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Transcript: #19-98 Ties that Bind: The ACLU and Big Tobacco
Norman Solomon: Welcome to Making Contact, an international radio program seeking to create connections between people, vital ideas and important information. I’m Norman Solomon.
For more than seventy-five years now, the American Civil Liberties Union has had a very important role in defending the Bill of Rights in the United States. But recently, some longtime supporters of the organization have been raising questions about the ACLU positions on issues involving large corporate interests. One of those interests is the tobacco companies. Now, new information has surfaced about ties between cigarette firms and the American Civil Liberties Union. We invited the Executive Director of the ACLU, Ira Glasser, to be on this program, but he declined. A few days ago, we invited the national ACLU to provide two spokespersons of its choosing to appear on this program, in studio and/or by telephone. The ACLU declined that invitation as well.
On this roundtable edition of Making Contact, we’re joined here in the studio by Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine in the Cardiology Division at the University of California at San Francisco. Welcome to Making Contact.
Stanton Glantz: Thank you.
Norman Solomon: And with us by phone from the Washington DC area is the author of an investigative article about ties between the ACLU and the tobacco industry, former Washington Post reporter Morton Mintz. Welcome to Making Contact.
Morton Mintz: Hi. Glad to be here.
Norman Solomon: Well, Morton Mintz, let’s begin with you. The Spring 1998 edition of Nieman Reports, published by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, includes a long article by you, titled “The ACLU and the Tobacco Companies”. What do you believe is the most significant aspect of the information in the article?
Morton Mintz: I think the most significant information is that an organization which constantly tells its members of its dedication to protecting civil rights, and I don’t… I mean individual rights, which I don’t question at all, has for many years now — about eleven years — been taking very large sums of money from the tobacco industry. It has been fighting their causes on Capitol Hill against tobacco legislation that would restrict tobacco advertising, principally. And it has not told its membership in the fundraising letters and in the quarterly publication that they send out, what they’re doing. And they don’t want to talk about it, really. They will talk about it to individual members, but they will not do it [publicly]. Now, I don’t think it’s really necessary, or desirable, or particularly defensible for the ACLU to be dedicating its resources secretly to defending the tobacco companies … taking the earmarked money and all the rest of it for tobacco-industry causes.
Norman Solomon: This is something I wanted to ask you about, the question of the money from the tobacco companies being ear-marked. We’re talking primarily now about two huge tobacco companies, right? R J Reynolds and Phillip Morris.
Morton Mintz: Right.
Norman Solomon: And beginning when, in 1987, contribution began to be solicited and received by the ACLU from those two companies.
Morton Mintz: Yes, Ira Glasser, the Executive Director of the ACLU, told me in 1992 that they had received, by then, five hundred thousand dollars from Phillip Morris … additional money from R J Reynolds — he would not tell me how much. He created the impression, and it’s continuing to this day, in that statement, to try to create the impression that the money went to the general fund of the ACLU for all of its multiple purposes.
We now know from a new book put out by a former ACLU employee named John Faux … not a new book, it was put out a couple of years ago, I’m sorry … that the money was, a great deal of it was earmarked for a so-called “task force on workplace rights.” That task force, without the membership being told, I emphasize, has fought for a tobacco industry cause, but there has been no fighting on the part of this task force for the rights, for the right of non-smokers not to be exposed to the toxins in passive smoke.
Norman Solomon: Now when some information came out about the ACLU having taken money beginning around 1987 for a period, at that point, of a few years in the early 1990s when this information came out, you and some other folks who were writing and talking about it assumed, I suppose, that the money was going into more or less the general pot of ACLU money. Is that right?
Morton Mintz: Absolutely, that’s the impression that Ira Glasser furthered at every opportunity, starting with, starting, or close to starting with the interview with me six years ago.
Norman Solomon: But now, in May of 1998, you’re article has appeared in Nieman Reports spelling out that the tobacco industry money, to a large extent, is going not into a general fund of the ACLU or the ACLU Foundation, but specifically earmarked to a task force that addresses smoking related issues. Is that right?
Morton Mintz: Yes, but on the tobacco industry side, not on the side of non-smokers.
Norman Solomon: So what are the key positions that the ACLU has been taking now in the midst of controversies about regulating or not regulating the tobacco industry?
Morton Mintz: Well, they have taken the position, generally, that government has no business legislating as to the content of speech. In other words, commercial speech, put another way, in the ACLU view, is entitled to the same protection, that the speech of flesh and blood human beings is entitled to. That’s a very questionable position. It has never been fully accepted by the Supreme Court. It results from a, ultimately from a decision made by the Supreme Court in 1886 concerning … which gave corporations the same protection, or almost the same protection that human beings have, but on the basis of the 14th Amendment which was passed to protect only the rights of the newly freed slaves.
Norman Solomon: So in this context of regulating tobacco advertising and marketing and so forth, Phillip Morris and R J Reynolds, would you say, are benefiting appreciably from the public position the ACLU has taken?
Morton Mintz: I believe they have benefited. How much, I really do not know. I know that the ACLU testified against the restrictions on tobacco advertising and the pending legislation sponsored by Senator McCain in March of this year. They are still doing it. And that is not only not human speech, but it is speech largely designed to induce children and adults to smoke.
Norman Solomon: Well let’s talk a little bit about the impact of the advertising that does take place for cigarettes and the impact of not restricting that advertising. Stanton Glantz, you teach about matters such as bio-statistics and cardiovascular physiology in public health at the University of California, and I know you’ve written many scientific articles on subjects that include assessing the affects of tobacco advertising. What’s your view of the ACLU’s role in this debate over cigarette marketing and public policy?
Stanton Glantz: Well, the ACLU has been a very crucial ally of the tobacco industry for as long as I’ve been involved in this issue; because they’ve defended the industry’s marketing tactics. From my perspective, as somebody who’s been interested in the passive smoking issue and protecting non-smokers, the ACLU’s just intractable opposition to laws and other regulations to protect workers from the toxic chemicals in second-hand smoke has been a tremendous problem.
The tobacco industry’s position is that there’s no evidence that second-hand is dangerous and there’s no reason to regulate it, no reason to protect workers from second-hand smoke. The only organization I know of outside the industry that takes that position is the American Civil Liberties Union. And they have opposed, going back into the seventies, when I first got involved in this, and through the eighties, have systematically mouthed tobacco industry rhetoric in saying workers shouldn’t be protected from the toxic chemicals in second hand smoke and pooh-poohed the scientific evidence. They’ve really provided a fig leaf for the industry to hide behind, as have other front groups that the industry has created or funded.
Norman Solomon: Well you’re…
Stanton Glantz: And I have to tell you, as a member, I mean I belonged to the ACLU for years, and there were many…
Morton Mintz: So did I.
Stan Glantz: You know, there… one of the things that they did which was very controversial was when they defended the Nazis in Scokie, Illinois, their right to have a march. Which, while I don’t particularly like Nazis, I thought was the right thing to do. But had it come out that the Nazi Party had given the ACLU a million bucks, the way the tobacco industry had, I would have looked quite different. And I think if the ACLU were taking these kind of off-the-wall positions in defending the tobacco industry, without getting any money from the industry, that would be one thing. And you could get into a good philosophical argument with Ira Glasser and the leadership of the ACLU. But when they’re taking a million bucks from the cigarette companies to take positions that are, I think, really hard to defend, based on the science, it just has a whole different tone to it.
And another thing that shows their very strong pro-tobacco industry bias, is a couple of years ago I received about forty thousand pages of secret tobacco industry documents — were sent to me anonymously — they ended up the subject of a book called The Cigarette Papers. But the Brown and Williamson tobacco company sued the University of California to try to prevent release of these documents, to prevent the University from publishing them on the Web. You couldn’t have asked for a clearer First Amendment case than the tobacco industry suing the University to prevent dissemination of important public information. I approached the ACLU to see if they would put an amicus brief in, in support of the University of California, just on pure First Amendment grounds, and they were too busy. But they always seemed to have time to show up on every little berg defending the tobacco industry’s right to have the air polluted.
Norman Solomon: Well, if I hear you right, well both of you, you seem to be saying that the ACLU is exerting itself consistently on behalf of the real or, perhaps imagined, First Amendment rights of tobacco companies but not asserting itself as the ACLU, on behalf of the First Amendment rights for whistle blowers working against the tobacco industry, or those who are speaking out against it.
Stanton Glantz: Yeah, or even on behalf of workers who are, I mean, if you are working in a work place where people could smoke, you’re breathing in toluene, you’re breathing in benzene, you’re breathing in dimethyl-nitrocamine, formaldehyde, nickel, polycyclic aeromatic hydrocarbons, just a witches brew of toxic chemicals.
Norman Solomon: From what?
Stan Glantz: From the second-hand cigarette smoke. And, to me, it’s a simple issue of work place safety. And yet the ACLU comes in and has somehow asserted there’s a civil right to, for people to poison the air. I mean, it’s a ridiculous position. And I can’t…
Morton Mintz: I would like to add to that…
Stan Glantz: I can’t believe that they would be taking those positions if they weren’t getting all this money from the cigarette companies.
Norman Solomon: Morton Mintz.
Morton Mintz: I’d like to add to that. I cite in my article a memo from Louis Maltby, who is the chairman of the Civil Liberties in the Workplace Task Force, have got all this money from the tobacco industry. He said, “We have not thought through essential questions for which we currently have no answers.” And he said, for example, quoting again, “Do non-smokers have a right to be protected against all side-stream smoke? Or only the levels which create health risks? If the latter, what concentrations of smoke do we believe create risks? Is it acceptable to use engineering controls to achieve a smoke-free atmosphere?”
Now the point of this is, that here they were, doing all the things that Stanton Glantz has just recited, while internally, they didn’t know what the hell they were doing, basically. ‘Cause they didn’t understand what the dangers of passive smoke were. And there’s another thing. They had.. here is Ira Glasser, he’s saying nowadays, “Well we forbid smoking in our workplace.” What he doesn’t say is that his own employees, the office employees, had to practically force him at gun point — because some of their people were getting ill, had to have letters from doctors and what-not — to stop smoking in the workplace.
And just one final thing. When the office administrator decided that she needed to get information about whether there were health risks to second-hand smoke, to whom did she write for that information? The EPA? Oh, no. She wrote to a public relations man for the Tobacco Institute. I think that says something too.
Norman Solomon: That’s the voice of Morton Mintz, who was a reporter at the Washington Post for twenty-nine years. His article, titled “The ACLU and the Tobacco Companies” appears in the Spring 1998 issue of Nieman Reports, published by Harvard’s Nieman Foundation. We’re also speaking with Stanton Glantz, Professor of Medicine in the cardiology division at the University of California at San Francisco. I’m Norman Solomon, and you’re listening to the Making Contact radio program. We’ll return to this discussion in a minute.
If you’d like to receive free background information about the subject we’re discussing today, or if you’d like to get in touch with the guests appearing on the program, please call us at Making Contact, toll free, at 800-529-5736, and give us your mailing address. You can call us anytime, twenty-four hours, at 800-529-5726. That number will be repeated at the end of this broadcast. We’d also like to let you know how you can get involved with this weekly program which is now heard on more than a hundred and thirty radio stations in the United States, Canada, and several other countries, as well as around the world via the short wave station Radio for Peace International.
Well, let’s resume our discussion. As I mentioned at the outset of this program, Making Contact invited the American Civil Liberties Union to participate in this discussion. We offered an equal amount of time to spokespersons for the ACLU, but our offer, unfortunately, was declined. The National ACLU did provide a written statement from its Executive Director, Ira Glasser, to Making Contact for this program. So I’m going to read Mr. Glasser’s statement and then ask for comments from our guests.
This is a statement from Ira Glasser, Executive Director of the ACLU: “On the subject of the ACLU and tobacco money, Morton Mintz long ago gave up any pretense to objective, fact-based reporting. Sadly, Mintz is tarnishing his sterling reputation as a journalist in a misguided attempt to lend credibility to his anti-smoking crusade. While I can respect his dedication to a cause, I cannot respect his methods. As the following examples demonstrate, these methods have little in common with the journalistic standards one would expect from a Nieman fellow, let alone a tabloid reporter.”
Continuing here with a statement from Ira Glasser of the ACLU, “Please note that due to time limitations these points do not constitute a comprehensive response to the accusations. I will be making a more complete response in the coming week, which I would be happy to provide to anyone who writes to me at the ACLU, 125 Broad Street, 18th floor, New York City, 10004.”
And then there’s a series of five points in Mr. Glasser’s statement. Let’s just try to move through these. Number one, again quoting Ira Glasser of the ACLU, “Mintz says that his latest attack is inspired by a book by John Faux, a former clerical employee who left the ACLU several years ago. The book, Cigarette Confidential, includes a chapter about the ACLU’s alleged relationship with the tobacco industry. Faux’s book notwithstanding, listeners should know that the whole question of the ACLU and tobacco money was raised and put to rest some years ago in a report issued by Mintz himself. In a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Mintz concluded that there was, ‘no trace of any financial impropriety in the ACLU’s solicitation and use of these grants’ that ‘integrity is not the issue’ and that ‘the ACLU rigorously segregates fundraising from its efforts in behalf of civil liberties’. Mintz’s refutation of his own conclusions based on documents revealed in John Faux’s book does not hold up, because those documents do not hold up. That’s what every other journalist who investigated the story concluded, and that’s what listeners to this radio program ought to conclude too.” Again, the words of Ira Glasser, Executive Director of the ACLU.
Well, Morton Mintz, what do you make of that part of the statement?
Morton Mintz: Well, I say it’s a sad day in the long and sometimes glorious history of the American Civil Liberties Union when its Executive Director reacts to an article on the ACLU’s relationship with Phillip
Morris and R J Reynolds, not by joining us on the air, but with a written statement: a statement that attacks the integrity of the reporter and his sources, that fails to respond forthrightly to key issues raised in the article, and that does not so much as mention the two leading tobacco companies, which have given the ACLU and its affiliates more than a million dollars as you noted.
Notably, Glasser ignores the statements in the article by Melvin Wolf, who was the ACLU’s Legal Director for fifteen years, and it remains, in his words, “deeply attached to its principles.” Commenting on the book by John Faux, Wolf said this, “The information in Cigarette Confidential threatens the basic integrity of the ACLU.” Now that’s pretty serious. Comes from a former Legal Director, you’d think that that would be addressed. It isn’t. Now he goes on to… well, he doesn’t go on, but I want to say the ACLU justifies its solicitation of hundreds of thousands of tobacco dollars on the ground that the money went to its Workplace Rights Task Force.
Melvin Wolf’s quote about this justification is ignored in Glasser’s statement. Understandably, because Wolf denounced the justification as a “sham”, and went on to say, “there is no constitutional right to pollute the atmosphere and threaten the health of others.” The revelations that is in the book support the conclusion that the ACLU’s mission is being corrupted by the attraction of easy money. Now does Glasser think that there is a constitutional right to pollute the atmosphere? Why doesn’t he come on the air and say so? Why didn’t he say so in the statement?
Norman Solomon: Well, as I mentioned, he declined to come on the air with us, and instead submitted this written statement.
Morton Mintz: Yeah.
Norman Solomon: I think what I’ll do is I’ll sift through the rest of this written statement from Ira Glasser and then ask again for Moron Mintz and, then if we have time, Stanton Glantz, to comment. This is the rest of the…
Stanton Glantz: One thing I’d just like to say: I mean, it’s laughable that they’re talking about an alleged relation… that the ACLU is talking about an alleged relationship with Phillip Morris and R J Reynolds. I mean, a million dollars changed hands. I mean, that creates a relationship. There’s nothing “alleged”. I mean, the fact that they refused to engage the substance of the issues that Morton Mintz raises is, I mean, it just shows the complete indefensibility of their position. I mean, they basically become shills for the cigarette companies.
Norman Solomon: Well, Ira Glasser from the ACLU says, as following his statement, “Mintz is correct in stating that Faux’s book, Cigarette Confidential, was all but ignored by the media and reviewed nowhere, but he is wrong in claiming that the author’s press stunt ‘flopped’ because the ACLU media spokespeople chilled the story. Mintz doesn’t exhibit much respect for his fellow journalists if he thinks a word from the ACLU can kill a hot story. The real reason,” Glasser continues, “that the book was ignored is because it has no credibility. Faux provided stacks of photocopied ‘proof’ to dozens of reporters who had plenty of opportunity to find out the truth for themselves. We gave interviews to all of the reporters who asked and provided documents refuting the many factual errors in the book. As for the lack of book reviews, the ACLU was never contacted by any publication asking whether they should review Faux’s book. So, “Glasser writes, “I can only conclude that it was not reviewed because it was not worth reviewing.”
We’re going to be running out of time, I’m afraid, but let me briefly summarize the rest of the statement. He goes on… Ira Glasser from the ACLU goes on to say that Mintz quotes from the author of the book saying the ACLU was behind an effort to add a smoker rights amendment to the US Constitution and Glasser characterizes this as “bizarre and without any proof.” Then he also goes on to say that a newsletter put out, called Smoke Free Air, had factual errors in it. And, let me just read the final section and then ask for both of you to comment.
He says.. Ira Glasser says that “The ACLU has always opposed bans on commercial advertising of any legal product on First Amendment grounds. We have taken that position consistently for more than fifty years. All this is a matter of public record.”
And finally, according to Ira Glasser of the ACLU, “Similarly, contrary to Mintz’s accusations, the ACLU has not opposed a legal requirement that the Surgeon General’s warning must appear on every tobacco product and every tobacco ad.” Morton Mintz, what do you make of that statement?
Morton Mintz: Well, it’s impossible to deal with all of that factually and carefully in the limited time. But there’s a lot of tricky, cutesy stuff there, and I’ll site one example quickly. The fact that the book was not reviewed may sound, you know, as if it’s an indictment of the book. The fact is that I can tell you of all kinds of news stories that ought to be covered that are not covered in nothing to with tobacco or the ACLU. All kinds of books that ought to be reviewed that are not reviewed. For heaven’s sake, there was an expose the Gannett chain called Chain Gang by Richard McCord. It was not reviewed in a single Gannett newspaper. I mean, you know, that doesn’t mean anything.
But I want to talk about the money for a moment. As an example of this cutesiness that we have from Mr. Glasser. His statement claims that my 1993 report “put to rest” again “the whole question of the ACLU and tobacco company.” Well, what that fails to say is that Glasser himself had misled me and everyone, into believing that Phillip Morris and R J Reynolds were contributing to the ACLU’s general fund.
Norman Solomon: So to clarify this, you’re saying you gave the ACLU the benefit of the doubt in 1993, but you have since gained more information showing that tobacco company money was funneled — directly earmarked — to this task force that deals with smoking related issues and you now have, perhaps, a harsher judgment of the ACLU than you did then.
Morton Mintz: That’s absolutely correct. If I’d known there was earmarking I would not have given them the benefit of the doubt. And he didn’t want to say it, and I think that illustrates his level of candor with everybody.
Stanton Glantz: Yeah, I mean another example of how he’s being very cutesy here is saying that they didn’t propose a smokers rights amendment to the US Constitution. Well, to the best of my knowledge, that’s correct. But I can tell you that they supported and aggressively pushed industry inspired smoker’s rights legislation in state legislatures all over this country. And, I mean, to me, I mean the… I find this statement with the same level of slipperiness as a typical statement coming out of the cigarette companies. I mean, if … its ad hominem, it’s sidestepping the real issues.
And, I mean, I think it’s ironic that an organization, whose purpose for being is to protect free speech and public discourse and debate, won’t come on and defend themselves. Because, I think their position is indefensible. I mean, if the ACLU is driven by principle, let them give the million dollars back to the tobacco industry and then keep maintaining their positions. If the ACLU is supporting the pro-tobacco positions and not getting a penny for it, then you could just think they were misguided instead of corrupt.
Norman Solomon: Unfortunately, we’re just about out of time. For listeners who want to pursue this matter, whether you want to write to compliment the ACLU, or to raise some critical issues, you can write to Ira Glasser. That’s I-R-A G-L-A-S-S-E-R at the ACLU, 125 Broad Street, 18th floor, New York City, 10004. There’s also going to be a phone number at Making Contact in a few moments that you can call for further information.
I’ve been speaking with Stanton Glantz, Professor of Medicine in the Cardiology Division at the University of California at San Francisco, and Morton Mintz, a former Washington Post reporter, whose article, “The ACLU
and Tobacco Companies”, appears in the Spring 1998 issue of Nieman Reports, published at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. Thanks to both of you for joining us.
Stanton Glantz: My pleasure.
Norman Solomon: That’s about it for this addition of Making Contact. If you’d like a transcript or tape of today’s program, or more information about “Making Contact”, please get something to write with. In a few moments, you’ll be hearing our toll free number which can be used from anywhere in the United States and Canada.
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To get in touch with our guests, or to receive some free background information, call the National Radio Project at 800-529-5736. You can also order tapes and transcripts by calling that same number: 800-529-5736. A special thanks to Howard Gelman for engineering the program today This is Norman Solomon. For everyone involved with Making Contact, bye for now.