Understanding the Value of Investigative Reporting
A nonprofit director feels frustrated by how difficult it is to find ‘adequate resources for independent investigative reporting.’
“Watchdog” and “muckraker” are wonderful words, reflecting both the greatest challenge of a free press and the most compelling need in a free and open society. When done well, investigative journalism improves lives and strengthens our republic, as demonstrated by the groundbreaking work of Ida Tarbell (Standard Oil), Upton Sinclair (meatpacking), Lincoln Steffens (urban corruption), Edwin Markham (child labor), and other standard-bearers of the craft. Certainly, modern-day muckrakers continue in this grand turn-of-the-20th century tradition. While hard-fought, individual battles to ferret out information to tell an important story are being won again and again, the broader war for transparency and accountability is, I fear, being lost. As Joseph Pulitzer once said, “Our republic and its press will rise or fall together.”
At a time when the American press had largely abandoned muckraking and our republic was in dire need of greater transparency, I took the reins at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity (CPI) in Washington, D.C.. That happened in January 2007, nearly two decades after Charles Lewis, its visionary builder, founded CPI, which has set the benchmark for solid investigative journalism. As an online pioneer, CPI has put millions of words, thousands of documents, and scores of databases on the Web, most of it made easily searchable by journalists, policymakers and citizens. CPI’s investigations have broken news about the Lincoln Bedroom’s high-roller guest list in the Clinton administration and have posted—against the explicit wishes of the Justice Department—the previously undisclosed Patriot II legislation crafted by the Bush administration. Altogether, CPI has issued 400 investigative reports and 17 books, including the 2004 best seller, “The Buying of the President.”
After more than a quarter-century in public radio, including 16 years as head of the news operations at National Public Radio (NPR) and Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), known nationally as American Public Media, I was eager—to borrow author Kevin Phillips’s description of CPI’s work—to shine a brighter light of truth “into so many Washington dirty laundry baskets.” I knew, too, that digital journalism’s tools and technology have enabled us to open up new avenues of in-depth reporting and global distribution of what we find, which has increased the scope of our reporting and the breadth of its influence.
In 2005, I had collaborated with CPI while running American RadioWorks, public radio’s documentary unit based at MPR. After a year of working together with Northwestern University’s Medill News Service to collect travel data from the basement of the Capitol, our three organizations published an online report called “Power Trips.” Every lobbyist-funded trip during the previous five years for members of Congress and their staffers is made public through a first-of-its-kind, detailed, searchable database of some $55 million in travel expenses—payments for which sponsoring lobbyists presumably had more in mind than the scenery. As a result of making these records transparent—and the 1,200-plus articles written as a result of our findings—congressional travel behavior changed sharply; most notably, lobbyist-paid travel plummeted. Then, one year ago, Congress toughened the law in an attempt to close this influence loophole.
During this first year I’ve been at CPI, by relying on the Chuck Lewis-method of unassailable, no-stone-unturned, investigative journalism, I had a front-row seat to observe the impact this kind of reporting can have on government’s performance. What follows are two examples of projects released last year:
Superfund Project: CPI exposed the state of toxic-waste cleanup by the Environmental Protection Agency’s stalled Superfund program. As part of our massive report, “Wasting Away: Superfund’s Toxic Legacy,” we revealed the names and political contributions of polluters, complete with maps, a listing of contaminants, and other data for all 1,624 Superfund sites. A large amount of our Web traffic for this project comes from inside the EPA, which claims no comparable, searchable database.
Financial Disclosure Information: On the state level, CPI has for years made available a variety of financial disclosure information. Our most recent release is an updated “States of Disclosure” project, which provides information on every governor, supreme court justice, and legislator in all 50 state capitals. We also grade the states to show which have the weaker and stronger disclosure laws. Time after time, CPI has seen state legislatures use our data to address their failing grades.
Ten years ago, Lewis also launched the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a global membership network whose ranks now include nearly 100 journalists in 50 countries “Collateral Damage,” the most recent ICIJ project, was released last spring after more than a year of reporting and research, which required combing through thousands of foreign lobbying records. This project relied on the collaborative effort of 10 investigative journalists on four continents. What CPI ultimately published is one of the most comprehensive accounts of U.S. military aid and assistance in the post-9/11 era—a project that now features a unique database that combines U.S. military assistance, foreign lobbying expenditures, and human-rights abuses into a single, accessible tool kit. By being able to see all of these dollar figures in the same database, CPI was able to reveal for the first time how Pakistan’s $9 million in military assistance for three years before 9/11 had jumped to $4.6 billion, with only minimal Pentagon oversight.
Other efforts have dug deep into the war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the following projects:
Contractors and Contributions: In 2003, for example, after hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests, the “Windfalls of War” project tallied the dollar amounts paid to contractors, totaled their political contributions, and identified the former U.S. military officials on their boards or in senior management positions. Late last year, CPI updated that project by naming the current top 100 Iraq and Afghanistan contractors and posted online their even more lucrative contracts. It was this project that first revealed that Halliburton, and its former subsidiary KBR Inc. (Kellogg, Brown & Root), have by far won the most lucrative contracts in Iraq.
False Statements: In late January, CPI released another data-rich, innovative project on Iraq called “The War Card: Orchestrated Deception on the Path to War.” A searchable database of nearly 400,000 words provides documentation that tracks the 935 false statements spoken publicly by George W. Bush and seven of his administration’s key officials from 9/11 through the start of the Iraq War and beyond. Statements are deemed false when the speaker unequivocally stated that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or that Iraq was linked to al-Qaeda.
Funding Investigative Journalism
With the Bush administration outsourcing government to an extent never seen before—private contracts have more than doubled in the past five years, with billions of dollars being contributed to political campaigns and with 35,000 lobbyists in Washington spending more than $3 billion annually—there is no lack of topics to explore. While our work at CPI is going well, I’ve been frustrated in my new job by how much we aren’t able to do because of the difficulty in finding adequate resources for independent investigative reporting.
During the 16 years I spent as vice president of news in public radio, I helped to raise tens of millions of dollars from foundations—a task I can now appreciate as being relatively easy. Trying to raise funds to support CPI’s work, I can make a crystal-clear case about the need for tough investigative journalism, but I find that resources to sustain the work we do are much harder to come by. Although my former public radio colleagues will protest that they are only an on-air pitch break away from going off the air, NPR, MPR, and many major public radio operations are fairly dependably well resourced. With its endowment of more than $200 million, and annual budgets of roughly $150 million, NPR is not a struggling news organization. Nor is MPR, with an endowment and annual budget more than half that of NPR’s, though certainly each could do even more with a greater amount of financial resources.
Unlike public radio, CPI takes no government money. While it earns some of its revenue, CPI relies heavily on foundations and major individual donors, but without the advantage of on-air pledge drives. It is my wish that more foundations and individual donors could appreciate how critical their support is for sustaining the high-quality investigative reporting done by CPI and other independent, nonprofit journalism organizations. In the challenging economic environment of today’s for-profit news industry, we recognize how unlikely it is that newspapers and broadcast entities will be able to support efforts such as these. CPI is embarking on a major campaign to dramatically increase its endowment. A day of great jubilation would be when we raise the necessary funds to allow us to devote more of our energy and attention to our investigative work rather than to our operating budget each year.
In his 2004 book, “The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age,” University of North Carolina professor Philip Meyer writes, “The only way to save journalism is to develop a new model that finds profit in truth, vigilance and social responsibility.” Meyer cited two examples of what he meant—NPR and CPI. The public radio model has proved its sustainability, and the smaller, but equally vital, CPI is seeking its sustainability model by raising a larger endowment. As we do so, words that the late historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a founding CPI advisory board member, used to describe our organization are ones I will carry with me and use as I try to convince others of the value of what we do. As Schlesinger said of CPI, it is “an indispensable truth-teller in a treacherous time.”
Bill Buzenberg became the executive director of the Center for Public Integrity in January 2007. He had been vice president of news at Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media for the previous nine years. For 18 years he was at NPR, including seven as vice president of news and 11 years as a foreign affairs correspondent and London bureau chief.