Join us for our annual conversation about the best summer books for kids and young adults.
Guest Host: Jennifer Golbeck
Veteran investigative reporter Charles Lewis has spent decades in the pursuit of truth, navigating death threats, libel suits and corporate pressure along the way. His latest book explores the critical role of journalists in taking on the powerful. He chronicles falsehoods perpetrated by officials across more than a half-century of commercial news, and explores the challenges of investigative reporting amid today’s flood of Internet and cable news.
- Charles Lewis Professor of Journalism, American University; Founder, Center for Public Integrity; Author, "935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity"
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo. Veteran investigative reporter Charles Lewis has spent more than three decades in pursuit of truth. His latest book chronicles the many courageous journalists who've uncovered government and corporate abuses of power over the past half century.
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKIn his own career in network television news and later founding an independent, non-profit news organization, he's endured corporate pressure, libel suits and death threats. Today, with a camera in every pocket and 24/7 news cycle, it would seem the future of investigative journalism should be brighter than ever, but the field faces more pressure than ever. Joining us to discuss is Charles Lewis, best-selling author, veteran investigative journalist and founder of Center For Public Integrity. He's also a Professor of Journalism at the American University School of Communication.
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKHis latest book is "935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity." It's great to have you here, Chuck.
MR. CHARLES LEWISIt's great to be here.
GOLBECKIf you'd like to join the conversation, you can give us a call. Do you think the news media sufficiently holds officials and corporations accountable? Call us at 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Chuck, you began this book back in 2005. What sparked this project for you and where did it take you?
LEWISWell, I was surprised at the sort of laryngitis that the media had after 9/11 and then the lack of critical reporting, I guess, I should say, in the period of from 9/11, really up until the invasion of Iraq. And but particularly disturbing. That was all something I noticed journalists from around the world would say, what's happening here? There's very little critical reporting, and everyone was talking about it.
LEWISBut at the end of 2004, when I stepped down from The Center For Public Integrity, after 15 years, I was stunned to see that close to 60 percent of the American people still believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, even though, even the President himself, George W. Bush had said, no, there actually are none. And so, I was surprised by that. A year later, if people still think that, that means facts don't matter, and in a democracy that's based on self-governance and government of and by the -- for the people, what in the world does that mean?
LEWISAnd also, if you're a journalist, it's a little bit of a problem.
LEWISSo anyway, that's what got me on this kind of curiosity thing about I'd -- you know, all journalists are a little hard bitten, especially investigative journalists. They've seen everything, done everything, interviewed lots of people, but I knew there was something askew here and I wanted to see how systemic this problem is.
GOLBECKAnd we'll talk more about The Center For Public Integrity, which you founded. Tell us about the book's title.
GOLBECKThat's a lot of lies. 935.
LEWISYeah, it is. Being a little overly-thorough, perhaps. There's other words for it, but this is a family radio station. I had eight or nine researchers, and we looked at all of the false and erroneous statement regarding the national security threat posed by Iraq. And we actually counted 935 that either involved the WMD threat or the threat posed by the connection with Al-Qaeda, which turned out not to be very substantial. And so, we put that all together into a report that, and a database, 380,000 word database at the Center, I gave to the Center to release.
LEWISI had left the Center, but it was part of the book's research. But it was timely. It was the five year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. And it made news all over the world and of course was denounced within hours by the White House Press Secretary and others. But it was at least out there and there was a record of it. So that's where the number comes from.
GOLBECKListeners, you can also join the conversation. What do you consider the worst deceptions perpetrated on the American public? Call us at 1-800-433-8850 or you can check us out on Facebook or send tweets to @kojoshow. Chuck, the falsehoods you chronicle around the Iraq War compiled here in one place are now pretty shocking. But that's not how the American public learned about them. What difference does it make that it took years for much of this to be brought to light?
LEWISWell, I think the difference is that we're all moving too fast in our society. And sound bites went from 40 seconds to 20 seconds to eight seconds. Now, they're probably down to five or six seconds. And we move on. And so, you don't have to distort or mislead the public, in terms of information. If you just delay information, the actual truth, for a few weeks even, the public has moved on, for the most part. And it takes months and years to ferret out the truth in almost every instance.
LEWISWe're still finding out information about Watergate and Iran Contra. Iran Contra, many of the important papers have not been released, for example. Memoirs from Watergate are still coming in. So, the actual truth, however we define that, is a little elusive and takes a long time to gather. And we don't live in a patient world.
GOLBECKSince your book came out, Iraq has fallen into chaos. And a group inspired by Al-Qaeda has now, in fact, taken control of significant portions of the country. Do you see any irony, given that the run-up to the war, the American people were told Saddam Hussein had links to Al-Qaeda, which wasn't true at the time.
LEWISWell yeah, it is very ironic. If it wasn't so tragic, it would be a little bit of a Woody Allen movie, because you couldn’t have made that up.
LEWISBut, no, the world has gotten, obviously, very complex and increasingly complex. And journalists are in danger when they try to tell these stories. Thousands of journalists have been killed over the years, and so, this is not a simple thing, and it's not an easy business getting the information. Certainly, especially overseas. And -- but, the problem is, we also have one-third fewer journalists in the United States in the last 10 or 15 years and we have four times as many public relations people as we did back in 1960 when it was a one to one ratio. PR and journalists, today, it's four to one.
LEWISMaybe higher PR over journalists. So, you add all that up, that's not a good equation there.
GOLBECKWe have a lot of callers. If you've called in, please stay on. I'm gonna try to get to all of your calls. And if you'd like to join us, you can call 1-800-433-8850. Let's start with John in Silver Spring. John, you're on the air. Go ahead.
JOHNHi. Yeah, I'm a professor of Journalism, actually, at a local college, which caters largely to lower income and military personnel. And in some of the, many of the journalism classes I've taught, the students actually do not believe The New York Times, the Washington Post and most journalism outlets that are not right of center. If it isn't in stars and stripes or on Fox News, they think it is being made up and spun by the Democratic National Committee. And it was rather shocking to me that they actually believed that and were having a very hard time believing that mainstream journalists for The Times or such, do not just invent news or decide what to report and what not to report, in terms of whether or not it will support the Democrats.
JOHNOr the liberal agenda, as they call it. And this just kind of worries me, that, you know, in the center of our country, there are a lot of people who absolutely do not trust or believe the New York Times, The Washington Post or any of the major newspapers.
GOLBECKJohn, thank you for your call. So, this is a pretty terrifying picture that John is painting.
LEWISWell, I think we do have a bifurcated truth problem in this country. To a lot of people, it's a Republican truth or a Democratic truth. And that's not reality. And the irony of that, by the way, is that the New York Times was accused of being in the tank for the Bush Administration and for Iraq. They're the ones who endorsed the war. For that matter, so did the Washington Post. So the so-called liberal papers, who were iconic during the Pentagon papers and Watergate period, actually endorsed the war and were accused of actually censoring critical stories suggesting there shouldn't be a war in Iraq.
LEWISSo, the irony is that that is just like many facts that's irrelevant to various audiences. And it -- I think this is a really serious problem and it definitely has gotten worse in this country.
GOLBECKJerry from Washington, D.C. has another theory about why trust in journalism may be lower. Jerry, you're on the air. Go ahead.
JERRYOh, thanks for taking my call.
JERRYYes. You know, I do think that what the major problem in -- from an editorial perspective is that major advertisers do actually influence editorial policies. That's certainly true in the industrial press. It has been for some time. And I believe it's certainly true, certainly at The Washington Post, and even at NPR where articles critical -- issues critical of major supporters get put to the side, and what becomes addressed are those issues which are less uncomfortable for the publication.
JERRYI mean, the thought that editorial policy has been influenced by advertising is not a new one. It's been around ever since newspapers began and I'd like to hear your response to that.
GOLBECKThanks for your call, Jerry.
LEWISWell, it's absolutely true. Advertising has been the way to sustain most of the so-called mainstream media over the last more than half century. The interesting element of that is that the advertising for newspapers has substantially dropped through the floor in recent -- the last five, 10 years. That's why we've lost all of these journalists. So, but I don't disagree with the point. There is a chapter in this book about the influence of advertising and other corporate pressures.
LEWISAnd I have 60 years of one industry, the tobacco companies, persistently misleading the public, and the media persistently not covering them directly about what their product was doing. And I actually have specific stories of spiked stories all the way from 1940 to 2000, including ones in which my own stories were influenced or attempted to be influenced. And so, there's no question that the advertisers are relevant, sometimes, to coverage. It's less obvious, I would say, when it comes to government misrepresentations or coverage. That's, I think, often government pressure.
LEWISNot that military contractors don't have influence at networks, but not to the extent the government does, in terms of access to interviews and those things. But all these influences do not contribute to the truth. They actually are deleterious to the truth. We actually have a problem with that. I mean, and the great journalism organizations are the ones that have spine and stand up to it. And we have profiles in courage and we have profiles in cowardice. And I've seen them both.
GOLBECKFalsehoods disseminated by the government about war not new. You spent some time talking about the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Era in the book. This is the period during which you came of age. During that time, the media played a crucial role in uncovering the truth. What effect did it have on you?
LEWISWell, you know, I think with Vietnam, I was coming of age a little too early. I mean, I was -- I was worried about my draft number and all that. But the coverage of Vietnam, the high water point for many people, was, in terms of critical, investigative coverage was Seymour Hersh's My Lai stories or some of the David Halberstam stories back in the mid-90s. Certainly his book, "The Best and the Brightest," was exceptional. Most coverage, however, was generally respectful of the government. And mostly parroted back what the Pentagon and the US government said.
LEWISThere have been academic studies finding that. But it was also the period, of course, of Watergate. And it's also the period of race issues in America. The New York Times didn't have a bureau in the south, the southern part of our country until 1947. They had bureaus of overseas in Europe and other places, just not the southern United States. And the media came into the civil rights picture starting around the '54 decision, certainly the Emmett Till murder and Rosa Parks and other things starting in '55 to '68 where if it wasn't for the media it would be like, as John Lewis the courageous congressman put it, a canary -- you can't hear the canary sing if you don't have the media.
LEWISThe media was covering every step of Martin Luther King and the hoses and all the things. So in some of these instances, the press did a magnificent job. And in some other cases they didn't. But I actually look at all of those angles in all of these issues.
GOLBECKThe scope of this book is both depressing and impressive. You chronicle a range of corporate and government abuses in an appendix in something you call real time truth charts, which I thought were fascinating going through the book. Can you talk about the idea there?
LEWISWell, yeah. My friends and colleagues laugh when I say this but the real time truth charts in the appendix are my favorite part of the book because there is no real time truth usually. If you look at asbestos, lead paint, tobacco and many, many different types of chemicals that ended up killing people and how many years it took for the public to find the truth. It was often decades before they knew.
LEWISWith government issues, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, it took 40 years for that to surface. So some of the most egregious what I call mortally consequential abuses of power, that is to say lies, usually take decades to ferret out and to surface. And so I -- the charts actually show the misrepresentation, the epiphany when the public realizes they've been lied to. And, oh by the way, where were the journalists? And the journalists, to my disappointment, were frequently at the end of that process. They were not often the ones to break it in real time. There are one or two exceptions to that. But generally that surprised me a bit.
GOLBECKYou say the value of truth -- excuse me -- diminishes over time. That's very clear to those in power who would suppress the information. Can you talk a little about that?
LEWISRight. Well, yeah, you know, we have a phenomenon here where essentially we did a study called for their eyes only where we'd have folks when they leave government write their memoirs. And they get stuff declassified that makes them look better later. And so the first draft of history is the journalism community writing about what they saw and heard in real time. The second draft of history is the memoirs. They each get large sums of money to write memoirs. They have trucks backing up to their old offices.
LEWISHenry Kissinger took seven or eight years of personal phone conversations, office and personal that were recorded and transcribed by government personnel. And he kept it up at wherever he was for decades. I think only recently are researchers now able to see what is -- I'm not sure they can still see it but they will eventually someday see it. Well, that's 50 years later after some of these incidents. That's not terribly helpful.
LEWISI mean, it's interesting for the very lucky historian who's the first one to hear it. But what about, oh yeah, the public?
GOLBECKSo one thing that's particularly striking about a lot of the issues you've raised, like tobacco and lead paint and some of these government abuses is that in almost every case the media reporting is what finally triggers the action.
LEWISWell, it is often. It's not always that way but often it is, you're right. And -- or it helps to -- they are synergistic. They help the government do what the government ought to do. Remember, the government is reflective of all interests so the Commerce Department and the Treasury Department are more interested in the business community. And the EPA and the Labor Department are more interested in other considerations. And so government, when we say that, is such a monolith that in real life it's not quite exactly that monolith. So there's all these interest groups that make up the government.
LEWISSo the truth comes out from various factions within the government, both partisan related, ideological related and also agency related. And somehow or other the public and the media have to figure out what the actual truth shakes out to be in all of that. And it's difficult. And there's no other way to put it. And to do it well and do it quickly is extremely difficult.
LEWISAnd so I have great respect for folks, colleagues, friends who do this work. But I also know that the numbers have decreased of the full time folks doing it. And I also know that the public attention span has gotten shorter. And all those things together are worrisome to me, which is one of the key reasons I wrote the book.
GOLBECKIf you've called in, please stay on the line. We're going to try to get to all your calls. If you'd like to join us, you can call 1-800-433-8850. We'll continue the conversation after this short break. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Jen Golbeck sitting in for Kojo.
GOLBECKWelcome back. We're talking with author Chuck Lewis, journalist and founder of the Center for Public Integrity about his new book "935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity." Join us at 1-800-433-8850 or by email at email@example.com. Chuck, you spend a chapter reminding us that since the 1980s the U.S. has deposed or helped to depose more than a dozen foreign governments often for the benefit of commercial interests. That contradicts most Americans' view of their nation, doesn't it?
LEWISIt does as a matter of fact. I think the dozen nations goes all the way back throughout the 20th century. But since -- I was looking at the secret wars in Latin America in particular closely in the chapter. And I -- when I was, believe it or not, an undergrad I met the former Defense Minister and ambassador from Chili to the U.S. Orlando Letelier. He was blown up on his way to work 18 months later. Where I met him at his house is where they put the radio-detonated bomb under his car.
LEWISI heard the sirens at a grad school downtown here. And I had never met anyone who was murdered, let alone a victim of a political assassination. This was ordered by President Pinochet of Chili. And I didn't know it at the time but I think it's fairly clear it was unlikely I was going to do anything except investigate abuses of power.
LEWISThat had a way of focusing the mind. And so that always stuck with me. I did a 200-page undergrad thesis about it and then I had followed and paid attention over the years to other things that occurred in Latin America around that time. So that chapter kind of shows -- I don't think most Americans know very much about it. There were polls back in the '80s most Americans during that time itself knew much about it. But there was a majority that didn't know why we were doing anything there, even as proxy, you know, mischievous folks supporting financially and encouraging the whole effort.
LEWISAnd so this was always a controversial sort of backwater thing in terms of -- it wasn't at the forefront of the American mind but it involved hundreds of thousands of dead civilians in all those countries. And I think in some cases we have something to answer for there. And I don't know the average American knows very much about it. And I learned a lot during the research that I didn't know, and I was embarrassed because I thought I should know it. So that's what that's about.
GOLBECKA good part of the equation is our capacity for self deception. What is it about us perhaps as Americans, perhaps as humans that makes us want to believe official denials and untruths?
LEWISIt's a great question. I think humans are that way often in a general way. But a lot of this was a coming of age book of sorts, the Norman Rockwell America that I grew up in the 1950s, and noticing everything I was told that we were always a reluctant warrior. And, you know, we deeply care about human rights and we did in fact help set up human rights as part of the key part of the United National Charter and Declaration of Human Rights. I'm not saying we didn't but we also have done a lot of things we don't particularly advertise.
LEWISWe have euphemisms like in the national interest which sometimes involves commercial interests and helping them. That's sort of what happened in Chili mostly. And so I'm fascinated by the layers of information and the layers of truth that we are told. The public is usually kept at a very bare minimum of basic couple observations here and there, if it even makes it in the State of the Union Address.
LEWISAnd then the diplomatic community, same thing each other, they all kind of smile and have glasses of wine and clink glasses. But then there's the covert level of things we actually do to other countries or in other countries. And that we have to wait 20 and 30 years to find out what actually did we do. And there are all these layers of truths.
LEWISAnd I went to school of international studies at Johns Hopkins. And I noticed there were layers of truth even there because it was right after Letelier had been murdered. And I was fascinated by the frozen smiles and the mannerisms of Washington and the sort of kind of verbal minuet that folks did. And it kind of drove me up the wall, to be honest with you.
GOLBECKWe have a lot of callers. No, no, this is great. Let's go to the phones and take some of these calls. We'll start with Akosh in Washington. Thanks for sitting on the line, Akosh. You're on the air. Go ahead.
AKOSHThank you, Jen. Much closer to home that the D.C. electorate is definitely not informed about the hand and glove relationship between developers and the city government and the media, the Washington Business Journal, the Post, the City paper and really WAMU, take a lot of money from developers. One of the sponsors of WAMU is EYA and they are running the biggest development at the McMillan sand filtration site which we're trying to save as a park, 25 acres in the middle of D.C.
AKOSHThe city government is handing them a gigantic corporate giveaway. And every time we try to call in, Kojo basically suppresses anything we try to say about this big gigantic issue that the city is not well informed about. And we know democracy serves when the electorate is informed and the government has informed consent. So...
GOLBECKAkosh, let me get Chuck's thoughts on this. Chuck, go ahead.
LEWISWell, you know, it's no secret that the District of Columbia is shall we say challenged when it comes to the whole governance and corruption issue. It's been a problem for many, many years, decades. And, you know, I would point out that Patrick Madden that did have an award-winning series last year on WAMU that was first rate about contractors. That was unlike many stations in America, I have to say, even including NPR stations. And full disclosure, I am working with him and we're doing a joint investigative reporting workshop WAMU investigation. You'll see the fruits of it sometime in the future, near.
LEWISAnd so -- but your point's well taken that the public I think kind of rolls its eyes on this because the district government has always had problems going back decades. And I don't mean to make light of it but at some point there's a what's new. It'd be a bigger story if everyone reported that everyone there is honest and contracting and everything is perfectly transparent and there are no laws broken and it was said with authority. That would be huge news because I think there's a low bar for a lot of media.
LEWISThey like, of course there's corruption and it's not like shooting whales in a barrel. It's like shooting minnows in a barrel. You can't miss a fish there's so many problems. And I'm not defending it but I understand the phenomenon. Should there be more coverage? There's no question. I'm not disputing that but I also think there is sometimes some fantastic coverage. And I think you should stay tuned. You might hear or see or read some more.
GOLBECKWe have a call from John in Rockville. John, thanks for staying on the line. Go ahead.
JOHNSure. Thanks. Let me take you off speaker.
JOHNYou know, the misinformation is such a problem for the voting electorate. And, you know, a lot of people will just tune into the same old radio show that or news outlet that doesn't really purport news. It's more of an op-ed kind of piece. There's a lot of radio shows like that. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. And I just wish there was something online, a fact checker, BS meter that you could go and kind of see where these people fall in terms of, you know, how they're reporting.
GOLBECKDo you have any suggestions on websites fact checkers?
LEWISWell yeah, the fact check movement has sort of cropped up in the last say roughly ten years. The one that most recently won a Pulitzer Prize is PolitiFact which, you know, is nonpartisan and alienates both parties equally and started out at what was known as the St. Petersburg Times, a paper that's now changed its name. But it's now done in several states. The Washington Post has a fact check thing. FactCheck.org was, I think, the first one in the United States that I'm aware of. These are now cropping up a lot of places in the U.S. and around Europe and other parts of the world. And they need to crop up.
GOLBECKYou go back a bit further in history in your book to the iconic journalist Edward R. Murrow and network news in the early '50s. The pressures were there even then at the dawn of network news. How is he a metaphor for everything that followed?
LEWISWell, he sure is. I mean, I -- you know, basically what happened is he was essentially run off the air. He -- with his show "See it Now" he was a pioneer. You know, he had "See it Now." But he was the only person I'm aware of to be a radio and television pioneer. He did the first most important reporting in the world as a journalist, at least in the U.S. with his reporting from Germany in 1938. And he did the first Transatlantic to Pacific newscast -- video newscast which was -- became -- well, it was CBS and it was -- "See it Now" was his personal show. He had more than one.
LEWISBut that -- his work there was -- sponsors started to dislike what he was doing. The owner of CBS owned a cigar company and his fortune had been made from tobacco. Murrow, who was a chain smoker and ultimately died of lung cancer, did do two separate shows on tobacco and smoking, the first television coverage of smoking in the United States. And within a year or two of that occurring he was off the air. "See it Now" was shut down.
LEWISFrequently the sponsors didn't want to support it and CBS had game shows, quiz shows, all kind of things that were getting more lucrative. And their timeslot kept getting worse. And he was essentially minimalized and put off the air. His executive producer Fred Friendly, very famous, in 1966 he quit, or he was fired depending -- CBS wanted to show "I Love Lucy" reruns rather than show the Vietnam War hearings by Senator Fulbright where we learned we'd been lied to.
LEWISAnd so commercial television has a history of being a little bit nervous and spineless perhaps in some cases. I know that for myself because I worked inside there. And I know in the case of Murrow, he was a victim of. And I think that he's a martyr to many journalists.
GOLBECKAnd so you raise a bunch of issues that he covered in addition to facing some pressure and reporting on Senator Joseph McCarthy. And we have a call from Chris in Falls Church who wants to talk about potentially other issues that aren't properly or enough being covered in the media. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead.
CHRISYeah, thank you. In the mode of your discussion of tobacco, asbestos and so on, recently -- I'm an environmental activist -- recently it seems that the discovery of especially methane from methane hydrates but also from the permafrost in the Arctic area may accelerate the global warming at a rate that we can barely imagine, possibly even ending larger life on earth within a couple of centuries. And nobody really seems to be discussing this. We need to be doing major scientific investigations if this is the case, even if there turns out to be anything we can do about it. Why do you think something that's the most important issue that's ever happened to human kind doesn't get more attention?
GOLBECKThanks for your call, Chris.
LEWISThat's a great question. You know, the major media organizations would say correctly that they have covered fracking and other related issues including the methane leakage. I run the largest investigative reporting nonprofit at a university in the U.S. out of 18. The investigative workshop that my senior producer Margaret Ebrahim spent one year tracking what you just raised and it was shown on Showtime. The problem with Showtime is it's a private cable network, subscription based. But I think your point's well taken.
LEWISI think the media has been extremely reluctant to go anywhere near the climate-change subject. If you read The New York Times and Washington Post closely, and I try to, The New York Times will have climate-change news on page 1, above the fold. The Washington Post won't. And just two major news outlets, both respected, both play that completely differently. So there's no question that this is a loaded subject. And some people, depending on their ideology, see the whole climate-change thing as not a serious problem. And, you know, that -- the Republican Party in '08 thought it was a problem.
LEWISAnd then McCain ran for president and it was in the platform. And funny thing, in 2012, it disappeared from the platform.
LEWISAnd there was even a joke by the Republican candidate making fun of President Obama in that particular regard, about the silly -- worrying about the tides, or I forget what his reference was, but it was sort of a slap. So we, as a people and as a country, have had trouble coming to grips with this. And obviously the U.S. and China are the two biggest culprits when it comes to the whole subject of climate change. Could it be related? Well, possibly. Anyway, so I think this is a problem and it needs to continue to be deeply covered.
LEWISAnd I, you know, I think it's one of the most important issues, the rest of my life. And, you know, I have children. I worry about the effect it'll have on them, honestly.
GOLBECKWe'll continue our conversation with Chuck Lewis after this short break. If you'd like to join us, you can call 1-800-433-8850. I'm Jen Golbeck and you're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Chuck Lewis about his new book, "935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity." If you'd like to join us, call 1-800-433-8850. Chuck, you talk about your own years in network television news. In 1988, you were a senior producer for the television news magazine, "60 Minutes." What were the realities at that time?
LEWISWell, just so I don't get in trouble, I should clarify. I was just the producer.
GOLBECKOh, well, I gave you a promotion.
LEWISI would like to be a senior producer. That would have -- a lot more money. So I was a producer for Mike Wallace for five years. And, you know, I did stories I was very -- I am still very proud of. But there were some instances, and I write in the book -- tell a story I never completely told ever before about being told to -- I mean it was pretty clear I had to change -- take the name -- someone's name out of the script. It happened to be the founder of "60 Minutes" best friend.
LEWISAnd I didn't feel that was a journalistic reason. My youthful idealism was offended apparently. And so, if I didn't do something, the piece would be gone. Because it was a timely piece. It had -- it was perishable. It had to go a certain time. And I had no choice but to refocus the text and show a photo that showed all of them, including the friend, but mentioned another person, which still is in my craw, this many years later. I resigned the next day. I sent a three-sentence resignation letter. I broke a four-year contract with CBS. I had a wife and a daughter under 10 and no savings and a mortgage, and I walked out the door. A lot of people, including Mike Wallace, thought I was having a nervous breakdown. I really wasn't. But I was really mad.
LEWISAnd so I walked away. And, no, it's not typical. Most people die or are fired that work TV. And so, at least back then. There were 450 people laid off by Tish (sp?) the owner over a period around that time. So you didn't just walk out of there. It was unusual. And from that, I started the Center for Public Integrity a few months later from my house with two friends -- journalist friends who didn't know each other. And we became all close friends. And it's been -- it's now been there for 25 years and has done -- well, became for a period, the largest nonprofit doing investigative reporting in the world.
LEWISSo it was a great run. And at some point, the founder has to leave the building, if you want it to be a true institution. So that's why I left that. And now I'm -- have moved on to, as a professor now and other things.
GOLBECKSo I'd like to have you tell us more about the Center for Public Integrity. Some people have credited it with pretty much single-handedly launching institutional nonprofit journalism. So you gave us a little bit of the history. But tell us more about the idea behind the Center and where it stands today.
LEWISWell, yeah, my idea was that there should be -- political science has a lot of great information, but no one can read it. It's too arcane and esoteric. And journalists don't have time to do in-depth reporting. And so I wanted to do in-depth tracking of abuses of power, whoever it was -- government, corporations, I didn't care who. And I wanted to name names, which most academics don't generally do. It's a lot of data.
LEWISAnd I wanted to be more readable than most political science. I had two political science degrees. But I wanted -- I also wanted to be more thorough than most journalism and most -- much more in-depth. And so I was trying to find a hybrid forum, seriously. And so that was the notion behind the Center. And so we would do what we called studies. And we knew that if we said we were doing stories, other journalists wouldn't cover it of course.
LEWISI admit there was a slight degree of strategy here. But we would do reports. And the first one was, half the White House trade officials went to work for foreign governments and foreign corporations. And in the following few years, the president -- the next elected president did an executive order making a lifetime ban on that practice. No one knew it until we had tracked 75 men and women and how fast they went out the door and how much they made and...
LEWIS...for whom. And so we did all kinds of things -- the Lincoln bedroom scandal. The Center broke, in '96, we posted all the Iraq and Afghanistan war contracts, first revealing Halliburton had gotten more than twice as much money as any other company, on and on and on. And International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, 185 journalists now in 70 countries on 6 continents, is part of the Center. I started that in '97. And so it's -- there's an awful lot of stuff to investigate out there, and not enough time and not enough people. But I'm -- the Center was important. I mean, I'm not objective there.
GOLBECKSo, Meg, from Bethesda has been on the line for quite a while and has a question about nonprofit journalism. Meg, you're on the air. Go ahead.
MEGHi. Thanks for taking my call. I was listening and a while back on the show you had mentioned the declining number of journalists in our country. And back in 2011, I was at the International Festival of Journalism in Perugia, where I had the incredible honor of meeting you, along with Mark Stevens, John Hart, people like that. And you spoke about, sort of, the evolving, I guess, ecosystem or whatever of nonprofit news and its relationship to commercial news organizations. And I'm wondering -- and you sounded very hopeful about this sort of increasingly beneficial symbiotic relationship.
MEGAnd I'm wondering if this is going to -- if you think this is going to increase more and more. And will this eventually help increase the number of journalists in our country. Or is the force of politics and our economy and whatnot too forceful and this will actually decrease the number of journalists willing to get into this business?
GOLBECKThanks for your call, Meg.
LEWISWell, nice to talk to you again. I don't want the listeners to think that I hang out in Perugia. I'm teasing. But anyway, I sure had fun there at that conference. I -- when I started the Center for Public Integrity from my house in 1989, it was the second nonprofit newsroom in the United States doing investigative reporting. The Center for Investigative Reporting started in 1977. We have a long tradition of nonprofits in this country -- The Associated Press, 1846, The Christian Science Monitor, 1908, I think, NPR, which is the only news organization to double its audience since 9/11, in this country, to my knowledge. Those are all nonprofits.
LEWISBut investigative reporting nonprofits -- there are now 100 and they are still increasing. And they're increasing outside the U.S. around the world. As some of the commercial carnage has occurred, a lot of unemployed journalists don't want to go do something else. They want to do what they do. And so some of them have founded their own organizations separately. Within academia, I've noticed there are all these brilliant social scientists and experts who -- from forensic accountants to political scientists tracking corruption to public anthropologists tracking every U.S. military base in the world to -- and we don’t -- they are functioning as journalists.
LEWISThey write books. They have blogs. They have websites. They do op-eds and something. But we don't call them journalists. We call them a professor. And I want to create a space. I call it accountability studies -- accountability reports. I want to continue this merging of substantive material, data and other things with educating the public with folks who know how to write and blending that -- those worlds together. I actually think that would massively increase and widen and enlarge the public space. And to me that is utterly thrilling. I've mentioned this in Australia, in Britain at Oxford University.
LEWISIt's in my book, in the last chapter, The Future of Truth. I happen to be extremely excited about the future. Now, I admit, it's not a large part of the journalism landscape. Today, it is no more than -- less than 5 percent. And that, exactly what percent I don't know. So I'm not saying this is the dominant part of media in our world in the U.S. or the world. But I also thing that we need people who are willing to dig into something and take time to do it. And the commercial world, for the most part, doesn't give enough time to its reporters to do it. And the other folks exist for that sole purpose, in many cases.
LEWISSo somehow, we've got to find a way to get more of this quality information done and gathered properly over weeks and months, even years. I've had reports -- well, this book took nine years. But, you know, that's where quality of information is based on how long you had and who you talked to and how many records you checked. They're all related. And so I always said quality begets quality. If you want to have high-quality journalism, you give people time, you pay them well and see what happens. And it works.
GOLBECKOne of the most serious confrontations between the press and the government in recent years is the case of New York Times reporter James Risen. Tell us about the issue there.
LEWISWell, I know Jim Risen pretty well and I've known him for years. In fact, I -- well, we go back a ways. And I'm a huge fan of his work. He's a real -- I mean, as we all know, he and Eric Lichtblau broke the domestic surveillance story in 19 -- '05. And he's a courageous journalist. And we have an administration, the Obama administration has gone after leaks and sources of leaks. Eight times they've invoked the Espionage Act. First time in U.S. history any president has done that. And they're doing it because Jim Risen, with his reporting, embarrassed national security folks.
LEWISI won't name agencies, but I could. And I think this is payback. It's personal now. Eric Holder, the Attorney General, has said that no journalist doing his job will be sent to prison. We're all waiting on tenterhooks to find out what's going to happen to Jim Risen. He's willing to go to prison and defend his -- you know, not reveal anything about his source, protect his source. And will the Obama administration continue to do unprecedented damage against journalism? I mean they're criminalizing investigative reporting. I feel very strongly about it. And I think he's a courageous journalist and I'm proud to know him.
GOLBECKDo you think journalists who are seeking to create government transparency and demand accountability can do that without leakers and insiders?
LEWISNot fully. Not adequately. You know, the national security realm is such a difficult place. There have been some estimates that there are fewer than 15 reporters in the United States -- a country of roughly 320 million -- 15 reporters trying to cover national security in the United States, full-time, paid reporters, of which Jim Risen is one. And so, think about it, your phone has a GPS tracking device. If you try to meet someone, if you go to a government agency, you sign in, by definition, for security reasons. There is a general, widespread belief among reporters that their emails are screened.
LEWISThey don't know if they are, but they've been told that -- wink, wink -- you know, in discreet settings. And we have thousands of cameras, by the way, everywhere we go. And there's even going to be, or there are already, recording devices in our cars, because the insurance industry wants that as well. So where exactly do you go where there's no record whatsoever that someone can't utilize or find or pull. And so we're getting into an extremely different world than we used to have. And making -- doing this kind of journalism is exceedingly difficult on a good day. And it's gotten much more difficult.
GOLBECKSo we just have about 30 seconds left.
GOLBECKBut, a kind of wrap-up question for you. Despite all the challenges facing media today, do you think there are bright spots, hope for the future? And if so, what are some of those things?
LEWISWell, I mean, I mentioned some of them just now. I think that we need as many journalists, including citizen journalists -- folks who are knowledgeable in and of themselves, sitting at home who know things. The British subway bombing where a thousand photos surfaced from under the subway, because the press was kept above the subway. You know, we need as much quality information as we can from as many places as we can find in real time. And the better we do that, the sooner we do it, the better, more real-time truth we'll have in our society. It's that simple.
GOLBECKCharles Lewis is a best-selling author, veteran investigative journalist and founder for the Center for Public Integrity. His latest book is "935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity." Thanks so much for being here with us.
GOLBECKI'm Jen Golbeck sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks very much for listening.
GOLBECKComing up tomorrow on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," hashtag diplomacy. Social media are now crucial tools used by everyone from governments to terrorists. Tech Tuesday explores the digital battle for hearts and minds. Then at 1:00, India's future. The new prime minister of the world's largest democracy faces entrenched corruption, income inequality and violence against women. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," noon till 2:00 tomorrow on WAMU 88.5 and streaming at kojoshow.org.
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