 1972, at Rolling Stone magazine and the Center for Investigative Reporting,
as well as on televised reports for “20/20,” “60 Minutes” and PBS, and also as co-lecturers
at the University of California).

A dogged, rough character who will go almost
anywhere in pursuit of his story, Bergman also is a committed intellectual
who has made a mission of spreading awareness of what he calls the “grammar
of television” to as large an audience as possible. In this way, he’s also an
activist, one who believes in using the media to reveal
how power is exercised, in the pursuit (though he is far too gruff and macho to
ever admit this, even to a friend) of truth and justice. I interviewed him Thursday, a few hours
before the Washington premier of “The Insider.”

How are you?

I’m pretty good, now that Mike [Wallace] has surrendered.

Surrendered?

Yeah, in the New York Times yesterday. He said that he’s been hearing from people that the
movie is pretty good and he doesn’t look so bad after all. And he’s decided that he’s now at
peace.



Zeroing in on Mike for a minute …

Mike has given up.

Yeah, I want to get to that. But, just matching movie with reality for a
little bit here — did his “I’m with you, Don” quote in the movie [implying Wallace's complicity with his boss, Don Hewitt, in withholding the tobacco story] really happen?

No.

OK, so that would be one of the events that captures what you call
“the emotional and philosophical honesty” of the film?

Look, there’s many things in the film that did not happen, and in fact,
much of the film is the reconstruction of a time line. So that if you watch
it closely as to certain developments, it’s not logical.

I said to Michael Mann, “What is this?” And he said it’s
not a documentary. It’s a dramatization of the events.
And its a very effective — in my opinion — vehicle for expressing both
the emotional — particularly the emotional — and psychological aspects of
doing this kind of work and being in this kind of situation.

If it had been done in the chronological order as a documentary, I
doubt anybody would watch it. It would be like what the CBS lawyers said to
me when they signed off and released me to work on this movie. They said
– to paraphrase them — “Have fun working on the movie. We know it’s a very
complicated story where there’s no death or violence, so it’s unlikely ever
to be made.”

Looks like they were wrong.

I guess.

I would assume one of those philosophically honest aspects was
the fear that seems to have been the galvanizing emotion behind Mike and Don’s decision to
initially side with the corporate guys. I’d
like to hear you talk about that, that corporate big-foot possibility.

Well, I mean the bottom line in all of this is that the company came
over to news division and said, “Whether you believe them or not, what you
guys are doing is going to result in a tobacco company owning CBS.”

Did you believe that?

No.

And so they were … blackmailing?

The presentation that was made by the general counsel was very, very
persuasive, and it did not truck any dissent.

I see.

You couldn’t … if you said something, various questions were raised and
[the corporate counsel] just kept saying, “No, that won’t make any difference
and that won’t make any difference” and so forth.

And so in terms of what went on with Mike and Don, they were sort
of, if you will … they say they were sort of overwhelmed.

The general counsel presented it
with the veneer that there would be a three-week period where this was all
going to be considered by outside counsel. It wasn’t permanent. Yet
certain things happened in the following week that convinced me that that
was just bullshit — including them ordering me out of [whistle-blower Jeffrey] Wigand’s house when I went back to him
to sort of fact-check things.

The second thing that was going on here that
was different from whatever Mike or Don or anyone else was considering was
that I’m the one who had the intensive personal contact with Wigand and his
family over a long period of time. So I’m the one who has to bear, if you
will, the personal, emotional price of what this might mean for him.
As well as the ethical question of having done a lot to try to get him
to tell his story and help him tell his story.

So you’d invested yourself.

Invested? I was in a situation where — if I had, for instance, gone
public and denounced what was going on, I endangered revealing
my source. So I was caught in a situation where even if I did go
public, I realized — being, as Morley Safer liked to point out to me, “just
a producer” — I could easily be damaged from behind by my colleagues saying,
“Well, he’s off the reservation, and there are all kinds of other factors
here that he doesn’t even know about.”

And what would that have done? It wouldn’t have helped Wigand’s
credibility. That’s for sure. So, it was a difficult balancing act at
that point. But there’s no question that Mike and Don, from the period of
these first meetings until the middle of October, which would be two weeks
after quote “the final decision,” had no intention of ever making any of
this public, had no intention of lifting a finger to help Wigand. Just the
opposite. The company had said, “Don’t go near him, don’t help him.”

It’s only when they realized that if they cut Wigand loose — which is
what they had done — that the story itself, that is, the substance of what
he had to say about Brown & Williamson, was going to come out anyway.

So they were going to lose the story — part of which appeared on
the front page of the Wall Street Journal — and eventually the story would come out
that they killed the story. So that’s when they began maneuvering. Don began maneuvering to figure out a way to
do “a censored version.” Which is not accurately portrayed in the movie. But it’s a complication
that’s very difficult to explicate.

It sounds like when it became clear that others were going to get the
story and he was going to lose the story, Don’s journalistic chops kicked in.

To a certain extent. But there was the problem of how to spin it. At that
point, assuming that more of the story came out, and my reporting back to
them that Wigand was now talking to the Wall Street Journal, it would come
out eventually that they had killed the story.

And why did Wigand start talking to the Wall Street Journal?

Well, because he was no longer obligated just to talk to us. And because,
in the middle of August, he had put his name on the witness list for ABC
and their libel suit. And then ABC folded. So he was hanging out there to
dry anyway by ABC already, and their lawyers. And so reporters were calling
him. Byron Levin of the L.A. Times was calling him, Alex Friedman was
calling him. And he would say to me, “Should I talk to these people?” And
I said, “No, no. We’re going to do the story. Don’t talk to them.” And
then when we’re not doing the story, he calls me and says, “Should I talk
to this woman?” And I said, “I guess you should, because we’re not doing
the story.”

It seems you had to go through this difficult personal transformation from the
journalist who has managed whistle-blowers all your career to being one yourself.

In a manner of speaking, my final act as a whistle-blower in this is the
movie. Because, in the movie, it’s clear I leaked the story to the New York Times
that made it all public. You know, so that is true. The other thing
that’s happened is that — and this is a matter of luck and the fact that a
lot of people stood up and did the right thing — is that the movie
undermines any attempt to simply spin this as an anomaly.

The reality is, inside the business — especially the network television
news business — it’s self-censored, mostly. And when push comes to
shove, it’s censored. And that’s when it has to deal particularly with
stories that involved institutions that are the same size or larger –
private institutions, public institutions, governments, spy agencies —
they’re all fair game. But in the world where multinational megacorporations
are the new and growing power center, don’t expect to see much critical coverage
on network television.

The fictional treatment reveals that structural reality. Is that really what you’re
proudest of in this film?

I’m proudest for Michael Mann and Eric Roth, and the people involved
in making the film, that they were actually able to get this film not only
made, but distributed.

In Hollywood film history, it’s hard to think of another
political-economic critique of a major industry like the media.

Yeah. I don’t think that this is what I would call an in-depth political
critique. It’s not a documentary or a polemic. But through the structure
that Michael Mann has chosen to tell the story — which is really about two
people — those concepts are the overarching theme.

Michael wasn’t trying to make a pseudo-documentary. So he’s not looking
for complex pieces of information that he’s going to throw
into one fact. There was some criticism in the New Yorker, for instance, and
arguments that I had with him, you know — “What about the criminal
investigation? What about the Tisch family? That’s not explained in the
movie.”

But it’s a story, it’s a movie. I think everyone will agree who sees it,
no matter whether you like the movie or not, the movie makes you
uncomfortable. It makes you psychologically, emotionally uncomfortable
because of the level of tension that’s maintained for so long.

More like a play.

And the acting of Russell Crowe is just phenomenal. You get the sense of
Wigand, of an average American with various neuroses, trying to
make it and being confronted with these objective realities.

Did you ever think your life would be a movie?

[Laughs.] Only when I took the wrong drug.

What happened was, normally in these situations, in the network television
world, when they happen, the usual progression — and there were a lot of
unusual things here from the beginning, such as they were trying to kill it
even before it got broadcast — is that the producer walks the plank. And
given the structure of the organization, that’s how you know that, in fact,
the on-camera person is not the real reporter.

So in this situation, what’s first of all unusual is that I survived it. I mean, if you look
at it from one perspective, by the time the story got on the air and shortly thereafter,
I could’ve had anything I wanted at CBS News.

The reason you survived is that you had a long and valuable career
there, and they weren’t going to cash it in just yet.

Well, they were ready to cash it in. I don’t know. I mean, if Mike
Wallace is to be believed, he told me one day not to come to the office
because Don Hewitt was going to fire me. That happened a number of times.

So the reality is that a lot of other people did things which are not
explained in the movie. They just sort of happened in the movie. And
because they did things, it changed the lay of the land. And because I was
in a sense lucky enough to survive — and by survive I mean survive with
my job, survive with my reputation — I then felt obligated, now that Wigand
is taken care of, to make it clear what the issues were here.

Now, it’s unfortunate that, in the movie-making process, a lot of these people who
did things are not included in the story. Some are in the acknowledgements
that run at the end in the credits, which is something that I asked for and
Michael Mann did.

And because of what other people did while I was in the middle of this,
it worked out. And so, in some ways, I felt this obligation to make sure
that people understood what was really going on here, not just from an
emotional point of view, from a human point of view, but also from the overriding issue which confronts the media and journalism, which is that
network television news is censored. Mostly self-censored, and it won’t do
that story. So, in a sense you have to go to Hollywood to do that story.
I mean, you could do it in a journalism review, you could do it in a
variety of magazines as an article, but the general audience who watches
television, the mass audience, would not hear about it.

Do you feel this film is going to change that reality?

I think that this film will make it more difficult for anybody to use
the concept of tortious interference ever again, to interfere with a story
being fully reported.

And I think this story will make it very difficult for anybody to believe
ever again that a network television news organization does not take
commercial consequences into consideration before they will do a story, or
how it influences what reporting they will do. So at least those issues
are on the table.

This is consistent with your personal agenda over
the years, to deconstruct the grammar of television.

Network television news is never going to do a story showing the audience what
goes into doing a magazine segment on “60 Minutes.”

So in many ways, this film is surfacing in almost an educational
way what you’ve been a student of in your own career for 20 years, and
you’ve been frustrated finding a way to get this out.

What is out is — Mike Wallace didn’t go out and do the ground-level reporting to do the Hezbollah. He points out in retort that there is another guy, Jim Hogan, who will
actually be at the screening tonight, an old friend of mine, who we hired
as the leg man to go first. I went second. And Mike went third. That’s
the way the business works. The audience doesn’t know that.

Let’s talk about you and Mike. Has there been any reconciliation
personally?

I have to put it this way. The first story, the first shoot, in 1983,
something goes wrong. Mike takes me out in the parking lot and reams me
out in front of everybody. That’s how our relationship began. And it appears that’s how it’s ending. Except this time, he can’t order me into the parking lot.

So how does that make you feel?

I was sad that … Well, I felt a number of different ways. He started
screaming a year and a half ago. He refused to take my advice a year and
a half ago to stop screaming and to try to have a rational discussion with
the people involved. He ignored it. He became vindictive and abusive and
would not listen. So I decided I wasn’t going to talk to him.

I waited six months, I set up a meeting with him to help open up communication. I
felt we accomplished something at that meeting. It took place in early
February of this year. Four months later, he’s back at it, talking about
the meeting that we had, this private meeting, and spinning it so it looks
like I’m coming on my hands and knees …

… asking for a job? That’s what they had in Brill’s Content.

They never asked me about it.

That piece basically says, Lowell is trying to make himself the star
of this.

Here’s the irony in all of it. Twenty-one years a network television
news producer, someone is trying to tell me that I’m trying to get too much
credit? Anybody who reports on this and asks Mike Wallace, “Haven’t you been
getting the credit for the work of other people for however many years?” he’ll respond,
“Well, I wrote a book, and in the book, there’s four paragraphs about my producers.”

So, in a very blunt way, this is simply a matter of projection,
psychologically?

He just said it the other day, he said, “The problem with Lowell isn’t
that he has penis envy, it’s microphone envy.” I mean, he’s nuts.

Where were Morley, Harry, Andy and Ed? Ed just barely appeared and then
disappeared. Why were they cut out?

I don’t know why they were cut out of the movie. It’s not a
documentary. Morley’s role in this is public record. He denounced me and
Mike publicly. And then later I asked him, “How can you say these things
and not have called me even or talked to me?” He said he didn’t need to
talk to me because I was Mike’s producer and you talk to Mike. That gives
you an idea of the class relationship.

And Ed was briefed on this before it all became public, and his reaction to me was he wanted it all to go away. Leslie Stahl didn’t know until it became public. She’s been the
most stand-up. And [Steve] Croft didn’t know anything until it became public, and
he said nothing until the piece actually, eventually, got on the air. And
then he said, “What’s the big controversy? We put the piece on, didn’t
we?” So, I think I said at the time that during the roughest period,
no correspondent called to wish me luck.

Does Don come through accurately as the Don Hewitt you know, and as the man who
built “60 Minutes,” in this film?

No.

So what is lacking for people to really understand
and appreciate him? Is there another movie to be made?

No. The movie is not about Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace and “60 Minutes.”
That’s not the central focus of the movie. It has become the central focus
of the publicity, because Mike Wallace has chosen to go ballistic without
seeing the movie. It’s not a good idea to review movies that you haven’t
seen. You wind up doing what Mike did yesterday in the New York Times. You should say,
“Yeah, well maybe I’ll wait until I see it.”

So now that everybody will see it, what will be your future with
the “60 Minutes” people?

I don’t know. I don’t have any future.

You don’t have any intention of getting back together with them in any way?

There’s a movie coming out tonight. There’s been this
huge public thing, there’s an article in today’s Newsday, you know, with
Vern Gay, where he quotes [my wife] Sharon as saying its hard to think of how we would
get back together. As far as I’m concerned, there are certain issues here,
and they’re issues that the rank-and-file people at “60 Minutes” know are
true.

I have made no effort, and I will make no effort, to go to work for
“60 Minutes.” I was asked to get involved in “60 Minutes II.” I agreed to try
and do that. Mike and Don put the kibosh on that. And that was over a year
ago, and now I’m off on another incarnation. I’ve got a New York Times job, and
I’ve got a four-hour documentary coming for PBS. And I may do a book just simply to
lay a lot of this out so that it’s not subject to the kind of disinformation and smear
which is starting to happen. But other than that, I’m overwhelmed. I’ve got a lot going on.

At the end of the day, do you think it’s possible for a person working in the media
to actually make things better in the world, or do you feel that …

Give me a break. I can’t answer a question like that.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist, Lowell?

I’m an asshole. You know that.

David Weir is Salon's Washington bureau chief.

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