Jeffrey Wigand began a household name when he told the truth about big tobacco to “60 Minutes” back in 1995. His story later made into the movie “The Insider.” He talked to NBC's David Gregory about what it's like to expose the truth.
DAVID GREGORY, GUEST HOST “HARDBALL”: Thanks for being with us. Talk to me about Mark Felt. Did he do the right thing in your book?
DR. JEFFREY WIGAND, TOBACCO WHISTLE-BLOWER: I believe so. I think he did the morally right thing. He knew the truth. The truth wasn't coming out. I think he changed the process which was going on, which was the lack of truth and really, I think, helped unfold the issues underpinning Watergate. So he did the right thing, in terms of setting the record straight. And has, in fact, changed history with what he did.
GREGORY: You were in a different situation. You were not in government. You were a high official in a tobacco company.
But take me inside your own story. Describe that moment when you felt like, “I can't work within the system anymore. I can't push my bosses to do what I think is the right thing. I've got to go outside. I've got to try to expose this.” Did you feel trapped? Describe that.
WIGAND: In a way, you do feel trapped. You feel a very deep, inner conflict between your loyalties, your loyalty to your family, and supporting and protecting your family, the supposed loyalty that you're supposed to have through the corporation that's actually paying to you support your family.
And then you look at the hierarchy or the values, and you say, “Did those loyalties outweigh the loyalty that one has or duty one has to public health and safety?” And after considerable deliberation, I chose the pathway that said that I had a duty and a moral obligation for the truth. And I owed that on a hierarchy basis to public health and safety for the knowledge I gained while in the tobacco industry that would save lives.
GREGORY: Why did you feel you had to go to the news media? What wasn't working by fighting on the inside?
WIGAND: The tradition and the process was so embedded that I could never change it from the inside. Whether it was the violation of lawyers vetting documents, or violation of rules of civil procedure with the lawyers, or statements inside that we're in a nicotine delivery business and tar is the negative baggage, that we hook them young, we hook them for life.
First [problem] was the mantra outside: “No, nicotine is not addictive. Smoking doesn't kill. It hasn't been proven, the targeting of children.” I mean, just the outright misrepresentation of the fact that, when put in the right hands of the public, under what we might consider the doctrine of consumer sovereignty, consumers would make different choices.
And those choices were taken from them, particularly because the industry wasn't truthful and not only engaged in what I would say immoral activities but most certainly approached the fringe of being illegal, if not fraudulent.
GREGORY: Let me interject one point here, Dr. Wigand. You obviously felt the need at some point to put your face to this story. In the case of Mark Felt, he did not feel that was the case. He did not feel so moved and wanted to remain hidden for more than 30 years. Do you sympathize with him wanting to be so secret?
WIGAND: Well, I have to say, in the beginning, I was secret. From March of 1993 to August of 1995, I was secret. I worked under a code name with the FDA. I worked secretly with the law firm representing ABC News in a $10 billion lawsuit between ABC and Philip Morris.
But ultimately, I felt that I had the moral imperative that I had to do something with the knowledge I had. And I chose to go to “60 Minutes,” because I believed that they had the institution, they had the process to reach 30 to 40 million people with the truth. And I trusted that entity to do that.
GREGORY: Is it a good process? Was the result good for you? Do you feel good as a whistle-blower, or was it a painful episode in your life?
WIGAND: Well, there was pain in it. I mean, I can't say there was no pain. But as I look today, and I look back at what has happened and what has changed as a result of my actions and those that helped and supported me in what I chose to do, I think it's made a change in the way tobacco is viewed in the world today.
And I have absolutely no regrets. And I would most certainly do it again. I'm not so sure, if I went back to try do it again, I could change the tapestry or the chemistry of the soup in any way, because the alignment of stars, the support I got from both seen and unseen people, was enormous in making it happen.
GREGORY: You feared for your life at various points, didn't you?
WIGAND: Yes, we had to have bodyguards. The threats were credible.They were directed towards my children. They weren't always directed towards me. We were provided two armed ex-Secret Service guards to protect me 24/7. The school that I was teaching at the time put an armed sheriff's deputy on the classroom door because of the threats.
But in the end, no matter what, the truth did come out. And I feel relieved that the truth did come out. I wasn't a bystander.
GREGORY: What changes now that Mark Felt has come out? What changes for whistle-blowers in the future?
WIGAND: I don't know what changes are—I mean, I would like to you change the word “whistle-blower” and say it's “truth-teller.” I believe there is a need for people who cannot resolve and see harm being done to do something. And I think Mark Felt did it. I think Karen Silkwood did it. I most certainly think Coleen Rowley did it.
And there are lots of others who have done it and have made the world a better place by telling the truth. I would hope more people would do it.
GREGORY: Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, thank you very much for being with us tonight, with the satellite delay from Montreal. Appreciate it.
'Hardball' airs weeknights, 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.