A Minor 60 Minutes Connection (Don Ward)

By: Don Ward
By: Don Ward

I was a slight insider on the 60 Minutes story that inspired "The Insider"

REMEMBER THE TOBACCO WHISTLE BLOWER?

For my 100th blog entry on "The Written Ward"  I'll go back to one of the more memorable stories I covered as a reporter.  It could have been a big story, then wasn't a story at all...for a day.

I watched part of the 60 Minutes tribute to longtime Executive Producer Don Hewitt.  They mentioned one of the not-so-good moments under his leadership, when the CBS network actually blocked a 60 Minutes report. 

I don't remember specific dates and timelines, but here's a rough idea of how all of this unfolded.

In 1995 I was working as a reporter at WLKY-TV, the CBS station in Louisville, Kentucky.  In early September we were doing a station-wide special report on the first day of school and my assignment was an interesting one.  I was sent to a High School to profile a new teacher, a man who had left the corporate world to enter the education world.  I believe he was teaching chemistry and Japanese.  We spent about half an hour in his classroom then interviewed him afterwards.  He told me he really enjoyed his new role and he'd had enough of the corporate situation.  He didn't want to get specific on his previous career, just that he was a scientist.   The story that day came out fine.

Back at the newsroom the assignment editor told me to hold on to the raw video because the network was working on a similar story and wanted the video. I think we dubbed it then mailed it off...that would give them a cleaner copy than sending it to them by satellite.  This was not a big deal, it happened all the time, still does.

Fast forward a few weeks or months..the scandalous word comes out that CBS lawyers are blocking their own flagship news magazine 60 Minutes from airing one of its investigative pieces.  This had not happened before.  Word was that it was a whistle-blower from deep inside one of the biggest players in the multi-billion dollar tobacco industry.  Reports were that the company had a confidentiality agreement with this former research and development employee, and that the company, Brown & Williamson, based in Louisville, was threatening a billion dollar lawsuit against the employee for violating it, and CBS for getting him to.

I started putting two and two together.  CBS would say nothing, the New York Times or Wall Street Journal only reported what was above, no names, no specific allegations about what the interview revealed other than it was huge and damaging.

Armed with little more than a very strong hunch I called the High School where I had done the story weeks or maybe even months earlier.  I asked for that teacher by name...Jeffrey Wigand.  He actually took the call. I told him I was Don Ward from WLKY and that we had met on his first day as a teacher.  He remembered and asked what he could do for me. 

I told him I'd seen a story spilling some information about the 60 Minutes piece that was blocked.  I said, "I think the tobacco whistle blower at the center of this whole 60 Minutes issue is you.  What can you tell me about that?" 

He replied, "I can't comment on any of that right now."

Right now?  I knew I was right.  My next question was, "When you are able to comment can I interview you.."

"Ok."...end of phone call. 

This was on my day off, so I rushed in to the station and wrote up a piece for that night's newscast.  It featured sound from Wigand on his first day in the classroom, a brief interview clip in which he talked generically about leaving a corporate career to teach and some background on the CBS lawsuit situation.   I had it and I knew it.  We were ready to break the story, name the whistle-blower about whom the whole country was speculating, and report that he was right there in Louisville, teaching High School. 

I took my script into the News Director's office and showed it to him.  He was blown away, he was ready to put it on the air.  Then, as always, we had to get the lawyers involved.  We faxed it to them and they came back with a quick answer....NO WAY!

We had it, but we couldn't air it.  If CBS backed down on the threat of the billion dollar Brown & Williamson lawsuit, we certainly weren't going to be the ones to take them on. 

The next day the Wall Street Journal took them on. The paper named Jeffrey Wigand, even summarized some of his allegations that Brown & Williamson knowingly manipulated tobacco levels in its cigarettes to make them more addictive.  The cat was out of the bag and we had the jump on our local competition.  I was able to re-work the very script I had written the day before about who this man was and what he was doing now.  He still wouldn't talk to me, but I did get reaction from some of his students. 

A short time later 60 Minuted did air its full investigation.  At one point there was a brief mention of Wigand's new career as a teacher, and there were a few shots from that day when my photographer and I sat in on his first day in the classroom at that High School in Louisville.

The rest of Wigand's story is incredible.  Some of it is history bacause of what it caused in the tobacco industry.  Some of it is dramatized in the movie "The Insider".  Fore more on all of that here's a link to his own website. http://www.jeffreywigand.com/insiderfaqs.php

We'll talk again soon.

Don Ward

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