Charles Lewis has been a national investigative journalist since 1977, at ABC News, CBS News 60 Minutes, as the founder and executive director of the Center for Public Integrity and other nonprofit organizations based in Washington, as a bestselling author and currently as the founding executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication.
The focus of his work almost entirely has been systematically investigating the uses and abuses of power in relation to the public policy decision-making processes in the United States and around the world.
For example, in late 1990, Lewis substantially researched, reported and wrote the first Center for Public Integrity report (with others), America’s Frontline Trade Officials. The 201-page exposé, which profiled roughly 75 of the highest Office of the U.S. Trade Officials who served since 1974, found that since then, 47 percent of them “personally registered or their firms have registered with the Justice Department as foreign agents.” The heavily covered report prompted a Congressional investigation, a Justice Department investigation and on his first day in office in January 1992, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order placing a lifetime ban on the “revolving door” of trade officials.
In mid-1994, Lewis and 19 of his colleagues at the Center researched, reported and wrote Well-Healed: Inside Lobbying for Health Care Reform, which identified 660 companies, labor unions and other organizations attempting to influence the outcome of the Clinton administration’s health care legislation. The groups had spent “in excess of $100 million” in 1993 and half of 1994.
In 1996, 2000 and 2004, he and his colleagues at the Center authored the popular and unprecedented The Buying of the President HarperCollins books, identifying the financial interests and unadvertised past behind the glossy candidate careers – always released for citizens before any votes were cast. These were the first political books in the United States to document the financial entanglements behind the major presidential candidates and their political parties prior to the actual election.
In 1996, Lewis initiated, oversaw and final approved a Center for Public Integrity book written by Dan Fagin and Marianne Lavelle called Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law, and Endangers Your Health (Birch Lane Press). The three-year project revealed, according to Bob Herbert of the New York Times, “how the industry uses campaign contributions, junkets, job offers, ‘scorched earth’ courtroom strategies, misleading advertising and multimillion-dollar public relations campaigns to keep their products on the market no matter how great the potential dangers.”
In 1997, at the Center, he created the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, an unprecedented network of roughly 100 of the world’s premier investigative reporters in 50 countries on six continents, collaborating to produce across-border, public service journalism on such subjects as cigarette smuggling by the major manufacturers, the human rights impact of U.S. military aid, the privatization of water, the politics of oil, etc. The creation of the ICIJ, according to the Encyclopedia of Journalism, made www.publicintegrity.org the “first global website devoted to international exposés.”
In 1998, Lewis and the Center undertook a national investigation of corruption in America’s state legislatures, in which 7,400 state lawmakers were individually contacted by phone or mail, and their annual financial disclosure forms were posted on the Internet. This report, Our Private Legislatures: Public Service, Private Gain, won the second annual Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) online award. And between 1996 and 2004, the Center tracked conflicts of interest in all 50 state legislatures, which had never been done before by journalists.
In 1998, Lewis and the Center – 36 researchers, writers and editors – produced and HarperCollins (Avon Books) published The Buying of the Congress , based upon 1,200 interviews and tens of thousands of pages of various different types of federal records.
In 1998, he undertook, oversaw and final approved an unusual Center project which became a book written by Alan Green called Animal Underworld: Inside America’s Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species published by PublicAffairs. The project, which won the IRE book award, took four years and Green did field reporting in 44 states.
In 2001, Lewis, Bill Allison and 16 researchers and editors at the Center for Public Integrity produced The Cheating of America: How Tax Avoidance and Evasion by the Super Rich are Costing the Country Billions – and What You Can Do About It (HarperCollins/Morrow). The three-year investigation, using baseline Internal Revenue Service prosecutions unearthed at the U.S. Tax Court and field reporting in Illinois, Los Angeles, Belize and the Bahamas, revealed the disturbing world of offshore-friendly federal legislators, New York banks, foreign “tax havens” and “the cottage industry that teaches aspiring dodgers how to cheat successfully.
In 2001, he created a groundbreaking Center project to monitor and report on corruption, government accountability and openness around the world. In 2004, utilizing 200 respected social scientists and investigative reporters in 25 countries on six continents, the 750,000-word Global Integrity Report and The Corruption Notebooks were published and covered by news media around the world. Its quantitative methodology of more than 300 universally applicable questions regarding the state of governance, transparency and accountability in countries around the world, to be assessed by indigenous social scientists and journalists, plus its qualitative “Reporter’s Notebook” essays by journalists in each country about the culture of corruption there, was and remains unique. Lewis recommended and the Center Board agreed that the project ought to become a separate, new nonprofit organization, Global Integrity (www.globalintegrity.org). That occurred in 2005, and the organization, led by his former Center employees, has now tracked the extent of corruption in over 100 countries.
In 2002, utilizing 32 reporters, writers and editors from six continents, the Center’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists identified the 90 private military companies working for governments, corporations and even criminal groups around the world in Making a Killing: The Business of War. The 11-part series/book won the Society of Professional Journalists online investigative reporting award.
In the summer of 2003, Lewis oversaw and final approved the first national examination into the complex and thorny subject of prosecutorial misconduct. A team of 21 researchers, writers and editors led by principal author Steve Weinberg, identified 2,012 state cases throughout the United States since 1970 in which prosecutorial misconduct was cited “as a factor when dismissing charges at trial, reversing convictions or reducing sentences.” The report, entitled Harmful Error: Investigating America’s Local Prosecutors, was based on careful analysis of 11,452 cases involving allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. According to former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, author of Gideon’s Trumpet, “Harmful Error is by far the best thing I have ever seen on prosecutorial misconduct . . . painful but essential reading.”
In October 2003, six months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, under Lewis’ direction, the Center for Public Integrity (specifically the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) published Windfalls of War, which included the major U.S. government contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq, definitively revealing Halliburton and its subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root to be, by far, the largest beneficiary. For six months, 20 researchers, writers and editors had worked on the project, filing 73 Freedom of Information Act requests and even suing the Army and the State Department (and ultimately winning the release of key, no-bid contract documents). This multi-faceted report, which won the first George Polk award for online investigative reporting, represents the first time a news organization ever posted U.S. military contracts online during wartime.
In late 2004, the Center published Outsourcing the Pentagon, revealing that between 1998 and 2004, more than 40 percent of Pentagon contracting -- $368 billion – involved no-bid contracts similar to those received by Halliburton/KBR in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and many of the contractors were generous campaign donors. The nine-month project, which won the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) online award, individually profiled 737 companies that had won at least $100 million in contracts over five fiscal years.
In early 2008, on the eve of the five-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Lewis and his team of book researchers produced Iraq: The War Card, which was published by the Center for Public Integrity. The massive report, which included a 380,000-word Boolean a searchable two-year, daily chronology of every Iraq-related utterance by eight top U.S. officials including President George W. Bush, juxtaposed against the more than 50 books, commission and other government reports published between 2003 and 2008, illuminating what was actually known at the time inside the U.S. government, versus what was being said publicly. The key finding: in the two years following September 11, 2001, Bush and seven of his administration’s top officials made at least 935 false statements about the national security threat posed by Iraq. The number of these erroneous exhortations had spiked upwards at politically strategic moments – specifically before the October 2002 Congressional vote on the war, and between January and March 2003, from then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s United Nations presentation to the invasion itself. The carefully orchestrated campaign about Iraq’s supposed “weapons of mass destruction” effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses.
In April 2012, Lewis created, directed and released at the National Press Club in Washington Investigating Power, an unprecedented, online multimedia presentation documenting “truth to power” moments in contemporary U.S. history and the journalists behind them. The five-year project, begun in early 2007, involved roughly two dozen people researchers, editors, producers and cameramen cumulatively shooting about 100 hours of high definition video interviews with 23 iconic national journalists who have done significant reporting between 1950 and today. That material was then edited down into 42 conversations and nine produced mini-documentaries.Investigating Power began merely as recorded interview research for his forthcoming new book, The Future of Truth: Power, the News Media and the Public’s Right to Know (PublicAffairs; 2014), but evolved into something much larger – a public way to educate current and future generations about the importance of fearless, original independent reporting.
Charles Lewis, a former 60 Minutes producer who founded The Center for Public Integrity, is a MacArthur Fellow and the founding executive editor of the new Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University.
Lewis regularly travels nationally and internationally to talk about investigative reporting and the future of journalism.