Investigative reporter Chuck Lewis delivers 2009 Silha Lecture

Lewis delivers 24th annual lecture
By Ruth DeFoster and Jacob Parsley

silha_podium.jpgCharles "Chuck" Lewis delivers the 2009 Silha Lecture. Lewis, the founding executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication, talked about the "unspoken realities" that investigative journalists face in their work.
Photo: Scott A. Thisen

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 have produced a fundamental change in the state of investigative reporting in the United States.

A professor, journalist, author, recipient of a MacArthur "genius award" and founding executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication in Washington, D.C., Lewis delivered the 24th annual Silha Lecture, "Unspoken Realities About Investigative Journalism and the Law," on Oct. 21, 2009. 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. College of Liberal Arts dean James Parente welcomed attendees to the lecture, which attracted an overflow crowd in the Cowles Auditorium on the University of Minnesota's West Bank.

silha_lecture.jpgThe lecture drew an overflow crowd in the Cowles Auditorium in the Hubert H. Humphrey Center.
Photo: Scott A. Thisen

Despite the many legal protections for journalists working in 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 remarks. "It is sporadic and infrequent at best." Lewis listed several "discouragements and disincentives" that he believes have taken a 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 News' "60 Minutes," illustrating how investigative journalists face "certain unspoken realities ... that often keep the major media's journalistic watchdogs from barking, let alone biting."

Often, Lewis said, the mere threat of a lawsuit was enough to force internal censorship and discourage in-depth reporting. He explained that when Pulitzer Prize- winning reporter Walt Bogdanich, then working at ABC's "Day One," reported a story about tobacco companies knowingly altering nicotine levels in cigarettes to addict smokers, Philip Morris sued ABC for $10 billion the day after the story ran. Lewis told the audience that ABC News responded by canceling a planned documentary about cigarette exports, turning over all of Bogdanich's sources and settling the case without consulting Bogdanich.

"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 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 discussed his work at CPI, including an investigation into foreign suppliers in Iraq that revealed the political underpinnings of the process of awarding contracts. 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. He cited such examples as New York-based ProPublica and the Minnesota news Web site MinnPost, organizations that are well-staffed and theoretically free of the negative corporate influence on mainstream media. 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 the 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."

Lewis closed by quoting Abraham Lincoln: "I'm a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts."

Celebrating 25 years

silha_photo.jpgStephen Silha, left, son of founders Otto and Helen Silha, presented Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center, with a framed photograph of his father on behalf of the Silha family. Established in 1984, the Center's primary function is to conduct research in areas where legal and ethical issues converge and to monitor changes in law or in journalistic practice that may result.

Earlier in the day on Oct. 21, the Silha Center hosted a luncheon at the University's Coffman Memorial Union celebrating the 25th anniversary of the center's founding. The luncheon was attended by more than 60 people, including members of the local media, University faculty and Silha Center staff and members and friends of the Silha family. Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center and Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law, welcomed the group and thanked the Silha family for its 25 years of supporting the work of the center.

Al Tims, director of the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, emphasized the importance of the Silha Center and professor Kirtley'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 the late Otto Silha on behalf of the Silha family, and spoke about his continued interest in the Silha Center's work and its importance to his family. Professor Kirtley thanked the Silha family and presented Helen Silha with an antique silver inkwell in honor of the Silha Center's silver anniversary. Chuck Lewis then took the microphone and added his thanks for the work of professor Kirtley and the Silha Center. Lewis went on to give a preview of his evening lecture and took questions from lunch attendees.



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