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"Actually think we’re in a very serious situation here. If we’re not careful we’re going to have nothing but a morass of information that’s relatively mindless, and no one will be watching the store. That’s dangerous. Someone has to watch those folks in power, regardless of their power. The role of journalists is that watchdog role."
Charles Lewis, in an interview with Mark Glaser posted June 18, 2008
Profile by Ashley Coulombe
A PBS movement for public foundations and journalism?
The journalistic enterprise he founded takes its name from the goal it seeks – exposing abuse of power. But now, after 15 years running the Center for Public Integrity, Charles Lewis has a new mission – saving independent journalism so that he can continue to light fires that illuminate the dark areas of our democracy.
Mr. Lewis is an investigative journalist at heart. The Delaware native got his start in professional journalism as a sports writer for the Wilmington News Journal while a political science student at the University of Delaware, but can trace his interest in the field back to working on his high-school newspaper where he “caught the bug.”
After graduation, Lewis moved to Washington D.C. to work part-time on Capitol Hill and get his Masters degree from John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. It is there that his immense interest in investigative journalism began – during the Washington Post investigation into the Watergate scandal.
“I was seeing a lot of lies and abuses of power and I was noticing that journalists only got some of it – usually a lot of it they never got. It became apparent to me that, excuse my language, somebody has got to investigate the bastards, whoever they are, fill-in-the-blank under the word bastards,” said Lewis. “It could be Republicans, it could be Democrats, it could be companies, it could be churches, it could be labor unions. It could be anybody that has some power and is abusing it one way or another.”
Lewis even goes so far as to say that investigative reporting “sort of got into my DNA,” and ever since he has been unrelenting in his efforts to help investigative reporting and continue to do the intense work of an investigative journalist.
Following his graduation from John Hopkins in 1977, Lewis entered broadcast journalism as an off-air investigative reporter for ABC News. After picking up stories in over 40 states for ABC, he became senior producer to Mike Wallace on CBS’s 60 Minutes.
Lewis spent five years at 60 Minutes before quitting to start his own nonprofit investigative organization, the Center for Public Integrity.
“I wanted to be in charge and decide what to investigate and who to investigate and what subjects to explore in general,” explained Lewis. “I could do important subjects of our time and not feel constrained by the commercial imperatives of journalism today and frankly for the last few decades.”
Admitting that it was an “unusual thing to do,” Lewis began the Center for Public Integrity in 1989, working as the first employee out of the upstairs bedroom of his home.
While Mr. Lewis may have made a risky move in leaving CBS News to found his own nonprofit, he encourages other journalists to do the same when they are unhappy with the environment they are working in.
“If a journalist is fed up, frustrated with the stories he or she is covering and distrustful of management, get out, and get out now,” Lewis said in a recent interview. “ Find good editors, good bosses, and good circumstances. Life is too short. It might be the best boss is you, yourself. The first step in a divorce is “separation,” realizing that you must move on. The second one is deciding where to land….That is what I did, and with luck, some ideas, and ‘the grace of God,’ it worked. Sometimes, usually even, it doesn’t work. But to try and fail is better than not to try at all – as the saying goes.”
The Center for Public Integrity may have an abnormal name (Lewis mentioned that all of the investigative reporting names were taken), but it has nevertheless grown to be the largest nonprofit investigative reporting group in the world. That superlative, says Lewis, is “more a function of how few there are in the world and how small they are then how big the center is.”
According to the Center’s website at http://www.publicintegrity.org, “The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit organization dedicated to producing original, responsible investigative journalism on issues of public concern. The Center is non-partisan and non-advocacy.” The Center is also “committed to transparent and comprehensive reporting both in the United States and around the world.”
During the 15 years that Lewis was executive director, the center completed over 300 investigative reports, many of which Lewis wrote himself. The reports documented such things as healthcare lobbying during the rollout of the Clinton administration’s healthcare plan in 1994, and the revolving door of unpaid advisors to presidential candidates into to post-election jobs.
Lewis says the Center was the first to “disclose Enron as George W. Bush’s top contributor,” as well determined that Vice President Dick Cheney’s former company, Halliburton, was receiving “2 to 1 more money from taxpayers then any other company.” The Center posted all of the United States war contracts from Iraq and Afghanistan on their website in 2003, and won an Internet Reporting George Polk award for the report titled, “Windfalls of War: U.S. Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
In January, 2006, the center launched "Lobby Watch" a section of its website which covers breaking news and provides data analysis on what the group terms the revolving door between lobbying, Congress and federal agencies. The effort is headed by Alex Knott, a six-year CPI veteran who helped researched the bestselling book, "The Buying of the President, 2004."
One of his proudest moments at the center, Lewis says, was when he was able to get his hands on a 120-page secret draft legislation called the “Patriot II” Act. Despite being told that he and the center would “be very sorry” if they published the legislation, Lewis went ahead and posted the entire act on the center’s website just weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Within one day of posting “Patriot II,” the Center for Public Integrity’s website boasted 15 million hits, with over 350,000 unique visitors, and over 100 news stories worldwide.
Lewis also wrote and co-wrote many books while with the center, the last of which – The Buying of the President 2004 – became a best seller.
Under Lewis’ direction, the center also began the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 1997, which still exists today. The group is made up of 100 investigative reporters in 50 countries who aim to produce “long-term, transnational investigations,” according to the project’s website at http://www.publicintegrity.org/icij. Two years later, he and the Center founded “Global Integrity” to investigate corruption in 50 countries a year.
In 2004, Lewis left the center. He admits that “at the end, I ran out of gas,” one of the reasons he left the organization he founded after 15 years.
Listing off the numerous investigations conducted by the center from 1989 until 2004 – there were over 10,000 news stories about the center vand its findings over that 15-year period – Lewis said the impact the center has had on both independent journalism and American political workings is large.
“I think we showed journalists and citizens that investigative reporting can be done in different ways. We showed that you can use the web and post millions of records and make it searchable for citizens way back in the mid to late ’90s we were doing that. We showed that you could do journalism across borders about the most important issues of our time, combing the best work of the best people. There were some real pioneering things,” said Lewis. “I’d like to think the most important single thing we did was we showed in a non-linear way what is possible in new ways. I do think the center found a new way to present information in a non-advocacy way.”
Although Lewis may have left the Center for good, he didn’t move to far vaway. Upon his departure, he founded The Fund for Independence in Journalism, an “endowment and legal-defense support organization” for the Center for Public Integrity.
In late 2006, Lewis joined the faculty of American University as a distinguished professor of journalism.
The Center was sued in 2003, “one of the biggest libel cases in the last quarter-century,” by Russians in Moscow for their report on Halliburton. In what Lewis describes as a “David versus Goliath legal situation,” he created the Fund to stand behind the Center in it’s legal battle, raising over $4 million and (with help) getting five law firms to defend the organization pro-bono. The lawsuits against the center were all dismissed, and Lewis is now acting President at the Fund, which continues to stand behind the center.
In a letter on why the fund exists on their website at tfij.org, Lewis writes, “Multi-million dollar, multi-year legal manipulation can cripple a news organization's ability to obtain liability insurance, or even to mount a vigorous defense. Such litigation is an effective tool of censorship for anyone with the wealth and will to use the courts to deter public scrutiny.”
The website also goes into further detail about current press intimidation both in the U.S. and abroad, a trend that Lewis sees continuing.
“I think there is substantial evidence of I guess sort of encroachments against journalism itself and an increasing willingness by owners to turn over reporter’s notes when there is litigation, an increasing willingness by news organizations to be accommodating, sometimes, to the government when there is pressure,” said Lewis. “And the question is will that kind of pressure continue with the next administration?” Lewis also discusses the global issues of press intimidation, involving not just censorship through subpoenas and jail, but through murders which generally go unsolved. “We’ve had something like 1,200 journalists murdered around the world in the last 11 years or so – more then two a week are getting killed. So outside the U.S. journalists are just being murdered, there’s no other word for it,” explained Lewis. “The physical assault and intimidation factor is quite serious. Most of the journalists murdered are trying to cover corruption, not wars, and that’s a little known fact that most people don’t realize.”
As the problems of press intimidation continue to worsen, the big question on everyone’s mind is what direction journalism is headed in. In the case of investigative reporting, the field has taken a big hit because of the time and money that needs to be put into investigative stories. Lewis, however, continues to voice his opinion about the importance of investigative reporting despite its high costs.
“The best reporters are usually investigative reporters -- the ones who work on projects for six months, a year, or two years. Who can, when there’s a door closed in their face can go in through the side window or the back door, figuratively speaking, and find the information somehow, someway. That reporting -- that type of reporting -- requires someone who’s experienced and who’s tenacious and preserving and you need the endorsement and the complete 100-percent backing by the owners,” says Lewis.
Investigative and foreign reporting as a whole have taken a hit due to their expenses, and all U.S. newspapers as a whole have been forced to cut staff dramatically over the past few years. U.S. print newspaper circulation has dropped dramatically in favor of the Internet, and Lewis believes that eventually newspapers will be forced to make a full transition to the Internet.
“The real serious problem is in the mid-sized and smaller papers where it’s all ready happened and it’s very serious and you have one reporter trying to cover five subjects and things like that. What’s going to happen, of course, is all these print newspapers will eventually become online,” says Lewis. “Newspaper-ing we hope will continue but it will be online, not the old-fashioned paper version of it. News consumption has been going down for several successive generations and young people don’t read newspapers the way their parents and their parents and their parents used to.”
Lewis may be able to give ideas for all areas of journalism, but it is clear his expertise lies in investigative journalism. He has written many times not only about the future of investigative journalism, but ways in which he believes the field can be saved – specifically through the rise of independent journalism versus corporate journalism. “As the commercial journalism world “transforms” and contracts its newsgathering, something has to give… More thorough democracy, or more information available to citizens about those in power, in government and in corporations, is essential, and it is happening already, or it can technologically and otherwise. We need to know more about the people who control our lives. The decisions the world faces are epic and unprecedented,” said Lewis in the Argentinean interview.
“For example, if the sea level rises 75 feet in the next 20-25 years, as many scientists suggest, because of climate change, that will be a global calamity not seen in thousands of years…governments represent us, the people, and our government officials – everywhere – had better get off of their asses and start responding to the crises which loom larger every hour.”
He has even gone so far as to begin to create what he once called a “Marshall Plan” for independent journalism. “The idea would be to have the philanthropic community throw tens of millions of dollars, hopefully even hundreds of millions of dollars, into journalism realizing how crucial it is as part of democracy itself,” said Lewis of the “Marshall Plan.”
“How you get all of these foundations together to do that is not a simple matter and I may not be the right person to do it. But I do think ... that should occur. That can’t be the only way that non-profit journalism can obtain sustainability, but it could help jumpstart where we are today to another level.”
Lewis may say that he might not be the right one for the job of “saving” journalism, but he does admit that he has many ideas on the subject – he just hasn’t written them all down yet. “I have some thoughts about it but I’ve never quite laid it down on paper or said it specifically,” he said. “Not to be coy it’s just I need to keep thinking it through a bit, so it’s a big proposition.”
Charles Lewis continues to work ambitiously on things like his Marshall Plan, while also maintaining his position as president of the Fund for Independence in Journalism and teaching as a journalist in residence at American University. He’s also working hard on his sixth book, as well as speaking around the world. Lewis has had what he calls “three years of an a la carte menu” after leaving the Center for Public Integrity, and also says he might like to settle down and work on something – he’s just not sure what yet.
“Again, I’m not trying to be coy, but I miss investigating the bastards,” he said. “The pontificating is interesting to me but I’ve got to get back, and I don’t meant the center, but I’ve got to return to what I think I do best - which is lighting a fire.”
(END OF INTERVIEW)
From the Center for Public Integrity website (http://www.publicintegrity.org/about/about.aspx):
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, tax-exempt organization that conducts investigative research and reporting on public policy issues in the United States and around the world. The Center was founded in 1989 by Charles Lewis following a successful 11-year career in network television news. Through thorough, thoughtful and objective analyses, the Center hopes to serve as an honest broker of information – and to inspire a better-informed citizenry to demand a higher level of accountability from its government and elected leaders.
The Center extends its public policy journalism around the world. Created in 1997, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalist network includes 92 leading investigative reporters and editors in 48 countries. The group has collaborated on numerous online and printed reports on corporate crime, arms trafficking, terrorism, U.S. military policy and human rights issues. Global Access, another international project, was launched in 2001 to systematically track and report on openness, accountability and the rule of law in various countries.
Read an article by Charles Lewis, "A Culture of Secrecy," at http://www.publicintegrity.org/ga/report.aspx?aid=649
"The formulaic,infotainment thing was getting a little old for me. I decided that I didn't want anybody telling me what I was going to investigate and that I was going to decide myself what to investigate . . . today we're up to 35 people . . . you have this contracting of ambition about what should be covered and what the public has a right to know about the price of power in Washington and who makes money and who really benefits from the decisions . . . but for some reason, when we cover corporations, it just doesn't get covered. What can I say?"
Charles Lewis, in the 2004 documentary film, "Orwell Rolls in His Grave," by Robert Kane Pappas
: “If a journalist is fed up, frustrated with the stories he or she is covering and distrustful of management, get out, and get out now. Find good editors, good bosses, and good circumstances. Life is too short. It might be the best boss is you, yourself. The first step in a divorce is “separation,” realizing that you must move on. The second one is deciding where to land….That is what I did, and with luck, some ideas, and “the grace of God,” it worked. Sometimes, usually even, it doesn’t work. But to try and fail is better than not to try at all – as the saying goes.”
-- Charles Lewis, in a 2007 interview for Argentine television