Tobacco Co. Attacks 'The Insider'
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A big cigarette maker is taking on Walt Disney, saying its new docudrama movie ``The Insider'' about a tobacco industry whistleblower maliciously distorts the truth.
Brown & Williamson, maker of Kool, Lucky Strike and Capri cigarettes, took out a full-page newspaper ad Friday accusing Disney of falsely claiming that the tobacco company threatened the life of former B&W executive Jeffrey Wigand. The ad suggests that Disney shareholders should demand an explanation why the studio would ``go to this extreme to sell more tickets.''
``They said we committed a crime. Threatening someone is criminal activity,'' said Mark Smith, a Brown & Williamson spokesman. ``We're very concerned about it. We're considering out options, in terms of a lawsuit.''
The film, released last week, focuses on Wigand and a battle within CBS over whether to air a ``60 Minutes'' story about his allegations that tobacco companies manipulated nicotine levels in cigarettes and lied about its addictive power.
The advertisement, which appeared in Friday's Wall Street Journal, was partly an attempt to counter a spate of personal and television appearances by Wigand and others promoting the movie, Smith said.
The other motive was to get the attention of Disney executives, who ignored Brown & Williamson's attempt to get the script changed, he said.
A Disney spokesman said the film was a responsible telling of Wigand's story, and includes a disclaimer saying there is no known connection between Brown & Williamson and the threats against Wigand.
``The film itself never suggests who might have been behind the threats,'' John Dreyer said.
Brown & Williamson's ire is focused primarily on two scenes. In one, Wigand finds a bullet in his mailbox and a note threatening him and his children. In the other Wigand is trailed by a menacing figure.
Filmmakers have acknowledged that the second scene is fiction created by screenwriters for dramatic effect.
Wigand actually reported finding a bullet and a threatening note in his mailbox. An FBI agent who investigated the incident suggested in a federal affidavit that Wigand might have put it there himself.
Regardless, Brown & Williamson probably would have a tough time winning a libel action against Disney, legal experts said Friday.
The company would have to prove not only that the events depicted in the film were false, but that Disney knew they were untrue and published them with ``reckless disregard for the truth,'' said Doug Mirell, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in libel law and teaches it at the University of Southern California.
``That is traditionally a very difficult burden to meet,'' he said. ``This goes to actual subjective mind set of the producer and the writer of the film, and Disney, as to what information they had.''
Another problem is that writers and filmmakers generally are given license when dealing with historical events and large institutions such as Brown & Williamson which, under law, is considered a public figure. The law imposes higher hurdles on public figures attempting to prove they were libeled than it does on private citizens.
``I think it's extremely difficult,'' said Gary Williams, who teaches First Amendment law at Loyola Law School. ``They are clearly a public figure, and that's where the difference is going to be.''
``The movie's doing exactly what the First Amendment is designed to do. It's provoked discussion. It's provoked controversy and people can decide for themselves,'' he said.
The ad wasn't Brown & Williamson's first action involving the movie. Last weekend company representatives attempted to survey moviegoers at screenings of ``The Insider'' in eight cities. Patrons were handed cards asking that they call a toll-free number and answer questions about the film.
Such tactics indicate that Brown & Williamson may be unsure of its chances of winning a lawsuit, Mirell said.
``It would seem to me that going the step of placing a full-page ad like this in a publication like the Wall Street Journal may be telegraphing the point that really what Brown & Williamson wants to do is get their side of the story out rather than tie themselves up in a major lawsuit,'' he said.