Charles Lewis’ critics would likely laugh at the fact he once thought of becoming a politician.
His Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity has grown to become the world’s largest, nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative reporting organization, devoted to public service journalism, uncovering political and corporate scandals and preserving America’s freedom of information laws.
The 51-year-old, who is stepping down after 15 years, can joke about the tasking feat because it also is his proudest accomplishment.
“I probably shortened my life span trying to do it,” he said. “I’m proud that we have created something that didn’t exist and filled some sort of niche and public need.”
Under Lewis’ direction, the center has grown to a full-time staff of 40, issued more than 200 investigative reports, including 12 books, and received numerous awards. Its mission is to serve as an honest broker of information and to inspire a better-informed citizenry to demand a higher level of accountability from its government and elected leaders, according to the Web site publicintegrity.org.
Lewis, weary from handling day-to-day operations, decided to quit to give the organization new direction and help secure its financial future. His resignation as the executive director and from the board of directors took effect Dec. 31.
He is being replaced by Roberta Baskin, who began work Jan. 31. Baskin previously served as a senior Washington correspondent for the PBS program, NOW With Bill Moyers, and as a senior producer for the ABC news magazine 20/20. She has also managed the Washington bureau staff of 20/20 and Primetime. Earlier, she served as a chief investigative correspondent for the CBS news magazine 48 Hours.
“I think at some point the founder needs to leave,” Lewis said. “I think 15 years is a good run. It will benefit the organization because the board will move from being a founder’s board to a governing board.”
His accomplishments include raising $30 million to keep the center afloat, leading many of the investigations and fending off critics. He plans to take some time off to regroup and perhaps write a book and teach.
“I have a lot of vinegar left,” he said. “I’m very ambitious. I have a tendency to work too hard.
“I’m not leaving the center because I’m bored. We’ve had a good time. We’re stirring things up. We’re the skunks at the garden party. That’s the fun of the center.”
Rest assured, Lewis will still have a presence, promoting the center’s Fund for Independence in Journalism. He hopes to raise $20 million for the endowing legal defense fund, which he describes as a self-insurance mechanism for the center.
“I want to make sure the place is set up properly for years to come,” he said. “I want it to be around 20, 30, 50 years from now.”
A passionate proponent of truth and freedom of the press, he also still plans to speak out about those two fundamental principles that drove him to start the center.
“I’m going to crusade publicly on the principle that increased government secrecy and decreased public scrutiny are unacceptable and frankly un-American,” he said. “All my writing is complaining about truth and freedom of information. I’ve decided I’m going to keep talking about that.”
Lewis founded The Center for Public Integrity in March 1989 and worked out of his home for more than a year. Using his house as collateral, he moved into an office in downtown Washington, D.C., in May 1990.
“Back then, it was Chuck’s Excellent Adventure,” he said. “The first employee was an intern.”
A native of Newark, Del., his conflicting views on politics and journalism took root in high school, he said. He led his high school as student body president while also serving as the newspaper’s editorial page editor.
“I’ve always been someone smitten and intrigued by both politics and journalism,” he said. “I thought I would go into politics. I guess journalism won out. At 51, I cast my lot with investigative reporting.”
He launched his journalism career at age 17, working nights in the sports department of the Wilmington News-Journal. At 23, he took a job with ABC News, where he began to investigate politicians and first saw the profession’s dark side.
“Most political reporters hang out on the bus and plane and write atmosphere pieces,” he said. “They’re not asking who’s sponsoring their candidacy and trading favors.”
Later, he moved to CBS News and became the producer for senior correspondent Mike Wallace at 60 Minutes. His successful career in broadcast journalism ended dramatically when he broke a four-year contract with no savings and no back-up plan.
“I was dissatisfied with the quality of journalism, and I wanted to do it a different way,” he said. “I wanted to create a place where you could investigate to your heart’s content, unfettered by time. Initially, it was, ’Can we go investigate the hell out of things that need to be investigated?’ ”
Bill Allison, the center’s managing editor, joined Lewis in 1997 as a researcher. He describes Lewis as a tremendous generator of ideas.
“He has a real enthusiasm and passion for the work,” Allison said. “He’s really got a gift for getting people excited about what we’re doing and how weÇre doing it.”
Lewis could fire up a room of seasoned professionals and college interns, and he created an environment at the center where everyone’s ideas and opinions were valued and welcomed, Allison said.
Lewis’ ability to continually be surprised has set the center apart from other media organizations and helped it evolve, Allison said. His energy, forethought and nonlinear thinking will be missed.
“He has tremendous instincts as a journalist,” Allison said. “He has a great early warning radar.”
He cites the center’s concentration on campaign contributions during the 1996 presidential election as an example.
“The center was so far out in front of other media in terms of campaign finance,” Allison said. “Here’s a guy who has been in Washington for years and years and understands Washington’s political culture and how the town operates. But he hasn’t lost the ability to be shocked. I think that’s what has kept him going. Even though he’s not surprised, he’s almost always shocked by what he finds.”
The increased use of the center’s reports by the media, academics, nongovernmental organizations and the public shows the need for such probing work, Lewis said. He knows media outlets have limited resources and understands investigative reporting takes time and money.
However, the center’s role as government watchdog and lone-ranger reporting on public policy issues also is cause for concern.
“If the media was doing its job, in a perfect world, there would be no need for the center to exist,” he said. “Why would a scrappy little nonprofit be the one to post all the Halliburton contracts in Iraq? That’s actually a sad commentary.
“We’re in a real interesting time historically. We have less access to information than we’ve had in decades. All this means journalists are at a greater disadvantage than they have been in the past. There’s a sense by many journalists there is a crisis when it comes to increased secrecy and decreased access to information.”
Despite LewisÇ experience in TV news, the center has always concentrated on print-based reports and investigations. He describes it “as a journalistic utopia, an oasis in the desert.”
Some investigations have lasted as long as four years, taken as many as 400 people to complete and extended public policy journalism around the world.
“Chuck really likes big statistical stories,” Allison said. “If it’s an investigation on state legislators, we’re going do all 7,000 of the state legislators.”
In 1998, Lewis and the center undertook a nationwide investigation of corruption in America’s state legislatures, in which more than 7,000 state lawmakers were individually contacted by phone or mail, and their annual financial disclosure forms were posted on the Internet.
A year earlier, Lewis created the International Consortium of Investigative Journalist network. The group, which includes 92 leading investigative reporters and editors in 48 countries, has collaborated on numerous online and printed reports on corporate crime, arms trafficking, terrorism, U.S. military policy and human rights issues.
Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists who serves on the consortium’s advisory board, mentored Lewis during the center’s early years and encouraged him to tackle global investigations.
“I’ve sort of been a sounding board,” he said. “I helped bounce ideas off him and have kept a close eye on the work.
“I think it’s extraordinary. Chuck has created an institution that was desperately needed by a democratic society.”
Like Allison, he considers Lewis a passionate visionary. The center’s reports are a model of journalistic integrity, free from political and corporate influence.
“More clearly than any of us, he recognized the need for a formal institution to take on that role,” he said. “The number of disclosures produced by the center that have been picked up and used by other media are a perfect testimony to the value of the work he’s doing. It’s a passion of his and it’s served us all very well.”
Lewis, however, credits the center’s success and expansion to technology and talent. The proliferation of the Internet has made access to public records easier and enabled the center to disseminate its findings to a worldwide audience.
“When I started the center, the Internet did not exist,” he said. “No investigative reports were done across borders.
“Using technology, we’ve moved millions of records onto the Web. You can enter your Zip code and see who owns your media. We don’t just put the records up, but analyze them and tell people what we found.”
The center’s work, and fearless approach at uncovering scandals and going after public records, has earned Lewis praise from peers and honors from media organizations, including Investigative Reporters and Editors, Society of Professional Journalists, and others 28 times. Center findings or perspectives have appeared in roughly 8,000 news media stories since 1990.
Lewis has written or co-written several of the center’s books and studies that track political influence, including “The Buying of the President 2004,” “The Cheating of America,” “The Buying of the President 2000,” “The Buying of Congress” and “The Buying of the President 1996.”
The National Journal called Lewis and the center “a watchdog in the corridors of power.” The Chicago Tribune has said, “If Lewis didn’t exist, somebody would have to invent him.”
The Village Voice referred to Lewis as “the Paul Revere of our time” in early 2003 after he obtained a copy of the Justice Department’s draft legislation “sequel” to the Patriot Act and posted it on the center’s Web site.
In 1996, The New Yorker called Lewis’ organization “the center for campaign scoops” because staffers repeatedly uncovered political information during that year’s presidential election campaign.
The center broke The Lincoln Bedroom Scandal, in which hundreds of campaign contributors spent the night at the Clinton White House, and made it public in its publication “The Public I,” earning SPJ’s 1996 Sigma Delta Chi Award for Public Service Journalism in Newsletter Journalism.
The center’s pursuit of truth has created an equal number of enemies, however. Its investigations, published reports and posting of public documents have upset many.
“The center has made a career out of exposing things those in power don’t want out,” he said.
“A lot of our reports are just plain not very popular.”
Lewis has encountered his share of angry politicians, corporate executives, even right-wing militia groups, he said. Many staff members have been intimidated, and in other countries, even physically threatened and harmed.
“We’ve had people plead with us, cabinet secretaries call and yell at us, political party chairs come into our office and yell,” he said. “We’ve had folks who have threatened or brought litigation, and public relations firms infiltrate our news conferences as reporters. Anything you think has been done, it has been done. I don’t want to sound paranoid, but sometimes you’re paranoid for a reason.”
Lewis continues to remain unwavering in his position and stands behind the center’s mission. He believes it is unacceptable any time a legitimate Freedom of Information Act request is denied, and the center’s new legal fund will provide the financial backing necessary to pursue lawsuits necessary to obtain them, he said.
“I think the media needs to start flexing its muscle on behalf of FOIA requests,” he said. “I’m a fierce opponent of the docile approach.”
His departure is bittersweet for two reasons. Lewis is proud of the stellar staff he has assembled, including many Pulitzer Prize winning journalists, and will miss working with them.
“It’s like leaving your family,” he said. “It’s been a very peculiar experience. It’s been incredibly sentimental and sad the last month or two. The hardest part of stepping down is leaving the wonderful people who have become friends at this point.”
Even sadder is the current state of journalism, he said. For all the center’s progress, accomplishments and awards, Lewis believes its impact has been minimal.
“I started the center because public service and investigative reporting were both going to hell,” he said. “Things looked pretty bleak in the late 1980s. The sad truth is public service and the media and its commitment to investigative reporting is every bit as bad and bleak as it was 15 years ago. I’m deeply worried about the future of the media. There’s a lot of great stuff to write about and not a lot of people writing it.”
Marla Mlller is a newspaper reporter and freelance writer from Columbus, IN
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