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| Home | Interview with Lowell Bergman -- January 2001
August 2, 2014

Lowell Bergman, 55, is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and works as a producer and correspondent for PBS's Frontline. He is also a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. A longtime television investigative producer, Bergman was a founder of the Center for Investigative Reporting in 1977. He spent 14 years as a producer with CBS's 60 Minutes. The story of his investigation of the tobacco industry for 60 Minutes was chronicled in the feature film "The Insider." JournalismJobs.com spoke with him about his life after the movie, his departure from 60 Minutes, and his current work.
Lowell Bergman

JournalismJobs.com: What's life been like after the movie "The Insider"? How has it changed your life professionally and personally?

Lowell Bergman: There was an attempt to blacklist me, which would be represented by [60 Minutes executive producer] Don Hewitt's speech last June, which was reported nationally. He said I shouldn't be allowed within a hundred miles of a newsroom or a thousand miles of a journalism school. Fortunately, Mr. Hewitt didn't realize that I had spent 14 years around him so I wasn't surprised and had prepared. When the speech was reported in the New York Times on a Sunday in June, it was also reported in the third graph that I'm a contract reporter with The New York Times, that I teach at the University of California at Berkeley, and this reporter who I had never met said I had a well-established reputation and was a respected investigative journalist for a generation. Basically the main change has been that I don't work for network television news, but then again I realized that was going to happen.

JournalismJobs.com: How have you adjusted to being a celebrity journalist?

Lowell Bergman: I'm what I would call a minor celebrity. I don't get recognized on the street because I'm not Al Pacino. I'm not on camera, so therefore people don't know what I look like. The movie has given me a reputation for integrity, which I like, and it has given me too much credit for things that other people did as well. The Pacino character says something like "When I say I'm Lowell Bergman from 60 Minutes, they call back. But what's Lowell Bergman without the 60 Minutes?" The movie has sort of made up for that. They call me back, particularly in Washington, where it counts.

JournalismJobs.com: What are your relations with 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt and corresponent Mike Wallace?

Lowell Bergman: I have no relations with Mike Wallace or Don Hewitt. I tried once to talk and meet with Mike after he had gone public denouncing me because of his reading of the script [of The Insider]. I thought that we were beginning a civil conversation. The next thing I learned was that his version of the meeting was that I came on my hands and knees to his apartment in New York asking for my job back. So I haven't tried to talk to him since.

JournalismJobs.com: One of the golden rules of journalism is not to become personally involved in the story. You went from producing the story to becoming part of the story. How do you explain this?

Lowell Bergman: Any story that involves a tremendous amount of effort and focus and time you become personally involved in. So any blanket rule like that doesn't come close to reality. You have editors and one of their jobs is to make sure there isn't any bias or that you're so close to the story you can't see straight. That process goes on. I don't think anybody at CBS faulted the reporting related to Jeffrey Wigand or the procedures that I went through in order to obtain the interview with him and get him to go on camera. I think that they perceived certain liabilities about going forward. In my opinion, certain influences on the news that have been increasing from the point of view of corporate control and more importantly the increasing reality that the news side, the public interest side, has to answer to stockholders. It's no longer insulated. That line was crossed and crossed in a gross way by the management at CBS. That and some of the conduct of my colleagues changed all the rules. I was no longer operating truly as a reporter after September 12, 1995. The environment changed from reporting a story to a matter of corporate and, to a certain extent, financial politics. I was no longer "just a producer" as Don Hewitt likes to call me. He was quoted recently as calling me a non-entity.

JournalismJobs.com: Some journalists have been criticized for appearing in movies as reporters, blurring the line between fact and fiction. By being a consultant to "The Insider," are you worried that you may have compromised your credibility as a journalist?

Lowell Bergman: I was willing to take that risk actually with no questions asked as long as my colleagues in the endeavor -- the producer and director -- were willing to do as credible a job as they thought they could do with the subject area. I have some criticisms of the movie, but I think that they succeeded and got the film released. I actually bet them that it would never get released. I don't think the movie has really damaged my credibility. Some people may say it makes me too much of a hero and I would agree. It's Hollywood after all.

JournalismJobs.com: Are you working on any other movies based on stories you've covered?

Lowell Bergman: Not at the moment. I've been approached by people in Hollywood, but one in 2,000 movies ever get made. I'm not really devoting a lot of energy in that direction at this point. If I get anything done in the next year and a half, it will be a book…on my experiences from the sixties to 60 Minutes.

JournalismJobs.com: For your work at Frontline, you are sometimes in front of the camera. Do you find that to be more rewarding?

Lowell Bergman: I'm not stuck in the form of network television news, particularly of 60 Minutes, where everything has to be a film-produced and edited production, which makes the on-camera personality part of the story. You can't do a story for 60 Minutes unless you get one of the five people on camera in it. I don't have that limitation. I don't have to maintain the fiction that there's an on-camera character who never mispronounces a word, never loses an argument and obviously did all the work. [laughs]

JournalismJobs.com: Before 60 Minutes, you wrote for Rolling Stone. Now you're doing investigative pieces for The New York Times. How does it feel coming full circle, getting back to print reporting?

Lowell Bergman: I just think I've had the advantage of doing all of it, though I've never done anything for radio. I think that's the great advantage right now. It gives me a lot of different perspectives on how to do stories and what to look for. It helped me in developing a relationship with The New York Times where I do print stuff but also advise them on television, which they're getting into.

JournalismJobs.com: What is the state of investigative journalism? Do you think journalists today are telling the stories that need to be told? How has investigative journalism changed?

Lowell Bergman: The reality is that if you talk to a network news executive, they'll tell you that they not only have to be worried about ratings but profits and that they don't have an obligation anymore to follow what we used to call a fairness doctrine. Nor do they have to cover anything. They just need to put things on the air that look like they're real and call it news. So you can have "Blind Dog Saves Drowning Man." If you were to believe the world according to 20/20, it's filled with child molesters and all kind of stuff. The phrase investigative journalism doesn't mean what it used to mean. It meant something in the early 70s at Time-Life, some alternative publications and some newspapers as sort of a new art form within journalism -- a formation of the old concept of muckraking being done by "more professional" journalists. It sort of reached its height with another movie, "All the President's Men." That carried on through the mid-80s. Then the de-regulation movement came on full force and so did the beginnings of the consequences for doing hard-hitting reporting and the reality that you make mistakes. Then there became a dilution, if you will, of the currency. Is Geraldo Rivera investigative reporting? In the O.J. Simpson case, were people standing outside doing interviews called investigative reporters because they were tracking down who the live-in babysitter was? Is that investigative reporting? I don't know. There may be some investigation involved and there may be some reporting, but I don't think it has much to do with keeping institutions or individuals accountable who have power and are not accountable. It doesn't have much to do with the old phrase "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable."

Copyright © 2001 JournalismJobs.com. All rights reserved.

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  • David Maraniss, reporter and author, The Washington Post -- April 2000
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