Re 'Big Tobacco and the Historians' | The Nation


Re 'Big Tobacco and the Historians'

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Gainsville, Fla.

About the Author

Our Readers
Letters submitted by our readers are read and published in the magazine.
Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine. His most recent book is How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey...

Also by the Author

Abortion fund activists respond to Katha Pollitt’s opposition to gender-neutral language.

Vietnam as living history; behind every great dictator…; our bazaar government; what is “radical”?; Radio Gaga…

Also by the Author

On the war’s 50th anniversary, peace activists will be challenging the Pentagon’s whitewashed history.

In America today, people owe more on their student loans than they do on their credit cards. But there’s a simple and elegant way to end this travesty.

I read this article with interest because I have been on the periphery of some of the events Jon Wiener describes. I would like to take this opportunity to correct the record on a few points.

In April 2008 Dr. Gregg Michel, an historian from Texas, contacted me in my capacity as graduate coordinator in the history department at the University of Florida. He was working for a law firm representing one of the tobacco companies, and he was looking for some advanced students to do microfilm research. He e-mailed me a short ad, offering $20 an hour for part-time research. I passed it on to the graduate students. I believe that he interviewed and hired two students at the time, and added two more some time later.

I later learned that the graduate students were assigned to read specific Florida newspapers for specific years. They were to look for and copy any stories that pertained to tobacco and health. Their instructions were quite clear: they were not to make any decisions about whether the stories supported or contradicted the arguments made by Big Tobacco. They were to identify everything remotely relevant and pass it on to Michel.

The following May I received a phone call from my colleague Betty Smocovitis. Betty had just heard from Stanford's Robert Proctor, who had named four of our graduate students who were doing research on a tobacco case. She was extraordinarily upset about this news and she was particularly concerned because she feared that Proctor would use this information--including perhaps the names of the specific students--in a way that would reflect poorly on the department. I explained that the students were only doing the most basic low-paid research and were not engaging in any sort of advocacy. But she said that Proctor was a bit of a zealot and it was entirely unclear what he might do with the information. She indicated that it was entirely possible that he would publish their names, and she seemed to feel that it was pretty likely that he would present the department as somehow responsible. I passed this news on to the chair of the department and thought I was done with the whole thing. (A few days later Smocovitis e-mailed that upon reflection she doubted if he would use the specific names, but by then events were underway.)

The chair spoke to one of the students, to be sure that any work she was doing was within university guidelines (it was). He briefed her on the situation and she was justifiably worried that this fellow Robert Proctor would be publishing her name in some deceptive article (rather like Jon Wiener's). She called Michel, who contacted the lawyers. They apparently smelled a rat.

A few months ago I was surprised to learn from a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter that my name appeared in e-mails and legal depositions that were part of a pending case. The tobacco lawyers had charged Proctor with meddling with their case and had deposed both Proctor and Smocovitis. The reporter told me that Dr. Smocovitis's deposition indicated that the history department actively selected the students to work for Michel. I found myself forced to "go on record" to correct this huge error and to explain what our students had actually been doing. Stories appeared in the Chronicle and in the Gainesville Sun presenting various versions of the controversies swirling around Robert Proctor. (The reader can find both by Googling Smocovitis + Proctor.)

Now we have Wiener's "Big Tobacco and the Historians." The essay raises a host of interesting issues about what historians should and should not do, but it also raises a few serious concerns in my mind.

First, Wiener mentions the research done by UF graduate students and then immediately quotes a University of California-Irvine graduate student--Birte Pfleger--who describes how she had been instructed to engage in unprofessional research methods. The reader is left with the logical conclusion that the UF graduate students had behaved similarly. But Pfleger was working on another case for a different historian eight years ago. Meanwhile, the two recent newspaper stories on this case document that Michel did not give his research assistants this sort of unethical instruction. Why would Wiener omit this easily accessible information?

My second concern is how Wiener characterizes Proctor and his behavior towards those graduate students. Having interviewed Proctor, Wiener tells us that the Stanford professor is a helpless victim who had not tried to intimidate anyone. He merely wrote an innocent e-mail to Betty Smocovitis about UF students. I do not know Dr. Proctor and cannot look into his soul and determine his intentions (any more than Wiener can). I do know that Judge William A. Parsons of the Seventh Judicial Circuit Court, who presumably has more experience peering into people's souls, reviewed the complex chain of events and the e-mails that Proctor sent--including some that he had apparently tried to destroy--and concluded that "he appears to have used Dr. Smocovitis to generate activity designed to harass, humiliate and cause the graduate students to either resign from doing work with Dr. Michel or run the risk of being the subject of national publications..." "This court," Parsons continued, "is unable to construct any innocent reason for his conduct. While it is clear that Dr. Smocovitis was manipulated by Dr. Proctor, there is no question that Dr. Proctor was effective in his undertaking..." The e-mails presented to the court, he added, "represent the lowest of the low in terms of a professor of such high standing. To advance your own cause at the expense of graduate students trying to get through college strikes this court as appalling." This opinion, dated November 20, 2009, is part of the public record. The Gainesville Sun quoted Judge Parsons on December 8, 2009. Wiener quotes the lawyers who he says were trying to intimidate Proctor, but he mysteriously fails to quote the judge who weighed all the evidence and found Proctor's behavior so deplorable.

Historians, like judges and juries, are supposed to weigh evidence and come to considered opinions. In the process we are supposed to take pains to find the relevant evidence, and present a balanced portrait of that material to our readers even as we are making our arguments. Paid advocates--like lawyers and perhaps historians who work for lawyers--are supposed to tell the truth in the context of an adversarial process. Reasonable people can disagree about whether historians should ever be paid advocates for Big Tobacco. But it seems to me that when historians like Jon Wiener engage in supporting some historians and attacking others, they should go about their business like professional historians and not like paid advocates.





Wiener Replies


More than 400,000 Americans die every year from smoking-related diseases; forty historians have worked as expert witnesses in court, defending the tobacco companies; but Matt Gallman seems to think the big story here is four grad students at the University of Florida who worked as research assistants on one case. It's a footnote to a footnote, but his letter raises some interesting points.

The historians who testify for Big Tobacco often don't do their own research but rely on students. That's what Gregg Michel did; he's a historian at the University of Texas-San Antonio. For my piece, I wanted to ask Greg Michel what he had told the students he hired. Did he tell them they would be working for tobacco attorneys, who would use their research to argue in court that the companies shouldn't have to pay a smoker because it was her own fault she was dying of cancer? But Gregg Michel declined to answer. The "two recent newspaper stories on this case" don't quote Michel either. He's not talking.

I would have asked the students what they had been told, but the tobacco attorneys who employed the students had already made it abundantly clear that asking the students would be regarded as "harassment."

Matt Gallman's description of his e-mail to students annoucing the job is a bit misleading, if the question is what they were told about this research. In fact, his e-mail didn't reveal the purpose of the research in question; it said only, "This research is connected to product liability litigation." A more honest e-mail would have mentioned tobacco. It would have said, "This research will be used in court to defend tobacco companies being sued by smokers."

Maybe the students were told that later; we don't know, because Gregg Michel, the historian who hired them, isn't talking, and neither are the students. Maybe the students would say they were delighted to work for the tobacco companies and agreed with the way the companies used their work; maybe they would say they're not proud of what they did, but they needed the money. My guess is that they'd say something like the latter. They are certainly welcome to speak for themselves, instead of their having Matt Gallman speak for them.

Next issue: What did Betty tell Matt about Robert? This part of Gallman's letter is more like gossip than history. For the record, Betty Smocovitis, a historian of science at the University of Florida, told me what upset her was not Proctor but rather Gallman's recruitment of grad students in her department to work for Big Tobacco. She says she never told Gallman that Proctor was "a bit of a zealot" or likely to "out" the students. And, for the record, Proctor never did "name" or "out" any students; all he did was e-mail Smocovitis.

Volusia County circuit court judge William A. Parsons, Gallman reports, sided with the tobacco companies' view of Robert Proctor as "the lowest of the low"--certainly a striking thing to say about a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Parsons, however, did not "weigh all the evidence"--attorney Bill Ogle, representing plaintiffs who want Proctor as an expert witness, says the judge did not hear from Proctor about his side of the story.

Matt Gallman is concerned about Proctor's "intentions." As far as I can tell, Proctor's intentions are good. He is passionate about the health hazards of smoking and about holding Big Tobacco responsible for its actions. In this he is hardly alone. The federal courts ruled in 2006 that for fifty years the tobacco companies had "lied, misrepresented and deceived the American public about the devastating health effects of smoking." In 1999 a Florida jury awarded the class of smokers in Florida $145 billion, the largest punitive damage jury award in US history. In one of the first of the successor cases to that suit, a jury recently awarded smoker Cindy Naugle $300 million.

The judge in that case, Jeffrey Streitfeld, who recently lowered the award, said the jury's verdict offered "a lesson" for tobacco attorneys: their "blame the smoker" defense "didn't work," he said. "It upset the jury." But Big Tobacco is still blaming the smokers--and historians are still helping Big Tobacco. Matt Gallman says I have failed to provide a "balanced portrait" of this conflict. To that charge, I plead guilty.


  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size