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Shying Away From News

NEWS organizations that run risks to put important stories before the public are pillars of democracy. When economic, commercial, or legal calculations trump news judgment, the pillars show cracks.

The decision at CBS to pull a segment of ''60 Minutes'' that exposed the inner workings of tobacco companies uncovered such a crack. Its causes, apparently, were complex.

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Big tobacco's aggressive efforts to defend itself - evidenced in Philip Morris's recent legal bludgeoning of ABC News - were one factor. CBS lawyers were skittish. The network's pending merger with Westinghouse may have been another. Also in play were arrangements between CBS News and its source, a former tobacco executive under contract not to divulge company secrets. He was indemnified by CBS against lawsuits and given power to veto the segment.

Whatever the complexities, the result was clear: The public didn't get information that may have thrown light on a matter of public concern.

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