In August 2000, I contacted Dr. Jeffrey Wigand to contribute to my book, What Do You Stand For? Jeff is notably remembered for his interview with Mike Wallace for the CBS News show 60 Minutes as well as the subsequent legal turmoil in which Brown & Williamson threatened CBS with a multi-billion dollar lawsuit if the interview was aired.
What did Wigand know that Brown & Williamson did not want made public?
“The information that Jeffrey has,” Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore said at that time, “is the most important information that has ever come out against the tobacco industry.”
In 1995, Jeff decided to step forward as a scientist and state that Brown & Williamson as well as the tobacco industry not only knew that nicotine was an addictive substance, but were actively involved in manipulating nicotine levels in cigarettes. This was contrary to what the CEOs of the seven major tobacco companies had told Congress in sworn testimony in April 1994.
The cost for Jeff’s integrity was high. He lost his job, his home, his wife, and for a time, his reputation.
At the beginning of that 1996 60 Minutes segment Mike Wallace said, “A story we set out to report six months ago has now turned into two stories: how cigarettes can destroy peoples’ lives and how one cigarette company is trying to destroy the reputation of a man who refused to keep quiet about what he says he learned when he worked for them.”
While Wigand’s relationship with Wallace began on a positive note, things quickly changed when Wigand learned that CBS and Mike Wallace were backing down from airing the original interview due to a threat of legal action from Brown & Williamson. Since that time, however, the relationship between the two had changed, and I asked Jeff to comment on the passing of a man who had become a well-regarded friend.
“It’s a profound sense of sadness that I have. It’s a loss to journalism. I really enjoyed the company of the man. I spent many an evening with him and his wife in New York just having dinner and talking.
“I have to say that, in the end, he made a mistake and was trying to help overcome it – the whole fiasco at CBS regarding the airing of my original interview. I think the capitulation of60 Minutes due to the overriding pressure from CBS Black Rock (corporate headquarters in a black granite building in New York). I don’t know what he could have done, but he certainly could have used his persona to push forward.
“I would have approached it differently, but I’m a different person. If I had something like that going on in my shop and I had the public persona that he had, I would not have been as quiet. But I wasn’t there, Jim, so it’s hard for me to say. I only have the external knowledge of what he told me. And so things had moved on considerably from that. I developed a rather strong, personal relationship with Mike after all that nonsense.
“I think he’s made substantive contributions to journalism. He’s certainly made my life interesting and better. There have been lots of good memories since that initial 1995-96 debacle. I have lots of photographs of him coming to our wedding. I brought him here to Central Michigan University and we had a dialog on stage. I’m going to post the video on my website. I think it shows a different Mike Wallace. He’s not that interrogator, fierce interviewer. It shows more of the human side of him. One of the comic moments of the night was when I gave him a picture of his great- grandson who he hadn’t seen and had just been born. I showed it to him while on stage. It was quite an emotional moment for him.
“There have been lots of good memories.
“Genuine. Sincere. Penetrating journalist. He lived in the ethos of [CBS news reporter Edward R.] Murrow. I have tremendous respect for the man.”
Currently, Jeff lectures to a variety of groups, particularly schoolchildren on the dangers of cigarette smoking. For more information, you can visit his website, jeffreywigand.com.
Click to read an excerpt of his response in my book, What Do You Stand For?