Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 2000
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Corruption. Cronyism. Greed. Whatever the "dirt" tarnishing government and Big Business, says Charles Lewis, it's time the public learns the truth.
C O V E R    S T O R Y

An "i" Toward
Tough Journalism

By Dale Keiger
Illustration by Bill Cigliano

Two months ago, presidential candidate George W. Bush declared, in a moment of unintentionally amplified candor, that he thought of a New York Times reporter in the unflattering terms of a bodily orifice. His running mate, Dick Cheney, was heard to concur. There's no such explicit confirmation of what the Republican ticket thinks about Charles Lewis, but one suspects their opinion of him might be unflattering as well.

Lewis (SAIS '77) is founder and director of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., which publishes The Public i, a muckraking print and electronic journal that in August ran a story about Cheney and his company, Halliburton, titled "Cheney Led Halliburton to Feast at Federal Trough," and subtitled "State Department Questioned Deal With Firm Linked to Russian Mob." The subject of the story was the $3.8 billion in federal contracts and taxpayer-insured loans that, according to The Public i, Halliburton Company had received while Cheney was its CEO. The piece, written by investigative reporters Knut Royce and Nathaniel Heller, referred to Halliburton as a "corporate welfare hog," noting the contradiction between Cheney's espoused views opposing big government and the avidity with which Halliburton benefited from big government's largesse. The article went on to divulge details of a loan from the U.S. Export-Import Bank that guaranteed $489 million in credits to a Russian oil company, say Royce and Heller, "whose roots are imbedded in a legacy of KGB and Communist Party corruption, as well as drug trafficking and organized crime funds." Halliburton, the article notes, lobbied for approval of the loan--which the U.S. State Department initially opposed--and was set to receive $292 million of the money to refurbish a Siberian oil field.

"In no small irony," the story concluded, "the official Bush web site, recently revamped to accommodate the addition of Cheney to the ticket, notes in the 'Foreign Policy' section that the duo supports 'redirecting American assistance, investment and loans to the Russian people, not to the bank accounts of corrupt officials.'"

Charles Lewis smiles at the suggestion that Cheney might not invite him to have a friendly beer anytime soon. Says Lewis, "We piss people off on a weekly basis."

Lewis, who just turned 47, founded the Center for Public Integrity in 1989, but he thinks of it as being 10 years old because it first made noise in late 1990. The CPI is a non-profit corporation that produces a brand of detailed, exhaustive investigative reporting rarely practiced elsewhere. Political analyst and National Public Radio commentator Kevin Phillips has said of it, "No other investigative organization shines so many probing flashlights into so many Washington dirty-laundry baskets." The MacArthur Foundation recognized Lewis's work in 1998 when it awarded him one of its prestigious fellowships.

Lewis is a former producer for 60 Minutes who in the late 1980s became disenchanted by what he considered the sorry state of American investigative reporting and the sorrier state of American government--so disenchanted that he left one of the best jobs in broadcast journalism and began working a series of 100-hour weeks as he learned how to create a non-profit organization that has gone on to produce some of the most provocative reporting on government of the last decade.

Remember the Lincoln bedroom scandal, when the public learned of the Clinton administration rewarding major donors with a night in the White House's most famous bedchamber? The Center for Public Integrity broke the story. When Republican senator John McCain made his recent startling run at his party's presidential nomination on a platform of campaign finance reform, it was the CPI that documented the favors McCain had arranged for special interests that had been generous to his Senate campaigns. Recently, a consortium of international investigative journalists sponsored by the CPI reported corruption by an international tobacco conglomerate.

The central irony to Lewis's story is that he now skewers what once he wanted to become. He'd been president of Newark (DE) High School's junior class, president of student government as a senior, and after undergraduate studies in political science at the University of Delaware, he says, "I was going to law school and then go into politics. Then I read an article in Newsweek about thousands of bodies piled up in Chile." The story, about the aftermath of the U.S.-backed coup that toppled the government of Salvador Allende, galvanized Lewis. He wrote a 200-page thesis at Delaware on the American destabilization of the Allende government, for which he interviewed investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who had reported on U.S. activity in Chile, and Orlando Letelier, the dissident Chilean foreign minister who was assassinated by car bomb 18 months later in Washington, D.C. As Lewis realized how much he liked ferreting out information and writing about what he'd learned, law school lost its appeal. Instead, he enrolled at Hopkins's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, for more opportunities to study situations like Chile.

Cherubic? Hardly, say colleagues, who call Lewis a "very tough guy" underneath.

After SAIS, Lewis landed a job at ABC News as a reportorial producer. That made him, he says, an off-the-air investigative reporter: "My on-the-air alias was frequently 'ABC News has learned....'" From there, he moved on to become a producer for Mike Wallace at 60 Minutes on CBS. He produced stories on the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s, securities fraud, and former U.S. officials working as lobbyists for foreign governments. Two of his stories were nominated for Emmys. But after a decade on the job, he recalls, "the whole theatrical aspect of TV was getting on my nerves. If you didn't have people crying, your piece was deficient."

Lewis also came to believe that the network, once so tough in dealing with the powerful, had gone soft on big corporations and major politicians: "There was just not much in the way of tenacious investigative reporting."

Finally, his restiveness got the better of him. He left 60 Minutes. "People don't usually quit that show," he says. "They're usually fired or they die." He was 35 years old, with a mortgage, a wife, a daughter, no savings, and no firm plan for what to do next. "Mike Wallace thought I was having a breakdown. He called my wife."

In the course of his television work, Lewis had met journalists Charles Piller and Alejandro Benes. Piller had been working on some magazine pieces about the U.S. government's biological warfare program. Benes had covered Latin America for ABC. All three were dissatisfied with what the established news organizations were doing as investigative journalism. By the late 1980s, longtime Washington observers were telling Lewis that they'd never seen such pervasive corruption in politics and government; yet the press, in Lewis's view, had ceased to be aggressively inquisitive. He notes that neither the Iran-Contra scandal nor the savings and loan debacle of the 1980s was a story broken by the press. Major publications and broadcast news departments were devoting less and less time, money, and space to the sort of investigative reporting that had made Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post pop culture icons for their Watergate reporting.

Lewis, Piller, and Benes began discussing how to do "pure investigation," as Lewis puts it, where "you're not taking any shortcuts, and you do want to find the truth--without blinders and without time or space limitations."

They wanted an organization not beholden to advertisers, nor constrained by corporate ownership that demanded high profits (investigative reporting can be expensive, and can lead to stories that are contrary to the parent company's interests), nor regulated by the same government it would be investigating (a conflict inherent in broadcast journalism).

Their solution was a non-profit corporation. None of them knew how to create one. They learned as they went along. In 1989, they incorporated and recruited an advisory board of prominent names, including two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Arthur Schlesinger Jr., pundit Hodding Carter, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. They settled on a name, which Lewis smiles about today. "I was almost embarrassed to name it the Center for Public Integrity," he says. "That's like naming it the Center for Apple Pie. Who's against public integrity?"

Lewis began by working out of his house but soon realized that CPI needed offices to be taken seriously. "I had $2,000 in the bank and the lease on the office was $60,000, so I put up my house as collateral," Lewis recalls. "My first employee worked at a card table. My first intern spent his first week sitting on a windowsill. Fortunately, it was a wide windowsill."

Lewis looked for money from corporations, labor unions, foundations. His task was complicated by a long list of corporations from which he would not accept funds, and the center's goal of not being an advocate. "We couldn't say to a potential donor, 'Give us money and we'll oppose human rights abuses in East Timor.'" He secured a consulting contract with ABC News; that provided some income. He persuaded the Mary Reynolds Babcock Fund and corporations such as Intel, W. R. Grace, DuPont, and Milliken and Co. to contribute, as well as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The money came in small lots, $1,000 here, $5,000 there. Piller, who currently is chairman of the CPI's board of directors, worried about money coming from corporations and unions: "We differed on whom to take money from and how to limit our exposure to criticism of apparent conflicts of interest--the very criticism we routinely level against powerful figures in government." Lewis says, "No one wanted to take money from companies and labor unions, but once we all realized there was no other way to exist initially, we all supported the policy of accepting that money."

Among the stories "broken" by the Center for Public Integrity...
America's Frontline Trade Officials-- Study shows how 47 percent of White House trade officials from 1974 to 1990 went on to represent trade interests of foreign companies and governments. Covered by CNN, C-SPAN, and 20/20.

Saving for a Rainy Day: How Congress Turns Leftover Campaign Cash into "Golden Parachutes"-- Report, updated in 1994, describes how cumulatively, since 1979, 112 former members of Congress converted over $10 million in leftover campaign funds to personal use.

Under Fire: U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf-- Study concludes the Pentagon "has tried to hide the true face of war by controlling the images of the conflict, frequently with the cooperation of the media."

Biohazard: How the Pentagon's Biological Warfare Research Program Defeats Its Own Goals-- Among the serious problems cited by the center: low productivity, poorly conceived research, lack of peer review, absence of coherent policy.

Steve Forbes and the Flat Tax-- Public i report shows that the flat tax strongly supported by presidential candidate Steve Forbes would cut his own annual tax liability in half. Report gets major coverage, especially in New Hampshire before the first primary.

Fat Cat Hotel: How Democratic High-Rollers Are Rewarded with Overnight Stays at the White House-- Report by Margaret Ebrahim that breaks the "Lincoln Bedroom" story.

Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law, and Endangers Your Health-- A book that is the product of a three-year investigation into the federal government's regulation of toxic chemicals.

In the Unlikely Event...The Politics of Airline Safety-- Study finds Congress sometimes more responsive to interests of airline industry than the public interest.

Animal Underworld: Inside America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species-- Book by Alan Green and CPI; leads to segment on NBC's Dateline and is voted best investigative book in U.S. by Investigative Reporters and Editors.

If it were to attract sustaining financial support, the center needed a journalistic coup to put it on the media map, and Lewis returned to an issue he'd worked on for 60 Minutes. In December 1990 at the National Press Club, he released America's Frontline Trade Officials, a study that revealed that 47 percent of all senior White House trade officials from 1974 to 1990 had gone on to represent the trade interests of foreign companies and governments in a revolving door of cronyism and foreign influence. Lewis didn't advocate solutions to the problem, but just laid out the data for the assembled reporters. C-SPAN, CNN, ABC News, and several major publications reported the center's findings. Lewis and the CPI were off and running.

The center began accumulating staff and editorial interns, and attracting attention with three or four studies a year: on how 112 former members of Congress had converted more than $10 million in leftover campaign funds for personal use; on the U.S. military's press restrictions during the invasion of Grenada and the Persian Gulf War; on the conflicts of interest of national political party chairmen. Bob Woodward of the Washington Post cited the CPI report on political party chairmen. A story authored by Lewis and reporter Margaret Ebrahim on insider lobbying for and against NAFTA landed on the cover of The Nation. As the center attracted more attention, funding picked up--from less than $200,000 in 1990 to more than $1 million in 1996.

The center released its watershed project in 1996: a book titled The Buying of the President, edited by Benes. Lewis and the center's staff combed through campaign finance documents and assembled a systematic examination of the "career patrons" of every presidential candidate--those who had supported with cash each candidate's political career, and the candidates' records of voting for measures that favored those patrons. The New York Times syndicated parts of the study, and it formed the basis of a PBS documentary, "So You Want to Buy a President?" Major publications began routinely citing, and sometimes publishing verbatim, the center's work.

The influence of money in politics has become the CPI's franchise. In the last four years, it has published, by Lewis's estimate, more than 400,000 words on the subject, including The Buying of the President (1996), The Buying of the Congress (1998), and The Buying of the President 2000. It has documented the pervasive conflicts of interest among the members of all 50 state legislatures. It has investigated the lax regulation of pesticides, shortcomings in government oversight of airline safety, and how the chemical industry influences government control of toxic substances. Its last four books have been honored by Investigative Reporters and Editors as among the best investigative books in the U.S.

The center now has 35 full-time employees, and anticipates more than $3 million in operating funds for 2000. More than 5,000 subscribers pay $35 a year to receive The Public i and be members of the center. And its reporting steadily finds its way onto the pages of most major American newspapers and news magazines. Says Lewis, "We're giving content to people desperate for content. We're the cost-efficient way to investigate a subject."

Seymour Hersh, the famous investigative reporter who now is published primarily by The New Yorker, says, "Frankly, it's a little embarrassing that these guys find so many topics to do and can generate so much news. What the hell is everybody else doing in Washington?"

Lewis took last August off, sort of. He had just had a new baby, Gabriel, with his second wife, Pamela Gilbert, who is executive director of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. (He has a 22-year-old daughter, Cassie, from his first marriage.) He had promised his wife he would stay home for a month to help. During the hours he spent discussing the center with a reporter, his phone rang repeatedly and his printer churned out work he'd been doing at the home computer. On the walls of his Alexandria, Virginia, townhouse were prints by Picasso and Manet, and a portrait of Nelson Mandela. As he responded to questions, a CD player ran through a rotation of recordings that included Santana and Supertramp.

Lewis has a mild manner. Hersh, who has spoken to the CPI's interns but has no ties to the center, says wryly, "I love his cherubic look. That's very deceptive, which to me is cool, because he's a killer. He's a very tough guy. And he's really competent."

When Lewis answers a question, the answer commonly turns into a lengthy story. Some of his most-used phrases are, That was a long story, but... The reason I'm telling you all of this... and But to get back to your question... When he's about to sing the center's praises, he often prefaces his remarks with, I don't mean to sound like a jerk, but.... And talk to him long about politics and you'll hear, It gets my blood boiling.

For 10 years, the center has had no shortage of material to boil one's blood, publishing more than 60 reports and books, many of them authored or coauthored by Lewis. The CPI selects topics that he believes are too complicated, expensive, and time-consuming for the mainstream press to take on. "Most news organizations don't do investigative reporting because it's an expensive pain in the ass," Lewis says. The state legislatures project cost the center $500,000 and took 10 people around 18 months to produce. The Buying of the Congress, published in 1998, combined the labors of 36 reporters, researchers, and writers. Alan Green, author of Animal Underworld: Inside America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species, had to travel through 40 states to report his book.

Much of the CPI's work, done by a combination of staff, interns, and freelance journalists under contract, involves the exhaustive examination of public disclosure forms, government reports, and campaign finance disclosures. "We read a lot of stuff that nobody else wants to read," Lewis says. "We're kind of nutty that way." For the center's 50 States Project, researchers combed every financial disclosure form for every legislator in all 47 states that require disclosure. They fact-checked every statement, gathered data in the three remaining states, and assembled a database. Then they began mining the data to point out the conflicts pervasive in state governments. They found that in 1998 in the Maryland Statehouse, for example, 28 percent of legislators sat on committees that regulated businesses in which they had a private stake.

Why wouldn't a major newspaper tackle such a project? Says Lewis, "Newspapers and television do investigative reporting, and they employ terrific investigative journalists. But most news organizations are timid about multiple-day stories for fear they will appear to be crusading, or off on a tangent, and one-day stories usually have no impact. Policy-makers know they can endure a hit if it is only one day."

The CPI's managing director, investigative reporter Peter Eisner, says, "The way the media has changed has made the news a form of entertainment. That has accelerated beyond all proportion with more takeovers and the consolidation of newspapers and networks. Serious journalism immediately and progressively has been crowded out."

Eisner, a former Newsday journalist, adds, "I find the center to be an oasis for the type of work I didn't expect to do anymore."

As the center's reputation grew, Lewis found himself invited to speak to investigative reporters in other nations. Many of them asked him to start branches of the center in their countries. "I didn't want to franchise the CPI like McDonald's," Lewis says. "But I thought, 'I don't need to, with the Internet. What if you could assemble an all-star team of the greatest investigative reporters on Earth, and utilize them on a contract basis, and utilize all these technologies like encryption and modems?'"

Which is what Lewis and Maud Beelman did. Beelman, who had been an Associated Press reporter for 14 years, signed on with Lewis in 1997 to take the center international.

The center's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists now has 76 members, all investigative reporters, in 41 countries: 12 in Africa, 20 in Asia (and Australia), 18 in Europe, 14 in Latin America, and 12 in North America. Sixty-four are print reporters, seven broadcast, five both. The average age is 40 to 50, with 20 years in the business. They are reporters who, in Beelman's words, have "been sued, won awards, been kidnapped, been thrown out of countries." The CPI frames a project, then enlists ICIJ members, who through the Internet work across borders with colleagues in other countries to conduct investigations in different places on the globe simultaneously. Says Lewis, "We want to produce the most important investigative stories internationally that have ever been done."

The first major ICIJ project began in January 1999 when members began to probe the global tobacco business. Two months into the project, Beelman heard an intriguing story: If you compared annual global cigarette exports to global imports, one-third of all cigarettes manufactured could not be accounted for. One-third is a lot of lost inventory, and ICIJ reporters in Britain, Colombia, and Washington, D.C. began working this angle of the story. A repository of tobacco industry documents in England began yielding details, and reporters spent six months poring over 11,000 pages of material, communicating and sharing documents via encrypted e-mail. They reached a startling conclusion: British American Tobacco (BAT), the world's second-largest tobacco company (Brown & Williamson is a U.S. subsidiary), "for decades secretly encouraged tax evasion and cigarette smuggling in a global effort to secure market share and lure generations of new smokers."

The ICIJ report continued: "Contrary to tobacco companies' long-standing claims that cigarette smuggling is the work of organized crime or rogue employees beyond their control, the files show that senior personnel of the parent company and its subsidiaries sought to control and exploit smuggling as part of a worldwide marketing strategy to increase revenue. [The] documents clearly show that BAT and its subsidiaries did attempt to control the distribution chain all the way to the final customer. The story was published online by the CPI, and by more than 40 publications in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, the U.S., Britain, and Australia.

Beelman says the ICIJ now has turned its attention to U.S. military involvement in Latin America. A Colombian reporter and ICIJ member, Ignacio G�mez, has worked on stories concerning the growing role of the U.S. military in the Colombian civil war; he recently had to flee Colombia after receiving death threats, and is now a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Beelman also hints at some mysterious project involving Africa, Asia, and South America, and their security and military situations, but she won't divulge details.

Information technology and the Internet have made the ICIJ possible. Beelman wants more technology, stuff that hasn't become operational yet. She says, "The single biggest thing that holds us back is the need to transact business in English." She can't wait for solid computer translation capabilities. She'd also like to have encrypted Internet chat capability, so that her reporters could conduct secure real-time conversations via keyboardon the Internet.

For the center to do what it does requires a steady stream of funds. The money that the CPI initially accepted from corporations and labor unions has not gone unnoticed by critics. Writing in the conservative political journal The Weekly Standard, Tucker Carlson went after Lewis for an article published in 1993 in The Nation, in which Lewis criticized the impending NAFTA trade agreement. Carlson noted that among the labor unions lobbying hard against NAFTA, four had donated $17,500 to the CPI during the year Lewis's Nation piece appeared, and that unions of all kinds had contributed more than $200,000 to the center during its first five years. Carlson also pointed out that the textile maker Milliken and Co., another staunch NAFTA opponent, had given the center $150,000.

Lewis concedes, "We're the Center for Public Integrity. The bar is higher for us." He then adds, "We don't endorse or oppose legislation, and we never did so regarding NAFTA. Our NAFTA investigative report--praised by the Columbia Journalism Review-- examined the lobbying of all interested parties, including anti-NAFTA forces. In the report and at the news conference, I disclosed the sources of the center's funding, as we always have. As I recall, Carlson and the Standard did not mention that we also wrote stories that enraged and exposed labor unions, such as the Ron Brown scandal in 1992. The Buying of the President 2000 has a scorching section on unions." [Neither William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, nor conservative columnist Brent Bozell, another CPI critic, responded to interview requests.]

The center stopped accepting money from corporations and labor unions in 1996. What about foundation support? Would the center ever do a story investigating foundations? Lewis smiles and says, "That's a good question. I'm not going to pretend that we're perfect. I'm not stupid. We get 80 percent of our funding from foundations, and if I do a big story about one of them, the others will get very nervous." Thus, among the items high on Lewis's list of priorities is to make the center self-sustaining. Earned income, from sales of CPI publications and consulting with news organizations such as ABC, CBS, and PBS's Frontline, now accounts for 10 to 20 percent of the center's annual budget; Lewis wants that figure to be 80 to 90 percent. Among his ideas are to spin off The Public i and syndicate it to news organizations, and to become what amounts to a wire service for international investigative reporting.

"Frankly, it's a little embarrassing that these guys find so many topics to do and can generate so much news. What the hell is everybody else doing in Washington?" --Seymour Hersh
Lewis would like to see the center become more efficient: "I worry about the burnout factor with our people. A lot of people at our center put in 80- to 90 -hour weeks. Life's not a sprint, it's a marathon. But for 10 years, we've been sprinting." He has a list of new projects, including an examination of the privatization of the water supply, and "The Selling of Life," a series about the genetics lobby and the implications of genome research.

"We've built up a brand name, of sorts, but we're not as good at self-promotion," he says. "We don't reach young people the way we ought to. We ought to have a million members."

Two of the center's bigger recent stories did not receive major play in the American press. Lewis says the Cheney-Halliburton story was front-page news in Russia and London, but attracted little notice in the States. And the ICIJ tobacco story was major news in England, Australia, and Colombia, but except for a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times was mostly ignored by major American news organs. Maud Beelman notes that it was a complicated story and many of the reporters who had covered tobacco and health issues for so many years have moved to other beats. That left less-informed reporters to work on a complex set of allegations about a litigious group that has deep pockets. Says Beelman, "It was just easier for people to walk away from it."

The mainstream American press may walk away from the center's latest major publication, but for a different reason: This time the targets are the people who own the presses, cameras, and microphones. In September, the CPI published Off the Record: What Media Corporations Don't Tell You About Their Legislative Agendas. Among its findings: media conglomerates and their employees have contributed $75 million to candidates for federal office and the major parties since 1993; since 1996, the 50 largest media companies and four of their trade associations have spent $111.3 million to lobby Congress and the executive branch; and since 1995 Federal Communications Commission employees have accepted 1,460 all-expenses-paid trips from media companies and trade associations.

It's another complicated story, and the center resists constant pressure to dumb down its content. Lewis has been advised by a major network, for instance, to use more one-syllable words in his sound bites--a suggestion he has ignored.

Says Charles Piller, "Any newspaper or other journalistic entity whose editorial policy merely panders to the lowest common denominator fails in a fundamental responsibility. I think the center's success clearly demonstrates the hunger for such information."

Lewis can sound more pessimistic, and more frustrated. "We've done an inspiring body of work, but what's it all mean?" he asks. "Are we feeding the already deep public cynicism about government institutions?" He pauses and then says, "Why don't more people care what the bastards are doing to us?"

Dale Keiger ([email protected]) is a senior writer for Johns Hopkins Magazine.