When Peter Jennings announced last week that he was suffering from lung
cancer and confessed his past cigarette habit, the irony was unavoidable. Just
last fall, the ABC News anchorman had hosted Untold
Stories of Betrayal and Neglect, an hour-long prime time special on
“the power of Big Tobacco and the failure of the Congress to do anything
Jennings introduced the special by asserting that the health dangers of
cigarette smoking were an ongoing concern at ABC: “We have kept a Tobacco
File at ABC News for more than 20 years.” In fact, the special was mostly a
retrospective of the tobacco wars of the mid 1990s—the regulatory disputes
and the anti-industry lawsuits. Jennings conceded that the urgency had gone out
of the story: “By the late '90s, many people thought the government and the
tobacco industry and the public-health community had finally made real progress
in the campaign against smoking.”
Sadly, he reflected that relaxed vigilance in his personal life last
week, during the raspy message he recorded to end World
News Tonight with substitute anchor Elizabeth Vargas, when he
acknowledged, “Yes, I was a smoker until about 20 years ago. And I was weak
and I smoked over 9/11.”
This ebbing sense of crisis about the scourge of cigarettes has also
been evident in the agenda of the networks' nightly newscasts—not just
Jennings' World News Tonight but at CBS
and NBC as well. Over the past six years, cigarette coverage has plummeted to
less than one-fifth of the volume it received during the heat of the tobacco
wars in the mid '90s.
Back then, the clash between Big Tobacco and Big Media was epic. Most
vivid was the case of 60 Minutes' pulling
its story on nicotine manipulation by Brown & Williamson. It's so
memorable because CBS' suppressed source, Jeffrey Wigand, went on to be the
central figure of the movie The Insider.
Less well remembered is ABC's short-lived prime time magazine
Day One. Reporter John Martin alleged that
cigarettes are “high-technology nicotine-delivery devices” spiked with
extra nicotine to keep smokers addicted. He explained that “the companies say
the nicotine is a natural part of the extract used for flavoring, not intended
to addict smokers.” Philip Morris sued ABC News for libel as a result of the
report. (The lawsuit was settled, with a retraction by ABC of some details, a
limited apology, a payment of legal costs and no damages.)
During the six-year period 1993-1998, the three networks' nightly
newscasts averaged an annual total of almost four hours on tobacco-related
reporting: the famous congressional hearings where executive after Big Tobacco
executive swore that nicotine was not addictive; the debate over whether the
FDA could regulate cigarettes; the state-level lawsuits to set up
anti–youth-smoking advertising campaigns.
Of the two networks whose journalists came under legal fire, CBS (524
minutes over the six years vs. ABC's 459 and NBC's 412) followed the story
At the time, the increased interest in tobacco was astonishing since it
marked the substitution of legal drugs for illegal ones in the headlines. The
previous five years had seen saturation coverage of President George H. W.
Bush's War on Drugs, with the Medellin cocaine cartel, not the Marlboro Man,
occupying the position of Public Enemy No. 1.
Since 1999, however, all three networks' news operations have lost
interest in the beat, each averaging just 15 minutes each year on
tobacco—scarcely more newsworthy than alcohol. And just as tobacco supplanted
cocaine in the news hierarchy of threats to the nation's health, so now the
focus is on Big Food. Stories on obesity, nutrition, fast food, bioengineered
crops and so on receive four times the attention that cigarettes attract.
The news agenda has followed the same fads as Hollywood—from drugs to
cigs to gluttony, from Scarface to
The Insider to Supersize Me. Unfortunately, the cancer-causing
properties of tobacco failed to mimic the shifting emphases of network news
Even though Jennings swore off cigarettes at the time ABC News began
compiling its Tobacco File two decades ago, he now finds himself grappling with
an illness that will strike tens of thousands of smokers this year and many
more in the years to come. We are sorry that, under duress, he slipped a few
years ago, and we wish him the best for a full recovery.
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