Vinoth Ramachandra

Does Truth Matter?

Posted on: January 29, 2011

With “whistle-blowing” once again the subject of legal and political harangues, surely it is only a matter of time before WikiLeaks and Julian Assange make it to Hollywood. The finest example from Hollywood of the genre of thriller-journalism is Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe. More cleverly crafted than All the President’s Men (about Watergate), The Insider wrestles with the age-old question, going back perhaps to Plato’s Republic, whether truth matters more than personal happiness and social harmony. It is these kinds of questions that the greatest fiction and the best movies raise for us; and, interestingly, often the best movies of this kind are based on real life stories.

The Insider is about the long-running battle in the 1990s between various US state legislatures and the giant tobacco companies. Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe) is head of research at Brown & Williamson’s laboratories. Highly paid and at the peak of his career, Wigand is nevertheless troubled by the information he possesses. Not only is nicotine addictive (which the CEOs of seven cigarette companies, including his own, had denied under oath before Congress), but Wigand knows that additives are used to make it more addictive and, in fact, one of the additives was a known carcinogen. He is sacked for expressing his dissent over this practice.

Wigand finds himself coaxed into telling his story to Lowell Bergman (Pacino), a producer for “60 Minutes”, the CBS News program. He has, however, signed a confidentiality agreement with B&W, and Bergman somehow has to get around that promise if the truth is going to be revealed. When B & W’s “gag order” order on Wigand fails to dissuade him from giving evidence in a Mississippi legal deposition against the tobacco industry, the company resorts to the now familiar tactics of smear campaigns, bribing the police and death threats against his family.

Halfway through the movie, there is a fascinating shift of focus from Wigand’s moral/legal struggle with breaching his confidentiality agreement to the ethical dilemmas of journalism. Bergman is caught up in a battle with his own bosses. CBS executives are afraid to air the ”60 Minutes” interview with Wigand because they are threatened by a lawsuit by B & W which could destroy the network. Here emerge issues deeper than the lies of the tobacco industry. Should the truth be told even if it means destroying one’s own media company? As Mike Wallace, the celebrated interviewer of Wigand puts it to Bergman (my own paraphrase): “I can retire after a lifetime of fame. But infamy lasts longer. I don’t want to be known as the man who brought down CBS.”

Pacino plays the journalist hero beautifully: stubborn, hoarse-voiced, faithfully running with his source, unrelenting in his manipulation of other networks to force his organization to broadcast the interview with Wigand. “60 Minutes” did eventually find a way of running the story, after delays and soul-searching. We are told at the end of the film that Wigand’s expose of the B & W laboratories led to a US $246 billion settlement of suits brought against the tobacco industry in all 50 American states.

How much the film is accurate in its portrayal of Bergman, Wigand, CBS and others is beyond my competence to judge. But, in any case, I don’t watch movies to learn facts. What I enjoy about the film is its strong story and memorable characters. Like all such good movies it has the ability not only to entertain but to rouse emotion about issues that matter in very society and in every age.

It has become fashionable in some academic circles (misleadingly dubbed “postmodernist”) to play down the notion of “truth”, even to suggest that it is but one language-game that vies with others for social power. Yet the judicial system, as well as most academic disciplines, presuppose the fundamental role of truthful testimony. And, despite all the self-serving rhetoric about “don’t rock the boat” and “be realistic” (a phrase regularly thrown at Bergman by his bosses), most of us still admire the martyr: that is, the man or woman who is willing to risk imprisonment, financial ruin, and ultimately death itself for standing up for the “truth”. Furthermore, in an age that tends to reduce all moral language to talk about “personal preferences”, why is it that the moral character of a witness, whether in a law-court or the laboratory, is still considered absolutely vital to the pursuit of “truth”?

Another interesting point to discuss in groups: will socialized medicine and education encourage more “whistle-blowers” to expose cover-ups that are in the public interest? Wigand’s personal struggle had as much to do with fear of losing medical benefits (he had an asthmatic daughter) as it had to with his conscience.

There are also sinister political connotations. Whether in the West or East, governments try to persuade us that “national security” or “social harmony” decree that religious communities surrender claims to truth and higher loyalties. This is to accept definitions of “security” and “harmony” that are defined by those who happen to hold the reins of power. The cost of giving up talk about  truth is to let power and violence have the last word. That would be the death of all civilization.

Finally, back to WikiLeaks. It would be tragic if the recently leaked US diplomatic cables (mostly uninteresting gossip) distracted global attention from the plight of the American soldier, Bradley Manning, whose release to WikiLeaks of videos and documents showing alleged war crimes in Iraq led to his imprisonment last April. It is these latter charges that American citizens, particularly Christians and others who care about truth, should be calling their courts to investigate.

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2 Responses to "Does Truth Matter?"

Roger Ebert’s review of “The Insider” in the Chicago Sun-times corroborates your comments, and has the same incisiveness.

Dear Vinoth,
The truth does matter, and it does matter very much. I am keen to read your thoughts about what is happening in Egypt. Should Christians outside the West be bothered/concerned with all that is happening the Middle East.
Thank you!

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