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Center for Public Integrity Leading the Way for Serious Online Journalism

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Fifteen years ago, Charles Lewis left a high-profile job in commercial journalism to found the nonprofit center, which has since won numerous awards -- including the first Polk award for online investigative reporting. We talk to Lewis about the pros and cons of competing online.

By every known standard, Charles Lewis was at the top of his game as an investigative journalist in 1988. He had done investigative reporting for ABC News and was the producer for "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace at CBS. He had received two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Investigative Reporting and was on the top-rated TV newsmagazine.

But Lewis felt stymied because he wasn't doing the long-form investigative work he craved. So he flabbergasted colleagues by quitting the "60 Minutes" gig and starting the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity on a shoestring budget. The center is now one of the most prestigious investigative reporting houses in the U.S., breaking scandal after scandal by focusing like a laser on the minutae around money and politics.

The Washington D.C.-based center brought in and spent roughly $4.3 million in 2003, with more than 90 percent coming from foundations -- and the rest coming from individuals and the sale of publications.

Most recently, Lewis and the center won the first George Polk Award for Internet Reporting for its "Windfalls of War" report on government contracts awarded to companies involved in rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan. The site includes detailed charts and lists of contractors and how much money each has given to the Bush administration.

While the center originally relied on a print newsletter called The Public i to disseminate information, it now has found a global audience with its Web site.

"You can put a report up on the Web and it can make news all over the world in two seconds," Lewis told me. "I think the ease of access and ease of dissemination is just thrilling. I've had 32 press conferences at the National Press Club over the years and it's very cumbersome to try to assemble 30 to 50 journalists in a room. And now we almost do them just for old time's sake."

The center's books, including its most recent best seller "The Buying of the President 2004," have also been popular among a cynical electorate, starving for a true nonpartisan take on presidential politics. While politicians have tried to smear the center, Lewis noted that it uncovered the Lincoln Bedroom scandal during the Clinton years, as well as Bush's oil and energy company connections more recently.

Since 1990, the center's reports or comments have appeared in more than 8,000 news stories. The following is an edited transcript of a phone conversation with Lewis, 50, who now has 40 full-time staffers working for the center, churning out almost more material than the Web site can handle (a redesign is due next month).

OJR: What was your original motivation when you founded the center?

Charles Lewis: I had been in network television for 11 years. My last thing was as a producer for Mike Wallace for "60 Minutes." I think I was getting frustrated at the limitations of television, and actually of daily journalism. I began to feel that the most important issues of our time were not being investigated.

The biggest scandals of our time in the late '80s -- the resignation of the speaker of the house [Jim Wright], the S&L scandal, the defense procurement scandal, the HUD scandal -- the media was not as proactive in the reporting. Most of the reporting at the national level was nonexistent, or secondary. The Iran-Contra scandal was broken in Israel. The S&L was done out in the states -- not in Washington. The HUD scandal came from an inspector general's report.

So the state of investigative reporting seemed utterly dismal to me. It's a complex mosaic when you leave one of the most successful, best-paying jobs in journalism and you walk away cold turkey and you've just turned 35. On its face it's utterly absurd, and some people thought I was having a nervous breakdown. I wasn't, but it was peculiar by any standard.

I had an idea of starting something in a nonprofit way, an attempt at journalistic utopia where I could investigate to my heart's content and didn't have to worry about ratings, and shooting people tight and victims crying on camera and all the things I was having to worry about, including the powers that be. I just had had it.

OJR: What were your challenges early on?

CL: Multiple challenges. One is what the hell are you doing? [laughs] How are you doing it? How are you disseminating it? You don't have a newspaper or TV show so how exactly will people know about it. There were huge logistical matters to resolve. Obviously one of them was money. Who's going to fund this? I had to find a coalition of folks that supported this kind of research.

And I decided I would issue reports and release them to the National Press Club. This was in the pre-Internet stage of things. It was incorporated March 30, 1989, and I began my first full-time day trying to do this on October 1, 1989, and I've been here ever since as executive director, starting from my house and three offices in downtown Washington, including our current place here two blocks from the White House.

So where does the money come from? We don't take money from labor unions now, but in the early days we did. I came to realize it would ultimately cause more problems than it was worth because we were investigating the powers that be in politics and they were all getting money from these people. I took a loan out on my house, and had to sign a lease for $60,000 when I had $2,000 in the center's checking account. Our first intern had to sit on a window sill for a week because I had enough for the rent but not for any furniture. It was a very brick-by-brick, white-knuckle affair in the early going.

OJR: What was the first thing that put you on the map?

CL: Our first report was widely covered. We had 35 or 40 people at a news conference -- 'we' would be me and some interns. We looked at a revolving door of White House trade officials going to work for foreign governments and foreign corporations, and "20/20" did a show, a 20-minute segment about it. C-SPAN covered it, CNN covered it. The wires moved on it. It was a big story in Japan and the U.S.

It showed that you could hold a news conference, you could release a report -- we found that half the White House trade officials in 20 years had gone to work for foreign governments and companies, and that was an astonishing fact. The model was proven, fortunately, because I'm not sure how much longer we could have worked because it was a precarious enterprise. But the first report out of the box was a pretty big success.

In '94, our report was on lobbying around Clinton's health care legislation, with 17 researchers working for a year, tracking 660 groups trying to influence health care. In '96, we broke the Lincoln Bedroom scandal with Clinton and the overnight stays, and we did the story on [Commerce Secretary] Ron Brown and party chairmen having conflicts of interest. We did a [Pat] Buchanan story about him helping white supremicists and militia groups develop militia capabilities.

And "The Buying of the President" book, the first one, came out [in 1996]. There were benchmark times when our profile kept getting higher over time. The Nexis hits began to rise, the number of reports began to rise, the funding began to rise.

OJR: How do you decide which subjects to take on? Are they things you personally wanted to look at?

CL: The Washington Post once asked me that, and I gave a long rambling answer. And they said, 'In other words, you just follow your gut?' And I said, 'Yeah.' The essential ingredients are: Can we do it? We're capable. We once took all the Army's biological research for a year and someone gave us a bunch of boxes of all that research and we studied what the Army had done for one full year and I had two investigative reporters who were science writers and experts.

There are some subjects that are just too much for us, would take too long and would be too expensive. There's a combination: Has anyone done it, have they done it recently, did they do it well? Is the world going to be a better place if we do it? Is it a small-d democracy issue that needs to be looked at? But it all came down to: Should we do this, is it important? An awful lot of it in the first 10 years, and even now, still comes down to the gut. A lot of our reports are seat of the pants, idiosyncratic, getting lucky or having an impulse.

OJR: What about the people who are funding you? Do they ever come to you with ideas?

CL: Well, we're pitching hard to them. To be honest, you've got to knock doors down more than you ever did as a reporter to get money. It's a really tough thing to do. I've raised close to $30 million in all of 15 years and there are hardly any times when a funder says, 'Oh, I love you, and if we give you a million dollars could you investigate X?' It's not quite that straightforward.

Investigative reporting is not supported by media foundations, except for one in the entire country. The kind of work the center does is funded by groups interested in human rights, or the environment, or interested in democracy or accountability issues. Looking at subjects we care about and framing them in the context that the funders look at the world -- and that's difficult because they change their view of the world every few years.

We have the proverbial Chinese wall, where no funder sees our reports before the public sees them. We identify the funders publicly, which is an important transparency issue.

OJR: Tell me about the genesis of your Web site and how it's grown in importance.

CL: What's happened is what's happened with everyone with the Web. The more the world has gotten used to the Web and its potential, the more we use it and the more we grow the range of what we're able to do. It started as a primitive, basic site when "The Buying of the President" in '96 came out. We started putting stuff up on our site in a basic fashion, who works here and funding information.

It was not until 1999 that all of our investigative reports were electronic on our Web site. Most of our reports -- the first nine or 10 years -- were paper reports. I think we issued our first big national report about the state of conflict of interest laws at state legislatures in a report in the spring of '99, and the following year we won the IRE investigative journalism prize online for listing all the financial disclosure forms for every state legislator in America. We released it in embargoed fashion to scores of reporters nationwide, who were able to sort of dine off this feast of data for days and days prior to public release -- all of them knowing there was an embargo to this date.

Meanwhile, we started an International Consortium of Investigative Journalists [ICIJ]. It's the only working network of investigative reporters across borders, started in '97. We began to develop an encryption technology, firewalls and systems for perserving their privacy and enabling the movement of thousands of pages of records securely throughout the world to these journalists as needed.

In 2002, we did a streaming audio thing, where [Leonid] Kuchma, the head of the Ukraine, was sending sensitive technology to Saddam Hussein in Iraq -- a violation of U.N. sanctions -- and we posted the report on the Web. The audiotape in Ukrainian was translated into English, and within weeks the U.S. had suspended aid and the UN began an investigation. There was a criminal probe of the president of the Ukraine all from our Web story. And we began to see the capabilities of multimedia online.

That same year we posted all the Harken Energy documents when the White House was in the midst of the Enron crisis and the Enron business scandal. And the president said as a businessman he had exercised responsibility. The critics said, 'That's not true.' And the only documents that anyone had in the country we had from a Freedom of Information Act request from "The Buying of the President 2000" book. We posted a thousand pages of primary internal Harken documents on the Web, which caught the imagination of a lot of journalists -- there were about 150 stories all over the world.

Last year was really a breakthrough. We posted the Patriot Act II, the secret legislation the Ashcroft Justice Department was quietly developing -- without telling even Republicans in the Congress. We listed all the contracts from Iraq in October, from 73 Freedom of Information Act requests. We did a database of media ownership, where anyone can enter their ZIP code and find out who owns the media within 40 miles of your house.

We really started integrating our tech side, our databases, with the narrative texts, which we had been doing since 1990. But it really came together last year, in terms of all the capabilities emerging on the Web. We did 40 investigative reports last year, which is about 35 more than most newspapers. It's a massive amount of output, arguably too much. But the amount of traffic, and the amount of resonance was almost off the charts for us.

OJR: You just got the Polk award, which is the first time they've given the award for Internet work.

CL: It is. We were never eligible for the Polk before this year. We have been honored about 22 times over the past seven years. We have won book and online awards for many years, but this is our first Polk. The project ["Windfalls of War"] was important because of the topicality. Everyone was talking about Halliburton, and we had done three other reports on Halliburton. We have been one of the journalistic leaders in investigating that company going back to when [Vice President Dick] Cheney was named to the ticket in August 2000.

There was all this mystery and discussion about sole-source contracts, money and ties to Cheney, but no one really knew who was getting the money. It's a thankless task. Who really wants to file 73 Freedom of Information Act requests, or devote 20 people to any task in any newsroom in America? It's topical because the whole world wanted to know. It was a global story.

OJR: Do you consider yourselves online journalists or more than that?

CL: Everyone here sees themselves as investigative reporters first and foremost and our principal medium is clearly online. However, we currently have a book, "The Buying of the President 2004," that's been a best seller for the past few weeks. So we do things that don't manifest themselves online directly. I would like to think that we've done more investigative reporting about corruption and political influence than probably anyone in the U.S. in the last 14 years. We've done 250 reports and 12 books.

We have about nine or 10 active databases. We have the only database in the country on these 527 political organizations; we have a database on money going to state parties. We have all the financial disclosures, lobbying records, and gifts and trips for state legislators throughout the nation. We have all kinds of data sets in addition to our reports. So we're using the Web not just with out reports but with our data sets. We have some astonishingly talented people working here, many of whom I have no idea what they do. [laughs] Seriously, I feel like I have several Stephen Hawkings down the hall here.

Our site is undergoing a fairly massive redesign which will be unveiled next month. We're concerned about the simplicity factor. We have so many departments and so many sections. We're trying to streamline and simplify for the public.

OJR: Why do you think so few media outlets are doing investigative work online -- especially the larger media organizations?

CL: I think the way that they have constructed their online operations are as wallpaper. So they'll throw in some nice graphics that augment a story, or they'll do a chat with a reporter. In fairness to newspapers, they have some time and space limitations that also translate to money. They're already not sure that online works, honestly.

They've invested millions of dollars in it. But for most papers it's a smaller version of their regular paper online. And that by itself was an ambitious project. No one has the stamina or energy or physical and mental capacity to also take on an investigative unit in addition to everything else they're doing. It takes money, it takes time, it introduces risk and risk management.

OJR: What are some of the negatives and positives about disseminating your work online?

CL: The positive is that you can put a report up on the Web and it can make news all over the world in two seconds. It's very thrilling. To put information out on the Patriot Act II, and have groups link to you within minutes, and have the Justice Department issue a statement within minutes, and have hundreds of thousands of visitors come to your site in a matter of hours is pretty heavy stuff.

I think the ease of access and ease of dissemination is just thrilling. I've had 32 press conferences at the National Press Club over the years and it's very cumbersome to try to assemble 30 to 50 journalists in a room, it takes days and days of preparation to get them primed and ready. And now we almost do them just for old time's sake. There's no real need to have a news conference, per se. The good news is for a relatively little operation -- 40 people -- we can be nimble and be quick and occasionally kick the big guys' ass because we can move faster than anyone else in the area that we're experts with -- government integrity issues.

I haven't found too many downsides to the online medium. I wish there are things that would develop faster, that you could do broadband streaming more efficiently. Some of the costs are starting to get important as a consideration. But stay tuned, in terms of what we're doing, because we have some very ambitious ideas. We're only getting warmed up.

 

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Related Links
Center for Public Integrity
Center for Public Integrity's Windfalls of War
Center for Public Integrity: Justice Dept. Drafts Sweeping Expansion of Anti-Terrorism Act
Fat Cat Hotel
Funders for the Center for Public Integrity
George Polk Awards for 2003
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
McCormick Tribune Foundation
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Charles Lewis:
"Everyone here sees
themselves as
investigative reporters
first and foremost,
and our principal
medium is clearly
online."

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