BOB GARFIELD: For eleven years, Charles Lewis was a TV news producer. In 1989, he was with 60 Minutes, at the top of his game, when he decided to pack it in. He mortgaged his house, retired to his bedroom, and founded the Center for Public Integrity. Today, the center is a muckraking assembly line, winning its investigators 28 major journalism awards along the way to becoming the largest non-profit investigative journalism organization in the world - minus any requirement for on-camera drama. It broke the Lincoln bedroom scandal during the Clinton presidency, published the otherwise secret Patriot II Act, revealed that Enron was George W. Bush's top career patron, and disclosed the no-bid contracts granted to US companies in Iraq. In short, many of the last decade's investigative coups have been conducted by a non-profit, non-news organization. Recently, Charles Lewis stepped down from the center he founded. I asked him how his peers reacted when he first left 60 Minutes.
CHARLES LEWIS: My colleagues thought I'd lost my mind entirely. In fact, when I quit 60 Minutes, the person I produced for, Mike Wallace, thought I was having a nervous breakdown. Seriously. And they called around to make sure I was okay. And lots of my friends thought I…
BOB GARFIELD: Well, wait a second - was he right?
CHARLES LEWIS: [LAUGHS] I think I was of sound mind, but it did appear rather peculiar.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, it must have been very liberating to be freed from the requirement to have dramatic videotape. What was your typical motive? Was it just shoe leather journalism? A lot of Freedom of Information Act, and just the methodical gathering of data? What?
CHARLES LEWIS: I felt that a good number of the most important public service corruption issues of our time, the media was asleep, and most of the federal government wasn't being covered at all, frankly. And so, there were lots of records, millions of records, I realized, that no one was reading. The very first center report, we found that 47 percent of all the White House trade officials over a 20 year period, both Republican and Democratic presidents, had left government and gone to work for foreign governments and foreign corporations - people they were negotiating against in trade deals - they would then go to work for, after they left government. You know, there was just never any coverage of what I just described. And so the, the model, in a way, was born.
BOB GARFIELD: So what are the tricks for getting the media's attention?
CHARLES LEWIS: We found that numbers work. If we say that 40 percent of all the Pentagon's contracts the last six years, there were no competitive bidders - more than 300 billion dollars, given out to one company - that got print coverage - the New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, but the networks yawned and didn't find it interesting. So-
BOB GARFIELD: Because, there are no pictures of 40 percent.
CHARLES LEWIS: That's right. That part is hard for them, and they're going to get a defense contractor saying there's nothing wrong with it, and of course one of the networks is owned by General Electric - one of the top ten contractors in Iraq and in the world. I'm not saying that's why they didn't cover it, but my point I'm making is, it didn't stop us. We spent, you know, a lot of money and a lot of time and close to a year, pulling two plus million records, to see about the competitive bidding and the contracts in the Pentagon. I mean 900 billion dollars worth of contracts under a microscope. No one has actually ever done that, believe it or not, in journalism.
BOB GARFIELD: Did you find yourself at idea meetings with your staff, filtering out worthy investigative possibilities because you knew that, for whatever reason, they aren't going to attract the attention of the media out there?
CHARLES LEWIS: I had the field of dreams approach - that if we built it - they will come. I don't know who "they" is. Somebody will see it, some time. Because they need to be done, and if the Center for Public Integrity didn't do it, who's going to do it? You know, the - posting the Patriot II Act - here is a secret piece of legislation that the administration has not acknowledged they're even going to be developing. They've actually told Congress they're not developing such a sequel to the Patriot Act. We get a hold of the thing; we post it on the web. The TV networks did not think it was a story. The New York Times and the Washington Post and the Associated Press and hundreds of news outlets around the world did think it was a very important story, and so did 15 million hits on our website, 350,000 unique visitors inside of five days. And so, you put it out there, somebody is going to see it, and at least there's a good chance it could have an impact, and that's all I need to go to work.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you something, Don Quixote - what are your top three windmills that you've tilted at that you thought deserved far more public attention and media attention but somehow amounted to nothing?
CHARLES LEWIS: Gosh. There are so many of our reports, looking at the privatization of water around the world, looking at private military companies, the increased privatization of national security. We looked at chemicals that hurt people in America, and we looked at four systematically over three plus years, with a dozen researchers, and it showed an M.O. by an industry about how to evade regulation, and also with litigation, how to seal all the court cases and keep it from the public. I happen to think that's one of the most important things we ever did. It got almost no coverage - one or two columnists tipped their hat to it.
BOB GARFIELD: So let's talk about success. It may be wrong, but I see about four levels. First is completing the investigation to your satisfaction.
CHARLES LEWIS: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: Then there's getting media attention. Then there's getting the public to care-
CHARLES LEWIS: Right. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: --which does not always follow.
CHARLES LEWIS: [LAUGHS] Right.
BOB GARFIELD: -- from media attention--
CHARLES LEWIS: True.
BOB GARFIELD: -- and then there's actually getting change to take place. How often have you gotten to level four?
CHARLES LEWIS: I haven't kept score in a precise way, and the Center for Public Integrity does not advocate legislation, does not lobby. Maybe, at most, ten percent of the time we've gotten, as you've just put it, to level four. But if I don't get to level four, that does not mean, in my mind, that I've failed. If I got it out there, and the political process is so anemic and pathetically operating these days that they can't address it, or the public is either apathetic or complacent and doesn't want to deal with it, that's not my problem. I can't do everything in the world. And if change occurs, that's like dessert - that's even better - but we eat most of our meals without dessert, I'd have to say.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, let me change mythic archetypes here. Never mind Don Quixote. [LAUGHTER] Let's talk about Sisyphus--
CHARLES LEWIS: Yeah, that [LAUGHS] might be more accurate. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: --pushing the boulder perpetually up the hill. As you retire from what has become your life's work, and you see the very complacent public that you've just described, and you see a government that clamps down ever-tighter on information, and a media that seem, in the aggregate, to be more quiescent than ever, do you sometimes want to just let the boulder roll down over you and put you out of your misery?
CHARLES LEWIS: Depends what day we're talking, I guess. I'm at a bit of a personal crossroads. You know, I'm writing a book right now. I'm teaching investigative reporting in the college level. I'm also going around the world, teaching how to do it in various countries. I felt the founder had to leave the building at some point, and that I needed to even go larger. I am the head of the Fund for Independence in Journalism, a support organization that will stand behind the center and groups like the center in the future. I worry about the assault on truth and the assault on information that we see today in our society.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well Charles, thank you very much.
CHARLES LEWIS: Well, thank you. I appreciate your interest. Take care.
BOB GARFIELD: Charles Lewis is retiring from the Center for Public Integrity, which he founded 16 years ago. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the man who re-made Time - magazine, and Hollywood's touch and go relationship with the Holocaust.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, from NPR. [FUNDING CREDITS]