Where There's Smoke

On June 23, Geoffrey C. Bible, the chairman and CEO of Philip Morris, was voted onto the board of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. Articles about business synergy fill the front pages, but this drew virtually no coverage. The next day, the Wall Street Journal ran a four-sentence item buried on Page B9, and Murdoch's own New York Post printed a slightly more celebratory announcement on Page 32. A week later, a Lexis-Nexis search using the keywords "Geoffrey Bible and Rupert Murdoch" turned up no additional items. A second search another week later yielded just one more column, written by Chip Jones, a tobacco reporter at the Richmond (Va.) Times Dispatch.

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What drew Jones' attention? An anti-tobacco activist, Michigan lawyer Cliff Douglas, had sent the Journal item to every reporter he could think of and urged them to look into the story. The result? Other than Jones, nobody paid the slightest attention.

In this issue ofMother Jones, which features a new-fashioned design, you'll find several old-fashioned articles on topics not likely to be covered elsewhere. For example, we attended a seminar that teaches modern union-busting techniques to executives. Having worked at a major news corporation for nine years, I can assure you that in the mainstream media such stories are not censored by the higher-ups. Their suppression technique is more elegant: Just eliminate the labor beat.

We also have pieces that critique the way America's top newspapers cover defense and point to covert programs that should be spotlighted. Although a few reporters remain on this beat, they depend heavily upon Pentagon sources and industry officials, none of whom is about to comment on top-secret projects.

A third report examines the massive forest fires in Borneo that darkened the skies over Indonesia last spring. New evidence indicates that big companies—many with close ties to then President Suharto—paid farmers to set fires so they could plant lucrative crops. The American media isn't eager to cover this now because the story takes place overseas, is a few months old, and brings up daunting questions about the continuing destruction of the planet's forests to feed growth.

But what's preventing a Marlboro/Murdoch piece? The story has many readily available news hooks. For example, right when Bible was appointed to the News Corp. board, Bill Clinton was flying to China—the very market that Philip Morris and Rupert Murdoch covet most. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), China has an estimated 300 million smokers and is one of a very few countries where cigarette consumption is on the rise. It also has the world's largest untapped TV audience. A reporter on any number of beats—business, entertainment, international—could look for behind-the-scenes deals.

There's even a sports angle: Philip Morris has skirted a ban on tobacco advertising by lending the name of its No. 1 brand to the premier Marlboro Soccer League. The Marlboro sign in sports stadiums is positioned directly in front of TV cameras. This image is beamed to millions of viewers by Star TV, a satellite channel owned by Murdoch.

What's the impact of this cross-marketing? An executive in charge of developing the Chinese market for Marlboro once told me that the company's aim is simple: "Get the smoker to associate the first cigarette of the day with freedom, sports, or sex. The second cigarette is just habit." For "habit," read "addiction." According to WHO's best estimate, "Of all the children and young people under the age of 20 alive today in China, 200 million will become smokers, and at least 50 million of these will eventually die prematurely because of tobacco use."

In 1989, when Murdoch was appointed to the Philip Morris board (a position he retains today), such statistics were known but unreported by the American press. Why not make a difference now and simultaneously shame the head of a rival media organization? Murdoch has thrown down the gauntlet to journalists. Last year he told approximately 240 executives attending the Forbes CEO Forum, "Philip Morris and the tobacco industry in general are victims of a classic media feeding frenzy."

Are such pronouncements and shared corporate interests likely to inhibit tobacco coverage within Murdoch's own media empire? You be the judge. One internal Philip Morris paper unsealed in Minnesota's tobacco case is titled "The Perspective of PM International on Smoking and Health Issues: Text of the discussion document used at the meeting of top management." It has as its starting point a memo from Hamish Maxwell, a former chief executive of Philip Morris. Maxwell stepped down from the News Corp. board shortly before Bible's appointment. On the sixth page, you can find this paragraph:

Another area we intend to exploit more fully is the ad agencies and media proprietors. We have already been helped a great deal by the agencies in Hong Kong for example, in our efforts to resist advertising restrictions. As regards the media, we plan to build similar relationships to those we now have with Murdoch's News Limited with other newspaper proprietors. Murdoch's papers rarely publish anti-smoking articles these days.

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