60 Minutes was always theater. We knew that, right? We never really thought those blow-dried, million-dollar correspondents did the real work of researching and reporting their stories. And we never thought those watch-'em-sweat interviews were anything like real-time, real-life encounters. If a 60 Minutes crew came into our neck of the woods, we could also see that the stories weren't necessarily original. Many are slick retellings of material that has been doggedly covered by the local press before it drifts up to the 60 Minutes editors and is anointed for a national audience. But we watch the finished product. It's news fashioned to work on television, and it works well. There isn't much discussion about whether the artifice employed to make it work somehow discredits the stories it reports.
So it was a surprise to former 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman when The Insider, the Oscar-nominated movie about his battle to get a tobacco industry expose on the air, drew criticism because some aspects of the story had been changed for dramatic impact. Since The Insider (inspired by a Marie Brenner story in Vanity Fair) came out last fall, Bergman, a consultant on the film, has been accused of shaping the story to make himself look like a hero, of taking credit for things he didn't actually do. Mike Wallace, as angry as the target of a 60 Minutes ambush, objected to the portrayal of himself buckling--leaving Bergman and his whistle-blower, Jeffrey Wigand, twisting in the wind when the network sniffed a possible lawsuit from the tobacco company Brown & Williamson. Bergman says Wallace's objection is unwarranted. As for the rest of it: "Some people have forgotten--the movie's not a documentary."
What's been faked? Well, start with that high-profile blindfold. In the opening sequence of the film we're eyeball to cloth, seeing through Bergman's (Al Pacino's) eyes as he's rushed through a Middle Eastern city to a secret rendezvous. "I did not have a blindfold on, and when I was debriefed by [director] Michael Mann and the screenwriter, Eric Roth, I never told them I had a blindfold," Bergman says. "Why would I? These guys' faces are up on billboards. There's a lot of things like that in the movie that don't make sense, but they're dramatic things that they did. It's not as if I could make them change. I signed a contract," says the man who persuaded Wigand to talk in spite of his confidentiality agreement with B&W. "They had rights to my life for a two-year period, and I agreed to tell them the truth as I knew it."
What else? Bergman says he didn't set up that secret meeting by himself; there was no Wall Street Journal editor who met with him, shared information, and agreed to sit on a story; Richard Scruggs, the Mississippi attorney, wasn't involved until after 60 Minutes had killed its story; there was no stalker at the golf range (B&W reportedly considered suing over scenes suggesting it may have threatened its former head of research); Wallace wasn't present at the dinner with Wigand the night before he was taped; and Bergman's associate producer Debbie Deluca, who was at the dinner, did a lot more reporting than she was credited for. A lot of people who helped don't appear in the movie, Bergman says, then adds, Look for their names in the acknowledgments at the end of the film.
But they're not the ones complaining. "I've always said the movie gives me too much credit for too many things," Bergman says. "But you'll have to talk to Michael Mann about that. The criticism is coming from people who take credit all the time for stuff they didn't do. Every week. On 60 Minutes. That's the whole way the show is built--to make the audience think that the characters you see, the correspondents, did everything. The movie shows accurately that Mike Wallace early on made it clear to me that he was not going to push the edge of the envelope on this issue. The reality is that people who had very little to lose, in my opinion, were unwilling to take risks."
Bergman insists that even "Hollywoodized," the story raises "two important issues that you cannot raise on network television: one, that there is self-censorship and censorship; two, that corporate power, whether it's in the media or in industry, is not only growing in this country but is relatively unaccountable. It [also] explains pretty well, I think, in the characterization that Russell Crowe does of Jeffrey Wigand, that people who have information from inside any organization are people. They're not saints. And it's always the case that the corporation or institution that doesn't like information coming out attacks the personality of the person for some non sequitur but never deals with the real issues."
Bergman goes on, "The same is true in the criticism of the movie from CBS. The hardest thing for me to get used to is having to answer questions about things that are not true--a whole bunch of little things that have come out over the last year, mostly personal stuff, that are repeated in print."
"Like I went to Mike's apartment on my hands and knees asking for my job back. Which was published in Brill's Content--and they never asked me about it. When I wrote their ombudsman I was basically told, 'You're involved in Hollywood. Take your lumps.' It's the death of a thousand cuts." (The ombudsman did not return calls for this story.)
Bergman, now at work on a four-hour Frontline documentary on the international narcotics industry (to air in the fall), will speak at 7:30 PM, March 20, at Harper College. He'll talk about "what goes into making the sausages we call television newsmagazines" and the thing that interested him in Wigand's story to begin with--the rare peek it afforded at private-sector power. His lecture will be given at the theater of the Business and Social Science Center, 1200 W. Algonquin Road, Palatine. Admission is $7; call 847-925-6100.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Alain McLaughlin.