Investigate the bastards

The world needs investigative journalists—women and men who doggedly dig into the doings of the powerful. It’s risky business. Of journalists killed in peace time, said Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity, 85 percent were covering corruption.

Death threats aren’t the worst obstacles for intrepid muckrakers, said Lewis, who spoke at UNR last week.

Between corporate ownership of the media and the American audience’s taste for celebrity news, investigative reporters may fast become a dying breed.

Last year, Time magazine, owned by the world’s largest media conglomerate Time Warner, fired two Pulitzer-winning investigative reporters, Donald Barlett and James Steele. The two covered how lawmakers and Wall Street better serve the interests of the rich and privileged than the rest of us. Their books include America: Who Stole the Dream? and The Great American Tax Dodge.

Time canned Barlett, Steele and numerous other employees—ostensibly to cut costs.

About the same time, the company paid $4 million for photos of Brad and Angelina’s baby.

There’s a bleak anecdote.

“Time’s wasting,” Lewis said. “A lot of my friends are getting fired. We need new models.”

Lewis, a former 60 Minutes producer who described the job as “recruiting victims for Mike Wallace to interview,” came to the Reynolds School of Journalism as part of the first-ever Journalism Week. Speakers from ESPN, the Associated Press, Gannett, the Maynard Foundation, MediaStorm, and Reuters convened over nothing less than the future of journalism.

Some aspects of the question weigh heavy. What’s happening to the Fourth Estate, to freedom of the press and to news organizations that are supposed to serve democracy through tried methods of information gathering and solid reporting? Who’s paying attention? These are Lewis’s questions. He wasn’t satisfied working at 60 Minutes.

“We were investigating people, but in a cartoonish way with the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys,” he said. “You hoped someone would cry in the course of the story to get viewers to engage.”

In 1988, he left CBS for reasons he doesn’t discuss. He suggests watching the film, The Insider, about the mid-1990s struggle between corporate owners and reporters at 60 Minutes.

Since all media have “sacred cows"—subjects that don’t get reported—Lewis wondered if a better way existed to do investigative journalism. He set out to create a journalist’s utopia “unfettered by time and space” where a person can investigate the powerful “and no one tells you what to do.”

He founded the Center for Public Integrity,, which pays its bills through foundation grants. The center has reported some biggies. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are safe. In the 1990s, the center’s staff broke the story about Clinton contributors rewarded with White House stays. CPI first reported Enron’s weighty contributions to George W.

Remember when talk of a PATRIOT Act II had civil rights activists fuming in 2003? Republicans denied that the plan existed. The CPI obtained a draft of the legislation and placed it online. The bill—a troubling extension of the PATRIOT Act—never saw the light of Congress.

Journalism Week was jam-packed with heady brainstorming. Some innovations invoked mixed feelings. Example: Reuters has a reporter working inside the online gaming environment Second Life. Lewis seemed fascinated by this but also puzzled over a journalistic career that involves creating an avatar to interview role-players in a virtual world.

He didn’t explicitly call this a waste of time. But …

“If you’re an investigative reporter who reports on what the bastards are up to,” he said, “There’s a lot of work to go around.”