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‘Investigating the Bastards’: ICIJ’s founder on how he learned to love nonprofit journalism

ICIJ founder Charles 'Chuck' Lewis was honored with the I.F. Stone award for his commitment to investigative journalism.

Charles ‘Chuck’ Lewis is an investigative reporter from the United States who founded the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 1997. He also founded the Center for Public Integrity, which included ICIJ until last year, and has been well recognized for his contributions to investigative journalism.

Last month, he was awarded the I.F. Stone Medal that honors the life of path-breaking investigative journalist I.F. Stone. The American journalist was well known for I.F. Stone’s Weekly, published from 1953 to 1971, and celebrated for speaking truth to power.

The award was “in recognition of his unceasing efforts to strengthen and support the work of investigative journalists in the U.S. and abroad.” Here, he talks with us about how media has changed, and continues to develop, and the importance of independent news organizations – such as ICIJ.

The I.F. Stone Medal Selection Committee applauded you as a pioneer in nonprofit news and a leader in the “new media ecosystem.” What is the new media ecosystem, and how and why has it developed in recent years?

In the United States, we have had nonprofit news organizations for a very long time. Associated Press was created in 1846, but we also have the Christian Science Monitor, the Tampa Bay Times, the Manchester Union Leader, Congressional Quarterly, National Geographic, Consumer Reports, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Harper’s, etc. The first three U.S. investigative reporting nonprofit news organizations were Mother Jones magazine (1976, published by the nonprofit Foundation for National Progress), the Center for Investigative Reporting (1977), and the Center for Public Integrity (1989).

Today 151 nonprofit news organizations are members of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) in the United States, including the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (founded in 1997 as a project of the Center for Public Integrity and part of it until February 2017, when it became an independent, incorporated, tax exempt U.S.-based nonprofit.) I founded the Center for Public Integrity, ICIJ and co-founded the INN.

These nonprofit news organizations comprise the “new media ecosystem” in the United States. But as my colleagues and I have recently documented at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, there also are now [at least] 27 nonprofit news organizations outside the United States, around the world.

I strongly believe that investigative journalism is continuing to evolve and so too are the possibilities regarding new collaborations, as I have recently written about for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. I also have advocated the need for accountability research, reporting and specifically, journalistic-academic collaboration. We all rely heavily on primary written documents, and especially multiple, cross-meshed, primary data sets. Increasingly the most serious, important issues of our time transcend nation-state borders and oceans, professions and research genres. It’s time for us all to adapt and embrace the thrilling new research, reporting, data-gathering and analysis possibilities.

Is this a global phenomenon? Are some countries or regions doing it better than others?

Yes. This is a global phenomenon and moment, and the reportorial and analytical possibilities are transcendent and almost unimaginable. Journalistically, the regions geographically embracing “the new possible” the most appear to be the United States and Europe, but that is not to say that great innovation and investigative journalism excellence are absent elsewhere on Planet Earth. I think it is an exciting time everywhere.

The I.F. Stone Medal honors “journalistic independence.” What does this mean to you? And how important is it that journalists are independent, particularly in our present media environment?

Journalistic independence means investigating the bastards, whoever they are. That’s what it means to me. Nonpartisan, not beholden in any way to any faction, organization, political party, corporation, labor union, religious or any other special interest or “cause” beyond investigative reporting itself.

Unfettered truth telling, or as old expression goes, “without fear or favor.”

There is nothing more important than editorial freedom and independence. It is a bedrock principle of who we are and what we do. Period.

You’ve had an incredible career in investigative journalism, spanning almost four decades. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in that time?

I deeply resented it when commercial news organizations I worked for killed or neutered my investigative stories for various reasons unrelated to journalism. This happened to me at two different news organizations, first at a local newspaper where I worked and years later, at the most popular national television news program in U.S. history.

When CBS News 60 Minutes killed one of my prospective investigative stories and months later substantively diminished another for entirely non-journalistic reasons, I abruptly quit, breaking a four-year contract. And months later, I founded the Center for Public Integrity.

And what has been your favorite assignment/story of all time?

Choosing my favorite investigative story “of all time” is an impossible task, kind of like asking a parent to pick a favorite child. One story that I am very proud of occurred n the weeks prior to the March 19, 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. I was leaked secret “Patriot II” draft legislation, “a bold, comprehensive sequel to the USA Patriot Act passed in the wake of September 11, 2001,” that would give the U.S. government unprecedented domestic intelligence and surveillance capabilities. After verifying the authenticity of the extraordinary leaked document, a top Bush Administration Justice Department official gravely warned us that we would be “very sorry” if we published it. I disagreed, and we immediately posted our story, including the secret, prospective 86-page government document, on the Center for Public Integrity website. Scores of newspapers across America, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, published prominent stories about the controversial “Patriot II” draft legislation.

Within hours, the sheer volume of web traffic crashed the Center website. Substantively, the exposé caused a bipartisan uproar, as Congress had been misled for six months that there was no Bush Administration intention to propose sequel legislation to the 2001 Patriot Act. Ultimately, media and public uproar killed it on the eve of war. Respected Newsday journalist Nat Hentoff dubbed me “the Paul Revere of our time, and the following year, the literary organization PEN USA presented me with the First Amendment Award in Los Angeles for “for expanding the reach of investigative journalism, for his courage in going after a story regardless of whose toes he steps on, and for boldly exercising his freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”

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