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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

June 16, 2021: American Whistleblowers: Jeffrey Wigand

[June 13th marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a controversial moment made possible by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ellsberg and other whistleblowers, leading up to a weekend post on one of the true heroes of the Trump era.]

On two things Michael Mann’s The Insider gets right about Wigand, and one layer it’s important to add.

Inspired by journalist Marie Brenner’s excellent 1996 Vanity Fair article “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Michael Mann’s 1999 film The Insider tells the true story of tobacco company scientist turned whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (played perfectly by Russell Crowe in the film). One of the things that the film gets very right is (by all accounts—like most of my blog’s subjects, I obviously don’t know the man) Wigand’s genuine “everyman” identity and perspective, which is illustrated potently by his very gradual and in many ways reluctant decision to blow the whistle on tobacco company lies and malfeasance—long before he did so he had left his company (Brown & Williamson), taking a severance package and signing a very restrictive non-disclosure agreement in the process, and was working as a high school science teacher. Unlike Monday’s subject Daniel Ellsberg, who had been something of a lifelong foreign policy crusader, or Tuesday’s subject Karen Silkwood, who was a union organizer and activist before she decided to blow the whistle, Wigand was simply a scientist who got fed up with his work and industry and left it, apparently never intending to do anything more than that.

He ended up doing a great deal more than that because of his evolving relationship with CBS and 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, played by Al Pacino in another element of Wigand’s story that the film gets right. Bergman initially worked with Wigand as a scientist advisor for a different story, but gradually learned of Wigand’s intimate knowledge of secret and scandalous information and helped convince him to blow the whistle on B&W and tobacco companies more generally. Yet as he did so, Bergman had to struggle against CBS executives seeking to squash or neuter the story nearly as much as Wigand did against his former employers, which helps us remember a vital and sometimes overlooked level to whistleblowing: the way in which journalists not only support and complement the whistleblowers, but themselves have to play a similar role both within their industry and in contrast to the hierarchies of power in society more broadly. The journalists do not usually take on the same risks as the whistleblowers, but they are nonetheless interconnected: a duality exemplified by my favorite scene in the film, a phone call between Bergman and Wigand where the former is on a beach (and so in a beautiful spot, if there because he is on a forced “vacation” from his job) and the latter in a hotel room under guard due to threats to his life.

The film ends not too long after that moment, with the two characters more triumphant in their quest to air the full story. That’s not only understandable but inevitable, given the timing of the film’s production and release, but it does mean that there are additional layers to Wigand’s story and life that can now be added into the mix (along with his winning a 1996 Kentucky teacher of the year award, which I believe the film does mention in its closing text). To my mind the most important and inspiring such layer is the work he’s done since leaving teaching: founding and running the non-profit organization Smoke-Free Kids Inc., which is dedicated to helping young people avoid tobacco products. Often we think about the negative consequences and aftermaths for whistleblowers, which even when not as extreme as Karen Silkwood’s can indeed be destructive for far too many (including the remaining folks on whom I’ll focus in this series). But another part of the aftermath is their continued work to change both their world and the world as a whole for the better, and no whistleblower more inspiringly exemplifies that ongoing effort than does Jeffrey Wigand.

Next WhistleblowerStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other whistleblowers you’d highlight?

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