Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Insider - honesty and integrity

My life has been in a state of frenzy for the last couple of weeks, with commitments that far exceed my available time. As usual, the quality of my productivity suffers, as one can tell from the paucity of posts and the deterioration in the quality of my writing. Last night, I made a conscious decision to relax by watching The Insider, a movie that got me thinking about many topics that I will touch on today.

This 1999 film chronicles the whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, a former VP of research at the tobacco giant Brown & Williamson. Dr. Wigand was fired for being vocal to his management about his concerns related to the presence of carcinogens in cigarettes. His severance package was contingent on him honoring a confidentially agreement. Such agreements protect intellectual property, but Brown & Williamson used it to prevent Wigand from disclosing shady corporate practices.

At the time, tobacco industry executives were fully aware of the presence of certain carcinogens in cigarettes, but the industry was reluctant to remove them because of their effect on a cigarette's flavor. In testimony before congress, the CEOs of the seven largest tobacco companies claimed that they did not believe that nicotine was an addictive drug. Internally, however, these same executives specifically instructed the the scientists to develop means to enhance the addictive effects of nicotine. In his testimony, Wigand made it clear that it was common knowledge in the industry that "a cigarette is a scientifically designed drug delivery device that is intentionally engineered to deliver nicotine to the brain in seconds."

It took a great deal of courage for Dr. Wigand to expose the facts. To discredit him, the tobacco companies orchestrated a smear campaign attacking his integrity. Other tactics included death threats as well as financial blackmail. Before testifying in a suit filed in Mississippi against the tobacco industry, his tobacco-friendly home state of Kentucky issued a gag order preventing him from testifying. He risked incarceration when returning to Kentucky by ignoring the order. This ordeal cost him his marriage.

It was clear that the tobacco companies' behavior was despicable. Motivated by profit, they formulated methods to optimize the delivery of nicotine to addict users into a life-threatening habit. This brings to mind allegations that the oil companies are using similar tactics to discredit global warming research.

The stakes of global climate change are much higher. If the oil companies are discrediting serious research in public forums for the deliberate purpose of gaining political advantage at the expense of the environment, then the decision makers should be held legally culpable for their actions.

The Insider left me with a great respect for professional journalists, who are doggedly determined to expose the truth. I am concerned that this type of professionalism is being lost as news organizations pander to readers and viewers who are more interested in entertainment than information - consumers who would rather have support for their ideology rather than the truth.

Journalistic market pressures have resulted in news outlets that cater to ideology. Fox News is a glowing example of ideology taken to the extreme. John Stewart of the Daily Show does a great job of exposing the gross lies championed by Fox. Fox News takes video clips out of context, make statements without evidence and uses repetition to give the sensation of truth, and fires up viewers into misplaced anger. This irresponsible behavior borders on the criminal.

Some cases in point:

1. Repeating over and over again that President Obama was foreign born even when his birth certificate was available to the public.

2. Glenn Beck asking why the other networks did not show the videos of Israeli servicemen being beaten as they boarded the Turkish flotillas. (John Stewart showed date-stamped videos of several other networks that were showing the videos at the same time or prior to Fox.)

3. According to, "Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal -- the second-largest shareholder of Fox News’ parent company News Corp. -- has deep funding ties to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the “principal planner” of the Islamic community center in lower Manhattan." It is interesting that Fox News associates Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf with terrorist groups, but fails to mention his ties with their #2 stockholder. Ironically, following the logic presented on Fox News, Fox News is directly contributing to terrorists.

4. Fox News showed a short video clip of President Obama stating that he was enacting the biggest tax increase ever on everyone. John Stewart played the full clip which stated that if the Bush tax cuts were allowed to expire, this would result in the largest tax increase ever on everyone. Obama was justifying his decision not to allow the tax cuts to expire.

The list goes on.

In conclusion, corporations and the news media should be held to the highest standards of honesty and integrity, which are the pillars of truth. Executives of companies who lie to increase profit at the expense of humanity should be held legally liable as should members of the media who intentionally distort the truth to increase ratings. If we as a nation make the wrong decisions, let them be made solely on the basis of the facts.

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