Chuck Lewis, founder of The Center for Public Integrity, weighs in on the shortcomings and successes of investigative journalism.
Lewis has built his career on watchdog journalism, or as he describes it, “investigating the bastards.”
“There is nothing more heartening, or more encouraging, or more inspiring than seeing when the truth come to light despite enormous odds,” he said in a Google Hangout with Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). “There’s no more noble calling in my view.”
Lewis is an award-winning investigative journalist, a tenured professor at American University School of Communication in Washington, and a best-selling author. In 1988, he made a dramatic departure from a successful career as a producer for CBS News Program 60 Minutes after one of his stories was censored.
“I felt in the commercial realm that I didn’t have enough time to do my investigations, and some of the things I wanted to do, they didn’t want to do, so I got frustrated and quit,” he said.
The next day he founded the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity (CPI) from his home. Under Lewis’ leadership, from 1989 to 2004, CPI published about 300 investigative reports and was honored more than 30 times by national journalism organizations.
These successes did not come without pushback. Lewis said he has faced lawsuits, death threats and smear campaigns due to his reporting, but he remains relentless.
“If you’re getting people that angry at you, you must be doing something right,” he said.
While on a visit to the University of Missouri-Columbia to accept the prestigious Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism, Lewis spoke to aspiring journalists about the importance and the need for investigative reporting.
Issues of deception: Where are the journalists?
Transcription: "What I wanted to talk about is, after 25-27 years of working at the two networks and the Center for Public Integrity, I stepped down from the center at the end of 2004 and decided to write a book which will come out next year. I was fascinated by what had happened in the U.S. during the Iraq war and in particular what had happened to information, and sorry to say, because it’s a hard subject, truth. And I didn’t know where it was going anymore. Why? Because we all know too well there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And in early 2005 more than a year after the invasion of Iraq, 60 percent of the public still thought there were weapons of mass destruction, WMD in Iraq.
And I’m thinking to myself: 'So you’re a journalist but information doesn’t matter anymore. This is a problem.’ So instead of going to a shrink, I decided, it would be useful to go deep and to understand what had happened with deception by those in government and corporate power, private sector as well going back in the past century, 75 years. Being anal retentive, I felt the need to broaden it and put it into perspective. The reason I mention it is, normally this would be enough masochism for someone but apparently not for me, so really I should probably go to a shrink. What I did then was over the last 8 or 9 years, I’m losing track of time, I actually went and studied deception by those in power, as I said going back 75 years, and I wanted to see what the patterns were. And I call it the most morally consequential deception, that is to say that most people died from it.
The book that will come out next year has charts that have the deception. It has the epiphany when did the public find out it wasn’t true, and oh by the way, where were the journalists? Who broke it first? Where were they? Were they the locomotive in front of the train, or were they the caboose at the back of the train? Well interesting, because it varies but the surprise was that the almost always, this was the so called good ole days of journalism, the golden era, the second golden age from 1950 to the mid 70s including Watergate and other periods. I wanted to see, again, where were they on these issues. Well, most of the issues the media was reactive, not proactive. Most of the cases, the journalists for the most part, were not on the front end.”
Proud moments in U.S. journalism
Transcription: “I decided it would be very very useful to really visit closely the preeminent moments, the most proud moments in U.S. journalism. which I’ve always been proud to be associated with just the after glow. I worked for Karl Bernstein when I was in my 20s after Watergate at ABC news. I’ve known many of these iconic journalists for many years. But anyway, so what I did was, to cut to the chase again, this is nutty I realize. I raised 4 or 5 hundred of thousand dollars and this was back when high def people actually said high def of course I know it’s all the time now. And we got George Lucas’s high def the best naturally most expensive we could find, just kidding but it was very expensive, two crews, $6,000 a day and we interviewed, or I interviewed 23 at that time, we have since added to, great journalists.
I urge all of you in here to look at this stuff. It’s investigatingpower.org. Unlike the blasphemy, I’ve just uttered about journalism in the past half century or 75 years. They may not want me to come to the dinner tonight, just kidding. This is the other side. It celebrates the iconic, special, truth to power moments in contemporary U.S. history sine 1950. Usually the history of journalism, is, you know, shall we say… a little dry sometimes? So what I did was moments of truth. And I looked at moments of truth where the U.S. was at a very critical moment in its own history and journalists actually did an astonishing thing and provided, illuminated information that was invaluable to the public.”
Moments of Truth:
- Civil Rights
- Vietnam War
- Post 9/1
- Corporate Power
Transcription: “Great journalism matters. It takes time, it costs money and the greatest journalism in the last half-century to 70 years was done in that manner. And at this time in history, it did not involve apps. It did not involve the web, it did not involve any data. It involved shoe leather, guts and reporters in danger etc. etc. But it doesn’t mean those new things are not interesting and I’m happy to talk about them. I’m just pointing out that we still need humans, just kidding, to do this work. Journalists who want to do this kind of long form work, realize they are maybe not gonna do it if they are posting five stories a day and tweeting. I’m not against that, I think it’s wonderful but the deep stuff, you’re not going to do it that way.”
Question on President Barack Obama and restrictions of press freedoms
Question on Edward Snowden and government surveillance in the United States
Question on the future of investigative journalism
Question on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange
Question on how non-profits deal with threats of litigation