25 years, countless investigations and 935 lies

Founder Chuck Lewis tells how the Center for Public Integrity came to be in this excerpt from his new book, 935 Lies

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Weeks after I quit my job as an investigative producer at 60 Minutes, in defiance of the overwhelming advice of many respected people inside and outside of CBS and declining job offers from other TV networks and elsewhere, I decided to begin a nonprofit investigative reporting organization. I knew almost nothing about the nonprofit world, had no management, financial, or fund-raising experience, and also understood the bleak reality that most new ventures fail. Illogically, I hoped that mine would somehow succeed.

I saw an opening for an organization dedicated to digging deep beneath the smarminess of Washington’s daily-access journalism into the actual records and documents few reporters seemed to be reading, which I knew from experience would reveal broad patterns of cronyism, favoritism, personal enrichment, and outrageous (though mostly legal) corruption. My dream was a kind of journalistic utopia—an investigative milieu in which no one would tell me who or what not to investigate and in which the final story would be unfettered by time and space limitations, and untrammeled by the power of corporate or government interests bent on burying the truth.

I recruited two trusted journalist friends, Alejandro Benes and Charles Piller, to serve on the board of directors of this new organization, and with their assent I assumed the roles of board chairman and executive director. In part because the words “investigative reporting” had already been used in the names of other nonprofit organizations (including the Center for Investigative Reporting, in California), we named our new group the Center for Public Integrity.

Although this title sounded a little odd and somewhat pretentious, we had a definite rationale in mind. It seemed to us that on some level, all investigative reporting focuses on affronts to public integrity—violations of the way things ought to be. So our name was intended to emphasize not just the process but the ultimate purpose of investigative journalism: to hold those in power accountable and to inform the public about significant distortions of the truth.

I had no political or ideological agenda. Then and now, as stated on the Center’s website, its mission has been “to serve democracy by revealing abuses of power, corruption and betrayal of public trust by powerful public and private institutions, using the tools of investigative journalism.”

The Center for Public Integrity was incorporated in Washington, D.C., on March 30, 1989, and months later the IRS approved its tax exempt status as a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit educational organization. On October 1, 1989, I began working full-time as the Center’s sole employee, from the guest bedroom of my suburban Virginia home.

The first self-assigned project was a fuller version of my 60 Minutes “Foreign Agent” story, whose partial suppression still stuck in my craw. It became the Center’s first report, “America’s Frontline Trade Officials,” a 201-page study published in December 1990 and presented at a National Press Club news conference covered by C-SPAN, CNN, the ABC News program 20/20, and many other networks. It disclosed that 47 percent of White House trade officials over a fifteen-year period became paid, registered “foreign agent” lobbyists for countries or overseas corporations after they left government—a vivid illustration of the “revolving door” problem that encouraged government officials to develop cozy relationships with the very organizations they were supposed to be monitoring or regulating, in hopes of landing lucrative private-sector jobs after leaving office.

Our report prompted a Justice Department ruling, a General Accounting Office report, a congressional hearing, and it was partly responsible for an executive order issued by President Bill Clinton in January 1993, placing a lifetime ban on foreign lobbying by former White House trade officials. This response was deeply gratifying to me—it showed that our approach of conducting systematic investigations and announcing our findings to the national news media could actually lead to media coverage and to systemic change.

We were starting to be noticed. At the same time, we had assembled an advisory board of distinguished Americans, including Pulitzer Prize–winning historians Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and James MacGregor Burns, Notre Dame president emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh, and veteran journalist Hodding Carter. And by May 1990, the Center had secured enough money from a foundation, some companies, and labor unions, and a consulting contract with ABC News to open its first office in downtown Washington, D.C. (My home was required as collateral on the lease.)

The issue of perceived financial “purity” and the sources from which the Center should accept money has been an important topic at nearly every board meeting since 1989. The Center bends over backward to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest and has never accepted donations from government, political parties, or advocacy organizations. And beginning in 1995, we stopped raising funds from companies and labor unions because of their direct economic interests in influencing public policy. Transparency and accountability have always been core values for us. The Center’s major donors are disclosed online, along with annual reports, IRS 990 disclosure forms for at least the past ten years, and brief bios of every employee.

Our editorial approach reflects an investigative methodology combining prodigious research and reporting, “peeling the onion” by extensively consulting secondary and primary written sources, then interviewing several—sometimes hundreds—of people. Center projects usually take at least a few months from idea to publication, and sometimes they have taken years. The writing and editing, optimally by at least two layers of editors, takes weeks and multiple drafts, and the fact-checking and libel review by outside counsel can also be elaborate and time-consuming. No reporting project is initiated or published without the personal approval of the executive director, who functions essentially as both the executive editor and publisher.

This brand of no-stone-unturned journalism, which has been the hallmark of the Center’s work since its inception, is increasingly rare in for-profit newsrooms, because today’s advertising-supported, major-media journalists are generally expected to run full-speed on “the hamster wheel,” as Dean Starkman so insightfully put it in the Columbia Journalism Review. The advent of the Internet, which makes publication so much easier and faster from a technical standpoint, is a mixed blessing in this regard.

Of course, the Center for Public Integrity has also embraced online distribution, albeit in a different way than commercial news outfits. The Center website went live in 1996, and our first online reports appeared in 1999.

The release of reports on the web and distribution of major works via the nation’s bookstores represented an important change in the amplification and dissemination of the Center’s investigative findings. The Center no longer has to depend solely on coverage by the news media to inform the public about its findings; now the organization is reporting directly to citizens, and if mainstream journalists also deem the work newsworthy, all the better.

The Center’s investigative reports are probably best known for exposing political influence and its impact on public policy decision- making in Washington, D.C., and state capitals.

We like to think that the Center for Public Integrity’s publication of thoughtful, in-depth investigative reporting—and the public’s growing embrace of that work—provides a potent counterweight to some of the disturbing trends unfolding in American media: the rise of the cable TV shout-fests; talk radio’s derisive invective; and the flight to shorter, lighter local and network television news stories, sometimes augmented with cartoonish graphics to make sure the audience actually understands the point of the reporting.

We’ve learned at the Center for Public Integrity that there are in fact large audiences interested in long-form, detailed, public-affairs reporting, be it on domestic subjects or on global issues. In fact, the Center’s forays into international reporting have demonstrated that the dumbing down of the news by media corporations—including the shuttering of numerous overseas news bureaus by American media companies—by no means jibes with the interests of all news consumers.

In October 2003, for example, the Center published “Windfalls of War,” which examined the major US government contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq, definitively revealing Halliburton and its subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown and Root, to be the overwhelmingly largest financial beneficiary of our invasions of those countries.

For six months, twenty researchers, writers, and editors had worked on the project, filing seventy-three Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and even suing the US Army and the State Department (and ultimately winning the release of key, no-bid contract documents). That report, which won the first George Polk online investigative reporting award, was prepared by the Washington staff of the Center’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which I began in 1997 and which is helping to fill the void for aggressive reporting left by the contraction of commercial media.

The idea of investigative reporters working with one another across borders first became a gleam in my eye after an international conference in Moscow in 1992. By 1997, after close consultation with colleagues, including Bill Kovach, then curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, a precise idea had taken shape, and it finally appeared that I would be able to secure sufficient funds. ICIJ was born.

ICIJ is the first working network of some of the world’s preeminent investigative reporters collaborating to produce original international enterprise journalism, its ranks now comprising 175 people in over sixty countries on six continents. Indeed, the ICIJ-generated investigative online content transformed the Center for Public Integrity into “the first global website devoted to international exposés,” according to the Encyclopedia of Journalism.

One mark of an enduring institution is the ability to survive one or more leadership transitions. In 2004, after fifteen years at the helm of the Center for Public Integrity (and having celebrated my fiftieth birthday), I came to the sober realization that at some point, the founder would simply have to leave the building for the long-term health of the enterprise. It was painful for me to watch the ensuing two transition years, but in late 2006, the board of directors chose a fine new executive director. Bill Buzenberg is a veteran journalist who has worked as innovative news executive at newspapers and public radio for more than thirty-five years.

The Center’s work has often had a feisty irreverence, which has excited, amused, or enraged readers, depending on their point of view. Of course, no one at the Center has ever harbored any fantasies about being invited to dinner at the White House, regardless of occupant. Subjects of Center investigations, regardless of ideology or political party, are usually neither pleased nor amused. Indeed, over the years Center reports have generated angry newspaper op-eds, incensed calls to radio programs, and even sneak attacks by public relations people posing as reporters to ask distracting questions at nationally televised Center news conferences. Our advisory board members and donors have been personally pressured, as well.

And yet another occupational hazard of afflicting the powerful with inconvenient truths is that they may decide to sue you.

Weeks after we had published a story about Dick Cheney’s years as the CEO of Halliburton, in August 2000, we found ourselves being sued in U.S. district court in Washington by two Russian billionaire oligarchs represented by the powerful D.C. law firm of Akin Gump Strauss, Hauer, Feld, LLP. Published within days of the Republican National Convention in which Cheney was nominated to be the party’s nominee for vice president of the United States, the story showed that Halliburton had doubled its lobbying, campaign contributions, and federal government contracts/loans during Cheney’s five years as CEO, compared to the five years preceding his tenure there—and that among the apparent beneficiaries of Cheney’s influence-peddling were the powerful owners of one of Russia’s biggest banks.

OAO Alfa Bank v. Center for Public Integrity was one of the largest libel cases brought in the United States in a quarter century. It ultimately entailed five years of discovery, twenty depositions (including my own two-day, videotaped interrogation), and 107,000 pages of documents. To our astonishment, Joel Kaplan, the associate dean of the Syracuse University S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and a former board member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, testified under oath that he had been paid at least $400,000 as an expert witness to help the oligarchs. Even more amazing, it was Kaplan’s tenth libel case as an “expert witness” on behalf of plaintiffs suing journalists.

This David versus Goliath struggle cost each side millions of dollars. My major goal was to shield the Center newsroom and allow our ongoing investigative reporting to be relatively undeterred and undistracted. It worked: during the five-year siege of litigation, we still managed to publish one hundred investigative projects, including four books. The case was finally dismissed in September 2005, upholding the vital principle that public figures cannot prevail in a libel suit against journalists unless they can demonstrate “actual malice” or “reckless disregard” for the truth—an appropriately high standard that clearly exonerated the Center.

Of course, we were delighted that the suit was unsuccessful. But it illuminated the immediate need for an institutional bulkhead protecting the organization from future storms of litigation. To provide such a shield, the Fund for Independence in Journalism, a 509 (a) (3) endowment and legal defense support organization, was created. Initial foundation contributions totaled $4 million, and, in addition, five of the most prestigious law firms in America pledged, on a case-by-case basis, to defend the Center for Public Integrity in any future actions, pro bono.

Journalists and news organizations inevitably make mistakes, and the Center is no different in that regard. The way an organization (or a person, for that matter) stands up, takes responsibility, and perseveres through serious challenges and adversities says as much about its character as its successes and awards.

We once discovered, to our horror, that we had a plagiarist on our staff; he was fired immediately, and after a careful investigation lasting months, we apologized to the public and personally to the individual journalists and their editors who had been victimized. Moreover, very painfully, but appropriately, we returned a prestigious national journalism award for a Center book in which his “unattributed material” unfortunately had been published.

In 2011 and 2012, it became uncomfortably apparent that an extremely ambitious new digital business plan for the Center, including an audacious rebranding as iWatchNews.org, had been wildly unrealistic, causing great internal personnel strife and overall financial hardship. The organization’s board of directors (including yours truly) and its senior staff had succumbed to that familiar bane of many institutions: hubris. But the organization subsequently corrected that misstep and recalibrated its focus on the possible.

Today, in its global editorial reach, the Center for Public Integrity is the largest nonprofit investigative reporting organization in the world. In the United States, its work has been recognized in almost every conceivable way: the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, two George Polk Awards, two Overseas Press Club Awards, a Robert F. Kennedy Award, and a total of more than seventy major journalism awards to date.

The future of truth and accountability can be great if “we, the people” choose to demand it.

This is an excerpt from Charles Lewis's new book 935 Lies: the Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity, reprinted with permission from Charles Lewis and Public Affairs Books. Find out more at www.935lies.com.

Some of the research included in 935 Lies  was published by the Center for Public Integrity in January, 2008.  Iraq: The War Card, a 380,000-word chronology and analysis of the pre-war public rhetoric by leading members of the Bush administration, identified 935 “false statements” about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. 

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