The big networks say they care about
uncovering the truth. That’s not what I saw.
By CHARLES LEWIS
Ernest Hemingway famously said that “the most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.” He was talking about the novelist, I suppose. But his dictum applies to the investigative journalist, in spades. It is the born reporter who insistently, even masochistically, clings to the notion that things are not what they outwardly seem and pursues the hidden truth in any situation even when other people prefer to ignore it. For most people this simply is not normal human activity.
Imagine discovering that a paid FBI informant may have actually killed a civil rights worker during one of the most famous civil rights marches in U.S. history? Or that a top county public school official had put 23 of his relatives on the payroll, sexually harassed female employees and separately had informed the parents of handicapped students that their children couldn’t attend school. Or uncovering the fact that the most famous divorce lawyer in America had been literally raping his clients. Or that the (then) biggest savings and loan fraud in the U.S. was actually an inside job, in which a banker had allowed his financial institution to be defrauded as he received millions of dollars from the perpetrators. Or that a presidential campaign co-chairman had helped teach white supremacist groups how to develop a militia capacity. In Washington, D.C., especially in Washington D.C., an investigative reporter’s shit detector must be mighty.
I’ll admit it takes a strange sort of zeal to spend months or years on a single subject, to accept rejection by scores of sources, to weather threats—everything from the very real possibility of being thrown from a second-story window to being stalked outside my hotel room to million-dollar lawsuits and almost universal calumny—all in dogged pursuit of obscured information. Despite having spent a lifetime with this peculiar form of affliction, I’m sure I can’t fully explain it.
But when I embarked on this profession, I was in many ways prepared for all that—for the threats, the lawsuits and the general hostility. That was just the cost of doing business. What I didn’t foresee, what floored me and frustrated me, was that sometimes the biggest obstacles in the pursuit of what Carl Bernstein calls “the best obtainable version of the truth” came from the inside—from my bosses and my bosses’ bosses who, despite their professed support, had no real interest in publishing the hardest-hitting stories.
In October 1977, a few weeks before I turned 24, after a brief make-or-break meeting with the reporting unit’s leader where I pitched half a dozen potential national investigative stories that apparently resonated with him, I was hired as a “reportorial producer” for a fledgling “Special Reporting Unit” at ABC News. This was my dream job.
Over my six-and-a-half years at ABC, I investigated everything from attempted presidential assassinations to unsolved crimes from the civil rights era, from prospective Supreme Court nominees to FBI misconduct, from Washington corruption scandals such as ABSCAM to the 1980 presidential campaign. I remain proud of my work during these years, which provided my continuing education about the United States and the world, about national and local politics and news gathering, about internal corporate machinations and duplicity, about truth and airbrushed truth (and the best techniques for distinguishing the two).
Yet over time, the work was becoming enormously frustrating. The Special Reporting Unit was disbanded after a year, and I was reassigned within the ABC Washington Bureau. Independently, I had begun to conclude that, generally speaking, network television news (in that pre-Internet age) was disconcertingly tethered to the front-page news judgment of the nation’s most respected newspapers. When I would propose exclusive stories up the ladder, for example, I would frequently receive notes back saying, “I haven’t read this in the New York Times” as the rationale for not pursuing them.
It became painfully apparent over time that network television news was not especially interested in investigative reporting, certainly not to the extent or the depth of the best national print outlets. In fact, the most trusted man in America around this time, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, had told Time magazine something in 1966 that still rang true more than a decade later: that “the networks, including my own, do a first-rate job of disseminating the news, but all of them have third-rate news-gathering organizations. We are still basically dependent on the wire services. We have barely dipped our toe into investigative reporting.”
Gradually, television’s daily editorial insecurity vis-à-vis the older print world and its own tepid commitment to enterprise journalism caused me to conclude that all three major networks were mostly interested in the illusion of investigative reporting. Breathless, “exclusive” coverage of the latest government report (preferably ahead of the other networks), replete with “revelations” and “findings”—all unabashedly piggybacking on the investigations of others, official reports by inspectors general or congressional committees, criminal or civil court records—could create the aura of an aggressive news organization, for much less money (and fewer libel suits) than actually doing the original reporting. I found it sobering to realize that the news organization I worked for didn’t consider the work of finding the actual truth about a complicated situation economically efficient or even necessary.
The absurdity of this faux-investigative game reached its nadir for me one day when I was asked to follow up on a wire service report about former president Lyndon Johnson. Someone with personal access to Johnson when he was Senate majority leader in the late 1950s had just asserted under oath that he had on more than one occasion given Johnson envelopes of cash. I was explicitly asked to “check it out” for that evening’s news program.
I had only a few hours to confirm the veracity of an allegation of misconduct more than two decades earlier, said to have been committed by a president deceased for more than a decade. Plausible or not, allegations this serious and anecdotal would take months, if not years, of archival research and reporting to investigate, and even then the chances of being able to reach a credible conclusion about what had happened were still very low.
Still, an assignment is an assignment. I gritted my teeth and, at the behest of my superiors, tracked down Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro, who was in the early stages of crafting his multivolume biography of Johnson. He couldn’t have been more gracious, but we both immediately realized that this was a fool’s errand. In his own meticulous reporting, examining every day of Johnson’s adult life, Caro had not yet scrutinized the time period of these sensational allegations. I sheepishly thanked him and handed in some sort of response to the supremely ludicrous challenge I’d been given.
I came away from that poignant, teaching moment vividly aware of the vast difference between fluff and noise masquerading as the serious pursuit of the truth and the real thing. I still tried hard to carve out a professional space where my investigative instincts could flourish. But outside of the network and within the profession of journalism, I was virtually unknown, toiling away in what was essentially a dead-end job.
It didn’t help matters that I had the temerity to turn down an investigative producer job for correspondent Geraldo Rivera at the prime-time TV newsmagazine 20/20. The offer was made to me in a one-on-one meeting in New York City by ABC News vice president David Burke. Taking that position would have immediately more than doubled my salary, but I nevertheless politely declined on the spot. When Burke pressed me to explain my decision, I said that I didn’t want to work with Rivera—a controversial showman known for breathless, sensational stories such as (years later) the live unsealing of Al Capone’s secret vault (which turned out to be empty).
Burke was flabbergasted and apoplectic with rage; his face turned red, his neck veins popped, he jabbed a finger at me, and he spewed a string of expletives, along with a line I’ve never forgotten: “You people in [the] Washington [Bureau] are so fucking smug and arrogant. The only reporter at this network with any balls is Geraldo Rivera.” What’s more, he made it emphatically clear that I would never be offered another job at ABC News, and I’ve been told that he went out of his way to block any promotions or transfers to other bureaus.
At the same time, to my dismay, I discovered that big-time newspaper editors viewed TV news veterans with great suspicion and distrust. In their view, I had begun my professional journalism career by going to work on the dark side. So with considerable frustration, and with no appealing alternatives, I resigned myself to staying at ABC until a better opportunity came along.
In March 1984, it did. Veteran CBS News correspondent Mike Wallace called me to ask if I might be interested in producing investigative segments for him at 60 Minutes. I had never met Wallace or spoken with him, and I was floored by his unexpected call. Of course, I had followed his network career for many years and was fully aware that 60 Minutes was the highest-rated, most honored network news program in the history of television. Wallace had been one of the two original 60 Minutes correspondents in 1968, earning fame for his unflinchingly aggressive interview style and investigative edge. He’d been assaulted on the floor of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and he’d interviewed the Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979—just two highlights from an award-winning, sometimes controversial career. I was excited by the opportunity to work with him. I thought maybe this time would be different.
During my first year at 60 Minutes, I looked into 150 possible stories and wrote memoranda about a couple dozen of them. Yet only three became broadcast segments on the program. I had been hired explicitly to break big, edgy, investigative stories, but I soon discovered that large, original investigations of my own were generally impractical—even at a show famous for its exposés—because of the intense time pressures. So the challenge was to find important, previously investigated subjects that could be told well and further reported on television.
There were other restrictions as well. The dictum at 60 Minutes, as often repeated by founder and executive producer Don Hewitt, was that “we don’t do stories about issues, we do stories about people.” Good “characters” were essential for these morality plays, and without a few of them, there simply would be no 13:30 story—then considered the “ideal” segment length, I had been told.
It would be wrong to say that I didn’t find satisfaction in the job. During my roughly five years at the program, I investigated and brought to broadcast numerous segments—most of them of the classic, formulaic, good-versus-evil 60 Minutes genre—about a diverse range of subjects: a corrupt public school superintendent in Appalachia; multimillion-dollar Social Security check fraud by postal employees in San Francisco; art fraud involving Salvador Dali lithographs; and murder inside the worst hospital in America.
But I had also seen things at two networks that had troubled me profoundly: nationally important stories not pursued; well-connected, powerful people and companies with questionable policies and practices that were not investigated precisely because of the connections and the power they boasted.
My last 60 Minutes segment, “Foreign Agent,” featured well-known former U.S. officials and presidential campaign aides from both parties who were cashing in on their political connections by working as lobbyists or investment bankers for foreign entities. One of the latter was former Commerce Secretary Pete Peterson, at the time the CEO of the New York-based investment firm Blackstone and, more important, one of Don Hewitt’s closest personal friends. The two men were so close that Don would often join Peterson on his company helicopter for Friday-night flights to the Hamptons, thereby avoiding the summertime bumper-to-bumper traffic.
The script we’d written included the line, “For Japan and other foreign interests, finding former U.S. officials to do their bidding is not at all difficult,” accompanied by the image of a Japanese newspaper advertisement with five smiling Blackstone officials, extolling their prior U.S. government service and connections. The translation of the ad read, “If you are thinking about developing a new business or an investment strategy … that will be effective in the U.S., by all means, consult us!”
During the production process, when I showed Mike Wallace the photo I’d had shipped from Tokyo, Mike said, “That’s not our story—you’re not filming that.” And I countered, “Mike, what are you talking about? This is the nut of the story—former officials trading on the prestige of their former positions, trying to make a buck with foreign companies and governments.” Wallace and I had a huge expletive-filled shouting match, toe to toe, our faces close; I refused to back down, and he stormed out. We put the picture in the piece.
The first time Don screened the piece, he quipped, “I guess I’m not going to get any more rides on Pete’s helicopter.” But as the days and weeks wore on, with the piece not green-lighted for air—ostensibly because it was “too long”—I realized that I had no choice but to find some sort of editorial compromise, which was offensive to me then and, quite frankly, still is.
One day, while I was on the phone, Don walked into my office and asked whether I’d found a way to “fix” the piece.
“Yes,” I said, and I suggested that we remove Peterson’s name from the script and replace it with the name of another well-known Blackstone official, former Reagan budget director David Stockman. It was a nanosecond shorter—two syllables instead of three—and it solved the unstated, real problem that Don had with the story. Don smiled, said “Terrific,” and left the room, which meant the segment had just been approved for air that Sunday.
I picked up the open phone receiver and resumed my conversation with one of the segment interviewees, Pat Choate, the Ph.D. economist and author who later ran for vice president on the Ross Perot ticket in 1996. I asked Pat, “Did you hear all that?” And he replied, “Every word.”
The substitution of Stockman for Peterson didn’t settle all the problems with the piece. In the days leading up to the broadcast, other prominent people mentioned in the story had been applying personal and legal pressure on Don and Mike, as well as the president of CBS News. So instead of being praised for producing a powerful, important story, I was under siege, being blamed for causing problems. I found myself in an inhospitable environment for original investigative reporting and its occasional consequences—pushback from the powerful (which should be a badge of honor for a reporter), but also spinelessness from my employer about what we had just published. Wallace and I had several venomous arguments that week, none more boisterous or invective-filled than some phone calls in the hours before the Sunday broadcast, in which we literally hung up on each other.
The whole noxious ordeal made something inside me snap. The morning after “Foreign Agent” led the broadcast, in the midst of a four-year contract, with a family to support, a mortgage to pay, and virtually no savings, I quit 60 Minutes.
Producers there usually retire, voluntarily or involuntarily, or die on the job—hardly anyone just up and quits. In a brief phone call from my Washington office to the show’s offices in New York City, I matter-of-factly informed Mike Wallace that I had decided to leave. My announcement came moments after Wallace had called me, somewhat giddy, to say that CBS chairman Laurence Tisch had just phoned him with effusive congratulations about our hard-hitting story the previous evening. It was the best thing he had seen on CBS in years, Tisch had told him, a “real public service.”
Later that morning, I faxed Don Hewitt a three-sentence letter of resignation.
Wallace and others at the program later asked my friends and colleagues if perhaps I was having a nervous breakdown. Don Hewitt wanted to know if “this” was all about money; he indicated that my contract could be substantially renegotiated upward, and then I could get back to work.
Of course, my departure had nothing to do with either of these factors. Nor was it driven by any personal animus on my part toward Mike Wallace. Mike was certainly not the easiest man to work with, but I respected him and his enormous contribution to broadcast journalism, and appreciated the opportunity he had given me.
It was a matter of principle. It was simply time for me to leave.
Many people, then and since, have asked me what exactly I was thinking—after all, I was walking away from a successful career full of future promise. Certainly, quitting 60 Minutes was the most impetuous thing I have ever done. But looking back, I realize how I’d changed. Beneath my polite, mild-mannered exterior, I’d developed a bullheaded determination not to be denied, misled or manipulated. And more than at any previous time, I had had a jarring epiphany that the obstacles on the way to publishing the unvarnished truth had become more formidable internally than externally. I joked to friends that it had become far easier to investigate the bastards—whoever they are—than to suffer through the reticence, bureaucratic hand-wringing and internal censorship of my employer.
In a highly collaborative medium, I had found myself working with overseers I felt I could no longer trust journalistically or professionally, especially in the face of public criticism or controversy—a common occupational hazard for an investigative reporter. My job was to produce compelling investigative journalism for an audience of 30 million to 40 million Americans. But if my stories generated the slightest heat, it was obvious to me who would be expendable. My sense of isolation and vulnerability was palpable.
The best news about this crossroads moment was that after 11 years in the intense, cutthroat world of network television news, I still had some kind of inner compass. I was still unwilling to succumb completely to the lures of career ambition, financial security, peer pressure or conventional wisdom.
Just weeks after I quit, I decided to begin a nonprofit investigation reporting organization—a place dedicated to digging deep beneath the smarminess of Washington’s daily-access journalism into the documents few reporters seemed to be reading, which I knew from experience would reveal broad patterns of cronyism, favoritism, personal enrichment and outrageous (though mostly legal) corruption. My dream was a journalistic utopia—an investigative milieu in which no one would tell me who or what not to investigate. And so I recruited two trusted journalist friends and founded the Center for Public Integrity. The Center’s first report, “America’s Frontline Trade Officials,” was an expanded version of the 60 Minutes “Foreign Agent” story. Not long after this report was published, President George H.W. Bush signed an executive order banning former trade officials from becoming lobbyists for foreign governments or corporations.
Over the years, the center was the first news organization to analyze and post online all of the available financial disclosure statements for every state legislator in America, revealing numerous apparent conflicts of interest. It broke the Lincoln bedroom scandal first revealing that President Bill Clinton’s top donors had been rewarded with overnight stays in the White House. In February 2003, weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the center posted secret draft “Patriot II” legislation, and in October it posted all of the known U.S. war contracts in Afghanistan. In the past quarter-century, the center’s reporting has won more than 70 national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Goldsmith Prize and the George Polk award for three separate stories in 2014. Meanwhile, I now teach journalism at the American University School of Communication in Washington, and I am the founding executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop, the largest university-based, nonprofit newsroom in the United States.
The center did amazingly well, today even becoming a venerable institution—employing 40 people full-time and it publishing scores of investigative stories a year. But it’s frustrating that it was ever necessary at all. Back in 1989 when I started it, major investigative reporting did not seem to be particularly valued by national news editors, whether in broadcasting or newspapers. Instead, they seemed satisfied merely to reactively report on the systemic abuses of power, trust and the law in Washington—from the Iran-Contra scandal to the savings and loan disaster to the first resignation of a House Speaker since 1800. There was very little proactive, original investigative journalism about these or other vitally important subjects, and, equally galling to me, there was smug arrogance and complacency instead of apologetic humility by those in the national press corps, despite their lackluster pursuit of such abuses of power.
And more than two decades later, it’s no better. With a third fewer commercial journalists than 20 years ago and public relations “spinners” now outnumbering professional reporters and editors by 4 to 1, the Center for Public Integrity and organizations like it are more necessary than ever. Fewer commercial news organizations support investigative journalism now than at any time in recent history, and reporters today—especially those who aggressively seek the truths that government, business and other powerful institutions seek to conceal—are arguably more alone, more exposed and more vulnerable to professional and even physical harm than they ever were.
There has to be a better way.
Charles Lewis is a national investigative journalist and founder of the Center for Public Integrity. He is a former ABC News and 60 Minutes producer and currently teaches journalism at American University School of Communication. This piece is excerpted from his book 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity, which was released last week.