The ground is shifting in the conventions of media as we've known it in this country," according to Chuck Lewis, the 2009 Silha Lecturer. "The major media outlets don't have enough staff, they've gutted their newsrooms, they have one reporter doing the job of three or four people. And then we've got nonprofits ... that want more traffic and more reach and impact than just their Web site." According to Lewis, these conditions constitute a fundamental change in investigative reporting in the United States.
A journalist, author, recipient of a MacArthur "genius award," and executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University in Washington, D.C., Lewis delivered the 24th annual Silha lecture, "Unspoken Realities about Investigative Journalism and the Law," to an overflow crowd in the Cowles Auditorium on October 21 on the University of Minnesota's West Bank. Lewis has co-authored five books, including the national bestseller The Buying of the President 2004, and is preparing a new book about truth, power, and the news media.
Despite the many legal protections for journalists working the United States, "I am not impressed, and actually, I've never been impressed, with the extent to which news organizations expose corporate wrongdoing," Lewis said in his lecture. "It is sporadic and infrequent at best." Lewis listed several "discouragements and disincentives" that he said have taken their toll on mainstream investigative news media, including decreasing budgets, threats of lawsuits, and a growing corporate presence reluctant to offend advertisers or harm professional relationships.
Lewis discussed his 30-year history as an investigative reporter and told several stories from his experience with ABC News and CBS's "60 Minutes," that illustrated how investigative journalists face "certain unspoken realities ... that often keep the major media's journalistic watchdogs from barking, let alone biting."
Lewis said that, often, the mere threat of a lawsuit was enough to force internal censorship and discourage in-depth reporting. When Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Walt Bogdanich, who was then working at ABC's "Day One," reported a story about tobacco companies knowingly altering nicotine levels in cigarettes to addict smokers, Phillip Morris sued ABC for $10 billion the day after the story ran, Lewis said. ABC News responded by canceling a planned documentary about cigarette exports, turning over all Bogdanich's sources, and settling the case without consulting Bogdanich, he said. "What do we do about lawsuits? These are serious problems for serious journalism," Lewis said. "You've got to have a way to handle that."
Lewis said he eventually quit his job as a producer at CBS after being asked to delete a name from a script focusing on a corporation that was run by a close friend of a CBS executive. After leaving CBS, he founded the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity (CPI),where he and his staff focused on producing accessible reports investigating government, corruption, war and the banking system.
Lewis spoke about his work at CPI, including an investigation into foreign suppliers in Iraq that revealed the political underpinnings of the process of awarding contracts. The CPI also released influential reports on the lucrative illegal trade of smuggling cigarettes, the climate change lobby, and the economic meltdown.
Today, Lewis said, there is an emerging trend toward a nonprofit model of investigative journalism, citing examples such as ProPublica and the Minnesota news Web site MinnPost. Some of these nonprofit groups have combined forces to form the Investigative News Network, which Lewis said plans to combine the investigative resources of many of these nonprofit groups across the country.
"There is a way to stand tall and be tough and to tough these things out and to move forward, "Lewis said. "And it's not easy, it's much easier to do daily journalism...but this kind of work is different."
The Silha Center enter also hosted a luncheon at the University's Coffman Memorial Union celebrating the 25th anniversary of its founding. Al Tims, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, commended Silha Professor and Silha Center Director Jane Kirtley for the Center's work, and praised the vision of Otto and Helen Silha, and the generosity and continued support of the entire Silha family. Stephen Silha, son of founders Otto and Helen, presented the Center with a framed photograph of Otto on behalf of the Silha family. Otto Silha passed away in 1999. Kirtley presented Helen Silha with an antique silver ink well to commemorate the anniversary.
The annual Silha Lecture is supported by a generous endowment from the late Otto Silha and his wife, Helen. Video coverage of the lecture is available on the Silha Center's Web site at http://silha.umn.edu/events.
- Ruth DeFoster
Silha Research Assistant