With the founding of the Center for Public Integrity in the 1980s, Charles Lewis probably did more than anyone else to launch institutional nonprofit journalism in America. So it is worth paying attention to what he has to say, especially when his subject includes the fate of journalism itself. Mr. Lewis’s “935 Lies” repays such attention, though not right away.
The first half of the book is an unremarkable recounting of America’s supposed loss of innocence—its missteps and transgressions as well as its attempts to restore the nation’s ideals—from the Tonkin Gulf and Freedom Summer to the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, from the Chilean coup to Iraq. An entire chapter, breaking no new ground, is devoted to the stubborn problem of race in America. The book’s historical narrative is meant to show, as the subtitle has it, “the decline of America’s moral integrity.” The title itself, which the author essentially disowns in a concluding note, refers to 935 statements by the George W. Bush administration about Iraq. Mr. Lewis asserts that the statements were all erroneous but concedes that they may not have been “lies” in the sense of knowing falsehood. In any case, the Iraq war plays only a limited role in Mr. Lewis’s tale of woe.
But hang in—or skip to the second part, which is mostly a memoir and almost all about journalism. It includes one of the toughest critiques of television news ever written by an insider. From 1977 to 1989, Mr. Lewis worked for ABC News and then for CBS’s news program “60 Minutes.”
Mr. Lewis begins with an admiring portrait of Edward R. Murrow, whose wartime reporting and work at CBS in the early 1950s, he believes, embodied a time when the news business managed to avoid the plague of risk aversion that would later come from corporate masters seeking ever larger profits. Then he takes us into the halls of Don Hewitt’s “60 Minutes” and makes the most of his own disillusioning experience.
“Serious journalism,” Mr. Lewis says, “will necessarily be undertaken by commercial TV news executives with great caution.” He argues that, as TV news began seeking a mass audience, the networks became “mostly interested in the illusion of investigative reporting.” Time pressures required that almost all their work in this area be derivative of work previously done by others, usually in print. “Well-connected, powerful people and companies with questionable policies and practices,” he says, were not investigated “precisely because of the connections and power they boasted.”
He describes a CBS corporate culture in which his first 150 story ideas yielded only three broadcast segments, either because there was insufficient time to develop them or because they lacked “characters.” What he was being asked to produce, he ultimately recognized, was “formulaic, good-versus-evil” pieces devoid of policy or nuance.
The most acute of Mr. Lewis’s frustrations came when Hewitt, the executive producer of “60 Minutes,” refused to broadcast a Lewis report on former government officials profiting as U.S. lobbyists for foreign interests unless the name of Hewitt’s good friend Pete Peterson, then chairman of the Blackstone BX +1.27% Group, was excised from the script. In the story, a photograph showed five smiling Blackstone executives, all former federal appointees, in a Japanese newspaper advertisement seeking business for their lobbying efforts. Mr. Peterson was singled out by name in the voice-over narrative. Correspondent Mike Wallace, for whom Mr. Lewis worked directly, implored him in a shouting match to remove Mr. Peterson’s name, to no avail. But Hewitt was more subtle, simply refusing to schedule the piece for airing. Mr. Lewis bitterly relented to Hewitt’s implicit demand and quit the day after the story was broadcast.
As for ABC, Mr. Lewis reports that its legendary news chief Roone Arledge killed a tough story on tobacco at the request of “the Corporate guys,” who were fearful that the network could complicate its position in a libel suit that Philip Morris PM -0.35% had already filed against the broadcaster. In another instance, Mr. Lewis was given just a few hours to determine the veracity of an allegation that Lyndon Johnson, when he was Senate majority leader, had accepted large cash bribes. Mr. Lewis accurately calls such an assignment “a fool’s errand.”
The book’s critique is less sure-footed when Mr. Lewis turns from TV to newspapers. At one point he suggests that investigative journalism in newspapers has been in retreat since 1968. He blames the decline almost entirely on “shortsighted greed and increasing corporatization” and hardly at all on the true culprit, the digital revolution that wreaked havoc on newspaper business models. The decline has largely occurred over the past decade, not anything like 45 years, and it has coincided with a collapse in newspaper profitability, which peaked in 2000.
Mr. Lewis’s personal story by no means ended when he left broadcast television. The Center for Public Integrity opened its doors in late 1989, and its first report followed up on his last “60 Minutes” piece. The center’s mission was to do investigative work in the public interest “using a ‘quasi-journalistic, quasi political science’ approach,” issuing long reports and later books. CPI was really the nation’s first independent nonprofit newsroom.
A serial nonprofit entrepreneur, Mr. Lewis has also founded the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other organizations aimed at promoting and undertaking nonprofit reporting. His reflections, especially on network television, point up the inherent limits of our largest legacy news organizations and embody the hope that new entrants will fill the gaps in newsgathering and, thereby, enlarge the public’s capacity for democratic governance.
By Richard J. Tofel
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