ABC-Philip Morris Libel Suit Still Smolders

Did the network courageously admit an error, or capitulate to bottom-line pressures?

TRUTH or betrayal? Tonight ABC News will apologize for the second time this week for what it says was an error in two reports on tobacco companies that manipulate levels of nicotine in cigarettes.

ABC accused the companies of ''spiking'' cigarettes with nicotine from outside sources to keep people smoking. While the companies don't deny that they manipulate nicotine levels, they do deny that the nicotine comes from outside sources in any measurable amount.

ABC's apologies are part of an out-of-court settlement of a $10 billion libel suit brought by Philip Morris and a similar defamation suit brought by R.J. Reynolds.

To some the apologies are a courageous admission of a small error in a larger story about tobacco-industry practices, a story by which ABC still stands.

''ABC would have apologized for the error a long time ago if the suit hadn't been brought,'' says one TV network executive who asked not to be named.

To others, the apologies represent a disturbing capitulation of journalistic integrity to corporate interests.

''They didn't make a mistake; this is not an issue of semantics,'' says Stephen Isaacs, a professor of ethics at the Columbia School of Journalism.

Professor Isaacs and others argue that ABC's decision to settle is an egregious example of what happens when media companies, whose purpose is to make money, take over journalistic organizations, whose purpose is to pursue the truth. To them, it's a particularly telling development, coming on the heels of the announcement of Disney's $19 billion bid to buy Capital Cities/ABC.

''They want to keep people happy, more so than informed. This reflects Disney more than quality journalism,'' says Dr. Greg Connolly of the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Board, who called the ''Day One'' report one of the best investigative pieces of this decade.

In the mutually agreed-upon statement, Capital Cities/ABC reiterates the reports' contention. The company also made a point of announcing that the stories' correspondent and producer, John Martin and Walt Bogdanich, have just signed new long-term contracts.

So why did ABC apologize?

''The error had to do with whether the companies used outside suppliers of nicotine extracts; it had nothing to do with the principal thrust of the story,'' said the network executive.

Tobacco companies remove nicotine from some raw tobacco leaves, chop them up with stems, then replace the nicotine to create what's called ''reconstituted tobacco'' that is used as filler. Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds don't deny they use this process, but they insist they do not add nicotine in any ''measurable amount'' from any ''outside sources'' for ''any purpose.''

''ABC acted responsibly for admitting they got something wrong and making an apology,'' says Charles Wall, Philip Morris's senior vice president and deputy general counsel.

''I think ABC could have won the suit,'' says Lucas Powe, a professor of law and government at the University of Texas. ''But it sure. ... would have cost them a lot of money, much more than the $3 million in legal fees they'll have to pay.''

Other media analysts think ABC had some skeletons in its closet. Philip Morris reportedly had access to a video ''out-take'' in which one of ABC's primary sources insists the tobacco companies don't ''boost'' the level of nicotine, they just try to bring it up to consistent levels.

''ABC didn't want you to see how the sausage was made,'' says Bob Lichter of the Center for Media Affairs, a nonprofit media research center in Washington.

For others, it was refreshing to see a networks apologize for making a mistake.

''It used to be a fight to the death in libel, 'We'll never admit an error; we'll litigate to the nth degree,' '' says Professor Powe. ''I'm not sure an organization that says this is a silly standard is bowing to pressure.... I wouldn't mind seeing more news organizations admitting, 'Hey, we blew it last night.' ''

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