LEARNING GUIDE TO:
SUBJECTS — U.S./1991 to Present, the Law and the Press;Age: 13+; MPAA Rating -- R for language; Drama; 1999; 157 minutes; Color; Available from Amazon.com.
Description: For many years, the big tobacco companies did not tell the truth about the harmful effects of smoking. In addition, some tobacco companies intentionally increased nicotine levels or added chemicals to cigarettes to enhance their addictive power. The tobacco companies didn't disclose these activities to their customers or to the government. This film describes the efforts of a disgruntled tobacco company executive and of a producer at CBS news to bring these activities to the attention of the public. The movie also describes the interference with the exposé by CBS management and how the producer had to go around management to break the story.
The time line has been telescoped and certain fictional scenes have been inserted to represent actual events that didn't lend themselves to portrayal in a movie. However, all in all, the film paints a true picture of what has probably been the worst business and public health scandal in American history.
Benefits of the Movie: "The Insider" will introduce the lethal duplicity of the tobacco companies and the heroic efforts required to expose their misconduct. It also explores how business interests influence what we see and don't see on television news.
Possible Problems: MODERATE. This film has a substantial amount of profanity used in tense and extreme situations.
Parenting Points: The fact that tobacco company executives were never punished for lying and contributing to the deaths of millions of Americans shows an important flaw in our society. The lawsuit against the tobacco companies in which they agreed to pay about two hundred billion dollars for their deception was only partial compensation but it was a triumph of the American legal system. Explain this to your child. See the Helpful Background section for more details. Ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question.
Selected Awards, Cast and Director:
Featured Actors: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse, Debi Mazar.
Director: Michael Mann.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that "An estimated 46.5 million adults in the United States smoke cigarettes even though this single behavior will result in death or disability for half of all regular users. Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 440,000 deaths each year, or one in every five deaths. Additionally, if current patterns of smoking persist, 6.4 million people currently younger than 18 will die prematurely from a tobacco-related disease. Paralleling this enormous health toll is the economic burden of tobacco use: more than $75 billion in medical expenditures and another $80 billion in indirect costs resulting from lost productivity." Report of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
"The Insider" is the story of two whistle blowers. The first, Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, was a highly placed tobacco industry executive. (Dr. Wigand has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and is not a medical doctor.) The tobacco industry at that time denied that nicotine was addictive and claimed that the evidence that tobacco use impaired health was inconclusive. In 1995, Dr. Wigand was the first tobacco company executive to come forward with information that, for decades, the tobacco companies had known that smoking caused cancer and that cigarettes were a delivery device for an addictive drug (nicotine). "The Insider" tells of the interview that Dr. Wigand granted to "60 Minutes" exposing the lies of the tobacco companies, the testimony that he provided for the lawsuit brought by the attorney general of Mississippi against the tobacco companies, and the price that Dr. Wigand and his family paid. Dr. Wigand's actions were a primary factor in the exposure of the tobacco companies.
Ultimately, the tobacco companies agreed to pay $246 billion to settle law suits brought against them by the attorneys general of 49 states. These lawsuits and the settlement rank as a great triumph for the U.S. system of justice as it relates to civil disputes. However, in what can only be considered a gross failure of the criminal justice system, the tobacco company executives and the companies themselves have avoided criminal liability for actions which were a major contributing factor in the deaths of tens of millions of people in the U.S.
The second whistle blower, although at much less risk than Dr. Wigand, was Lowell Bergman, a producer for the CBS news program "60 Minutes." Bergman had promised Dr. Wigand that if he came forward, "60 Minutes" would run the interview. When CBS management killed the story, fearful that a lawsuit by big tobacco would put at risk its proposed merger with Westinghouse and the multimillion dollar bonuses that were to be paid to CBS executives, Bergman went to the newspapers to expose the suppression of the story.
Jeffrey Wigand went on to become an award-winning chemistry teacher and now lives and works in Charleston, South Carolina. Dr. Wigand now lectures (see JeffreyWigand.com) and operates a foundation called Smoke Free Kids. Dr. Wigand was sued by Brown & Williamson, his former employer. The lawsuit was dismissed in 1997 as a condition of the settlement between the states and the tobacco industry.
Last we heard, Lowell Bergman was a Visiting Professor at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, a special correspondent for the PBS documentary series Frontline, and an investigative reporter for the New York Times. For an interview with Bergman, in which he explains what happened from his standpoint, see A Talk with Lowell Bergman.
Some interesting quotes from the press about this film:
Lowell Bergman: "It's ironic that it took Hollywood to do the story about censorship and self-censorship in network news. And, they didn't fold their cards." "Disney Hopes 'Insider' Can Cut Through Pop-Movie Haze (Hollywood)" By Claudia Eller, Los Angeles Times, 1999.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION: What punishment should tobacco executives have suffered for lying to their customers by denying that there was a link between cigarettes and cancer or other health problems? Assume that the executives knew or had reason to know that their statements were untrue and that death or serious illness would, in many cases, be caused by smoking cigarettes. For the purposes of your answer, also assume that: first degree murder is the planned intentional killing of a person; second degree murder is the intentional killing of a person without planning or through reckless conduct; and manslaughter is killing through negligent conduct in circumstances that a reasonable person should know could result in death or serious injury. Also assume that a person can be found guilty if he conspires with others to kill or injure someone but does not himself physically cause the injury.
Suggested Response: There is no one correct response to this question. Good responses should deal with some of the following issues: (a) Does the fact that the defendants in our hypothetical prosecution didn't know that a particular person would die or be injured from their conduct make it any less wrongful? (b) Does the fact that the defendants knew that hundreds of thousands of people would die or be injured from their conduct make it more wrongful? (c) Was the conduct particularly egregious because the false statements were made for the purpose of making money and adversely affected the health of people? (d) Was the conduct excused because of the defendants' responsibilities to their shareholders to maximize profits? (e) Was the conduct especially wrongful because the victims were people who were particularly vulnerable, i.e., addicted smokers? (f) Was the conduct more wrongful because it was aimed, through advertising, at a group that was less able than most to make mature decisions, i.e., children? (g) Was the conduct excused because antismoking advocates, scientists and doctors were telling people that smoking was bad for their health, but the smokers smoked anyway?
Our vote is for first degree murder for the following reasons: (a) It was statistically certain that many hundreds of thousands would die or be injured as a result of the defendants' conduct. You don't have to know or intend which person will die beforehand to be prosecuted for a mass murder. For example, Slobodan Milosevic didn't have to know which Kosovo Albanians would be raped or murdered because he sent his thugs to ethnically cleanse their province. (b) The fact that millions would get sick and die makes the conduct worse. (This was a crime against humanity, if you ask us.) (c) People who make money from making false statements about the effects of their products on health are worse than people who simply take someone's money. (d) Making money is not an excuse to hurt others. (e) Preying upon the ill (addicted) and children is worse than committing the same crime against healthy adults. (g) The conduct was not excused because others were trying to tell smokers the truth. The tobacco companies knew that a certain portion of the population, particularly those already addicted and children, would ignore these statements and be encouraged by the defendants' lies denying an established link between illness and smoking. The tobacco companies spent money on advertising and public relations to get this false message out.
Click here for TWM's lesson plans to introduce cinematic and theatrical technique.
BUILDING VOCABULARY: "drug delivery device," commodity, source, "gag order," "impact boosting," "hung out to dry," "new left," "court of public opinion," "tortious interference with contractual relations."
A good way to introduce the movie is by playing for the class the fabulous TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan: The dangers of "willful blindness". This is 14:39 minutes.
1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
2. There are three people portrayed in this film who could be thought of as "The Insider." Who are they and why could the film have been named after them?
3. In the film, as Dr. Wigand is on his way to a deposition taken by the Mississippi Attorney General, the camera shows him driving by what appears to be a military cemetery. What was the director of the film trying to tell us by this shot?
The Tobacco Industry
4. Do you agree to that smoking is responsible for the deaths of millions of people?
5. What is a drug delivery device? Give two examples of drug delivery devices for nicotine.
6. Should the government simply prohibit the production and sale of tobacco products?
7. Should we permit the tobacco companies to sell their products in other countries or is this just exporting sickness and death?
(Other questions dealing with the Tobacco Industry are found below in the sections labeled "Crime," and "Alcohol and Drug Abuse")
8. There were two whistle blowers in this film. Dr. Wigand was one of them. Who was the other?
9. Has this film shaken your trust in "60 Minutes?" How has it affected your view of the news media in the United States?
10. Does getting information to the "court of public opinion" work as a means of causing change? Compare the situation with the use of tobacco to the situations described in the following films: Inherit the Wind, Gandhi, and Beyond Rangoon.
11. Did Bergman do the right thing when he left "60 Minutes" or should he have stayed and tried to make sure the organization acts better in the future?
12. Evaluate the role of Mike Wallace in this incident. Did he conduct himself well?
13. At one point in "The Insider," a CBS lawyer tells the news people that if Dr. Wigand's charges against Brown & Williamson were untrue, the network would have less of a problem than if the information were true. At which point, Bergman asks, "Is this 'Alice in Wonderland'?!" What did the lawyer mean and what did Bergman mean?
14. Did journalistic integrity require CBS news to proceed with the story despite the threat of a lawsuit, even if such a lawsuit would have imperiled CBS' planned merger with Westinghouse?
15. When a professor at the University of California at Berkeley was sent thousands of pages of incriminating tobacco company documents, he gave them to the University library for the purpose of publishing them on the Internet. The tobacco companies sued the University, seeking the return of their "stolen" property. The University attorneys and executives called in the professor and told him that the University was established for the purpose of finding and disseminating the truth and that the University would back the professor all the way, including providing him with a legal defense if the tobacco companies sued him. The tobacco companies sued, but the University and the professor won in court. Why didn't CBS News, which was in the business of providing information to the public, take the same position with respect to the Wigand interview?
16. Describe some other situations in which the FBI was used improperly as a political weapon.
17. Do you think that business interests influence what we see reported as news in the media?
(Other questions dealing with the press are found below in the section labeled "Trustworthiness")
Select questions that are appropriate for your students.
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For suggested answers: click here.
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Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions:
ALCOHOL AND DRUG ABUSE
1. What is the difference between the legal drugs such as alcohol, nicotine and caffeine, and some of the illegal drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heroine, opium, angel dust, ecstasy, speed and LSD?
2. The tobacco companies claimed, as a defense to the charge that they misled the public about the dangers of smoking, that people smoked tobacco willingly and that they should have known smoking was dangerous because many other people were telling them that. What do you think of this defense?
STANDING UP - COURAGE - TAKING RESPONSIBILITY
3. Jeffrey Wigand put his whole way of life at risk to expose the tobacco companies. Would you have done the same thing?
4. If you had a job in which you earned excellent money with excellent benefits, but you realized that your employer was injuring people and wouldn't stop after you brought the matter to your employer's attention, what would you do?
5. Jeffrey Wigand came forward only after he had been fired. Should he be considered a hero? Defend your answer.
(Additional questions are set out in the "Trustworthiness" section below.)
FAMILIES IN CRISIS - MARRIAGE
6. What was the major weakness of Dr. Wigand's marriage as it was portrayed in the film?
7. If Dr. Wigand was thinking of putting his family through a very trying time, what should he have done to try to keep his family together?
8. Why hasn't any tobacco company executive been jailed for contributing to the death of millions of Americans?
9. Who acted more wrongfully, the tobacco executives who made money for their stockholders or the executives of some other companies who fleeced the pension funds of their employees, leaving them with only Social Security benefits for their old age?
10. Describe the differences between the morality of pushers of illegal drugs and the following people:
For suggested answers: click here.
Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.
Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.
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Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be honest; Don't deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable -- do what you say you'll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal -- stand by your family, friends and country)
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act -- consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
See questions in the "Alcohol and Drug Abuse," "Crime" and "Standing Up-Courage-Taking Responsibility" sections above.1. Every action which involves an ethical decision has stakeholders, i.e., the people who are affected by the decision. Who were the stakeholders in decisions by tobacco company executives to withhold information about the effects of smoking?
2. Describe how tobacco company executives violated the Pillar of Trustworthiness and how the stakeholders were affected.
3. Why was it wrong for tobacco companies to slant their advertising to appeal to children?
4. According to the story told in this movie, there were violations of ethical obligations by CBS executives. Describe for us how they violated the Pillar of Responsibility and how the stakeholders were affected.
(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)
5. Evaluate the actions shown in the film of the three major characters (Wigand, Bergman and Wallace), the tobacco companies, and CBS from the standpoint of this Pillar of Character.
Teachwithmovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner" and uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.
Character Counts and the Six Pillars of Character are marks of the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition, a project of the Josephson Institute of Ethics.
For suggested answers: click here.
Bridges to Reading: May 1996, Marie Brenner wrote an article about the Wigand affair in Vanity Fair entitled The Man Who Knew Too Much on which the movie was ultimately based.
MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS: All the President's Men.
Assignments, Projects and Activities: Assignments, Projects and Activities for Use With Any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
In addition to web sites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
Last updated December 10, 2009.
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