Feature Story: The fact seeker

For nearly the last half century, Newark native Charles Lewis has spent his career as an investigative journalist, author and teacher. Through his ingenuity, he has created opportunities for his colleagues to seek the truth in every story 

The fact seeker

By Alessandra Nicole, Contributing Writer

originally published in Newark Life Magazine, Fall/Winter issue, October 2020

It is a cold and sunny March morning on the campus of American University in Washington, D.C., and Charles Lewis sits at his desk in his office in the McKinley Building, where he is a tenured professor in the School of Communication. 

Although non-descript, the space is nonetheless filled with plenty of light and plenty of books, but what stands out most are the photographs that document Lewis’ 43-year career as an investigative journalist, television news producer and author. They hang between his Honors Award, his MacArthur Fellow and his honorary doctorate degree from the University of Delaware in Newark, where he was born and raised.

The photos show a younger Lewis — a man in his thirties — around the time he was a reporter for ABC News, and later the producer of 60 Minutes. While the photos in Lewis’ office attempt to document the grand sweep of a life spent in journalism, they account for only a sliver of what has been a career that not only reports the news, but takes it under the microscope and examines it.  He founded two Pulitzer Prize winning organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and is also the founder and executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

He was called “one of the most notable investigative reporters in the U.S. since World War I” by the Encyclopedia of Journalism in 2009.

He is the author of several books, the most recent being 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity, published in 2014. In the book, Lewis takes a hard look at the future of truth in America, how the deadliest abuses of power are being orchestrated by government and big business, and how the news media “watchdog” role in holding both factions accountable is changing.

He has spoken about investigative reporting at workshops and presentations around the world, and given hundreds of interviews that have appeared in some of the world’s most prominent newspapers, magazines and on national radio and television broadcasts.

Earlier this year, Lewis received a phone call from a reporter in Delaware, asking him if he would be interested in participating in an interview for Newark Life. He told the reporter that the only reason he took the call was because he was excited to see the “302” area code on his telephone screen.

He said, “Yes.”

For the first several years of his life, Lewis lived in a house his once owned on East Main Street near Tyre Avenue in Newark.

“At the time, East Main Street was not the nicest part of Main Street,” Lewis recalled. “So I was at the poor end of town on the other side of the railroad tracks. My family first came to Newark in the 1700s, and I believe I have a direct ancestor who was the sheriff of New Castle County in the 1800s.

“And we loved it! It was the house of my father’s ancestors, who had owned it 80 or 90 years earlier.”

His first job was working for a Chinese laundry in Newark. It was where he met Kai, Warren and Richie, with whom he is still very good friends.

“Richie is my age, Warren is a little older and Kai is the oldest,” Lewis said. “We’re very close. We do damage to our livers two or three times a year when we see each other. We call each other brothers; I don’t actually have any brothers as far as I’m concerned, they’re my brothers.”

When he entered Newark High School, Lewis tried out for and made the school’s football team, but his early interest in politics led him to become the president of his junior class and later, the president of the student government in his senior year. It was at Newark High School where he developed an interest in what would eventually become his career.

“I was an editor of the student newspaper, which means that I wasn’t that high up at the Yellowjacket Buzz, but my younger sister and I had a secret column called “Purple Haze,” named after the Hendrix song, and this is where we were snarky before the word snarky was invented,” he said. “We were very sarcastic. We took on the principal, the teachers, everyone. We said what we really thought, and it was not the nicest thing, but people got a kick out of it.”

Lewis had an early writing colleague: His younger sister. Both wrote under the disguised name, nom de plume Martha Mumblesum.

“I was president of the student government, and my sister was president of the sophomore class at the time, and we were also both writing the snarky stuff,” he said. “My father worked as a security guard at GM in Wilmington, and while he was doing the night shift, my mother would make us hamburgers at 11 o’clock at night while my sister and I figured out what we were going to write for “Purple Haze.” It was fun. We had a blast. And in the last issue of the Yellowjacket Buzzthat year, we identified our real names.”

By the time Lewis entered the University of Delaware that fall, his interest in politics led him to work as intern for Delaware Sen. Bill Roth for the first six months of 1974. As fate would have it, Lewis’ internship came during one of the most cataclysmic periods in American history, when the twin forces of the Watergate scandal and journalism collided in a powder keg of corruption and revelations.

“Think about that,” Lewis said. “[President Richard] Nixon resigned in August of 1974, all of the Republicans were either hiding under their desk or leaving town. They didn’t want to be anywhere near Nixon. They didn’t want to criticize him, but they also didn’t want to support him. It was really interesting.

“So, I’m reading [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein and [Seymour] Hersh articles. I’m going to some of the Watergate hearings. I’m right there in the thick of it. It was very, very exciting for anybody to live through that, right in the moment, right there.”

After graduating from the University of Delaware with a degree in Political Science, Lewis then received a Master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Service (SAIS). After he graduated, he had very little interest in pursuing a career in Foreign Service, and for the next five months Lewis, now married, scrambled to find a job, “but not just any job,” he said.

“And on page D-29 of the style section of the Washington Post, in one paragraph, there’s a TV column, and it said that a special reporting unit was being formed at ABC News, and that it would be created by Roone Arledge and headed by Sander Vanocur, the vice president of news at ABC,” Lewis said. “I had never worked in TV in my life. I’d never done anything in news in my life, but I sent a resume in and called the secretary, who told me that there had been 600 applications for six positions.”

Eventually, it was through that secretary – Sue Meyer – that Lewis secured an interview and eventual job at ABC News, a position that paid him $17,500 a year. After the unit disbanded, he was reassigned to ABC News’ Washington Bureau, where for the roughly six years, he covered attempted presidential assassinations, unsolved crimes from the civil rights era, the selection of Supreme Court nominees, and other subjects. In 1979, he began covering the ABSCAM scandal for the network, a Federal Bureau of Investigation sting operation that led to the convictions of seven members of the United States Congress.

Lewis’ work at ABC News eventually led him to CBS News, where he became an investigative producer for 60 Minutes, but by the late 1980s, the political scene he had first witnessed with Watergate, and subsequently covered for nearly 10 years had lost its original luster and became in his words, “dirty,” and he began to see prime-time television journalism as a hugely influential vehicle that was not providing sufficient coverage of the most important stories.

In 2014, Politico Magazine published an excerpt of Lewis’ book, “935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity,” in which Lewis shared his growing frustration with the way the news was being chosen, reported and delivered, both at ABC News and 60 Minutes.

“It became painfully apparent over time that network television news was not especially interested in investigative reporting, certainly not to the extent or the depth of the best national print outlets,” he wrote. “In fact, the most trusted man in America around this time, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, had told Time magazine something in 1966 that still rang true more than a decade later: that ‘the networks, including my own, do a first-rate job of disseminating the news, but all of them have third-rate news-gathering organizations. We are still basically dependent on the wire services. We have barely dipped our toe into investigative reporting.’

“Gradually, television’s daily editorial insecurity vis-à-vis the older print world and its own tepid commitment to enterprise journalism caused me to conclude that all three major networks were mostly interested in the illusion of investigative reporting.

“…I had also seen things at two networks that had troubled me profoundly: nationally important stories not pursued; well-connected, powerful people and companies with questionable policies and practices that were not investigated precisely because of the connections and the power they boasted. 

“It was a matter of principle. It was simply time for me to leave.”

Two weeks after he handed in his resignation to CBS News in 1989, Lewis began what has become a continuing mission to advocate for the power of investigative journalism. He formed the Center for Public Integrity, a non-partisan newsroom that investigates democracy, power and privilege, with specific focus on the influence of money and the impact of inequality on society. Through data, the Freedom of Information Act and collaborations with local and national news sources, the Center produces journalism intended to change lives and give voice to citizens and communities.

In 1997, he began the Center for Public Integrity’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

In 2003, Lewis became the founding president of the Fund for Independence in Journalism, an organization to promote independent, high quality, public service journalism primarily by providing legal defense and endowment support to the Center for Public Integrity.

In July 2009, he co-founded the Investigative News Network, a group of 90 nonprofit, non-partisan newsrooms around the country dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism. A few years later, the organization changed its name to the Institute for Nonprofit News and today, it has approximately 250 nonprofit news organizations!

In between, Lewis taught at Princeton University (2005) and was a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University (2006), and in addition to teaching at American University, is a frequent lecturer on the subject of investigative journalism in the United States and around the world.

The current climate of communication and truth, Lewis said, is both disturbing and dangerous.

“We have leaders around the world imitating [United States President Donald] Trump, using words and phrases like ‘Fake News,’” he said. “I was in South Africa and some other countries, and they are all the despotic leaders throughout the world, enjoying the role of being a character and saying slightly off-the- wall things that become shtick.

“They are all are highly amused by it and in the course of that amusement, they are abusing their power. It is not like that that didn’t happen before, necessarily, but the slightly cartoonish and buffoonish elements of that would be funny if it weren’t also very scary.

“The whole world is kind of upside down in some ways. I have a granddaughter and a daughter and a son, so it makes me worry about the future.”

The photographs on Charles Lewis’ desk at American University are the reminders of a career spent chasing his curiosity. There is very likely much more room in his office for additional photographs.

“I am very lucky,” Lewis said. “I’ve worked with amazing people. I love all these journalists. I mean, we’re all comrades, you know, we’re all kindred spirits and investigative ambassadors…I was going to be a politician, and I ended up investigating the bastards.”

To learn more about Charles Lewis, visit https://charles-lewis.com.

Feature Story: A Second Chance for a Woman Who Believes in Second Chances

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Words and Photos By Alessandra Nicole
Contributing Writer

(originally published in Greenville & Hockessin Life Magazine, June 2019)

To know the nurturing resilience of sunshine is to know the heart that belongs to Patricia May.

On a humid Sunday afternoon in early June, May sat in the bright kitchen of her Hockessin home, one filled with an array of framed Bible hymns and beautiful original paintings done by incarcerated people and bought from art fairs inside her former workplace. Sweet old rescue cats serenely snaked around her ankles, begging to be let through glass sliding doors to the large and sunny deck outside.

The doors framed a view of nearly two dozen enormous planter pots that sat bursting with everything from snap dragons to mint. Near the doors, a small table supported a smaller assemblage of plants, and the electric water bowl for the cats beneath the table gurgled peacefully.

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Ms. May displays one of a vast collection of original paintings showcased in her home that was painted by and purchased from inmates from art shows over the years.

In stark contrast to this soothing serenity was the jarring fact that this gentle-spirited, sparkling-blue-eyed woman is a prison riot hostage survivor.

One morning in February 2017, May, a former counselor with the Delaware Department of Correction, went into work at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna, and a few hours later was taken hostage by an inmate wielding a sharp object.

She was tied up with a hood placed over her head as other inmates raged violently throughout the rest of the building.

She was moved to two cells and held for almost 19 hours.

Her life was in the hands of her faith and the men who surrounded her in the same facility where she would regularly bring bouquets of flowers she arranged from her home gardens to bring some joy to those visiting.

“At James T. Vaughn, I was known as the ‘Flower Lady,’” May said. “During spring and summer, I kept flower arrangements in the administration building and in the Gate House for the enjoyment of staff and visitors. Many times I was told by a visitor that the flowers would brighten their day when they may have been sad for having to visit a loved one in prison,

“I never accept pay for my arrangements. This gift was given to me by God, and I believe giving to others is a way of showing God’s love in a practical way. No doubt this brings me joy to be able to give something that brightens everybody’s day.”

Why then, you might ask, would this woman, now since retired from the Department of Corrections, choose to return to do work with incarcerated people in a program to offer them a second chance?

 

In the 1960s, May abandoned her home economics major at a local community college in Florida to embark on her studies in criminology. It was a course of study that was virtually unheard of for a woman at that time, but for May, who grew up the daughter of a pediatric nurse and a policeman and listened to stories nightly of chases with moonshiners to the Everglades, it seemed like a natural step. The stories became her children’s nursery rhymes.

“On many nights, my dad would wake me up at two o’clock in the morning, and tell me, ‘We’re all hungry,’ with a trail of police behind him,” she said. “Sometimes he called me on the phone and asked me to prepare something for them to eat on some mornings.”

“My dad’s friend at the police department played a part in me changing over to Criminology.” May attended Florida State University and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminology, Magna Cum Laude. She eventually left Florida and embarked on a 40-year career. May worked for the Attorney General’s Office for the State of Delaware; Public Defender’s Office; Department of Correction, Community Services and Bureau of Prisons; Juvenile Corrections; Treatment Foster Care; a women’s Transitional Living Program and Substance Abuse Treatment programs.  Patricia retired from the State of Delaware, Department of Correction in 2018.

During that time, she nurtured her nearly lifelong passion for gardening – cultivating outdoor flowers and vegetables and small-scale, hydroponic and full-spectrum light indoor gardening.

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Ms. May’s small-scale, hydroponic and full-spectrum light indoor gardening.

While working for the Delaware Department of Correction, May thought of ways to dovetail her profession with her love of gardening. An opportunity arose to direct the My Brother’s Keeper Mentorship Program, a faith-based program in 3 sections: Monday Night Group; Residential and Reentry at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.  A horticulture program (hydroponics) was hoped to be included but ultimately was not accepted by Vaughn Administrators.

“The goal was to teach the inmates a new skill that could be used in the future, and learning how to grow food for the institution was part of teaching inmates about a healthy lifestyle,” she said. “Growing food within an institution reduces cost to the state, supplies nutritious food and reduces the carbon footprint of food being transported. Horticulture programs have been shown to reduce tension; reduce idle time; give hope; and improve the health of the inmates, which is not only humane, but cost effective on health care costs.”

My Brother’s Keeper emphasized the use of mentors, education, substance abuse recovery treatment and other aspects of restorative justice. Its mission rested on the belief that most people with criminal behavior can become productive and contributing members of society if given the opportunity to learn pro-social values and employment skills. The program also included a reentry section, which supplied mentors and guidance for men returning to the community. May was also staff advisor for the Monday Night section of the program, which was for men who were not able to be housed in the residential program.

“We [My Brother’s Keeper] were about changing the heart, with 40 different classes all about teaching and training and mentoring.

“Change the heart and that will change the behavior.”

In her kitchen, May opened two enormous five pound black binders and set them on the countertop. They were the training manuals for My Brother’s Keeper that included a multitude of educational modules, ranging from social skills development to architecture and engineering. Title headings like “Basic comparative religion” and “Introduction to the brain” were listed among a variety of others in the table of contents.

May moved her index finger down the page. “Money management.’ ‘Effective communication skills.’ ‘Moral decision making.’ ‘The art of conflict management.’

“We had 100 men in the residential program, and about 30 or 40 who attended the Monday Night program who weren’t a part of the 100 residents, in a prison that had around 2,700 people,” she said. “Do you know what it’s like to see someone who is serving a life prison term, and you give him something to live for?”

While the impact of the My Brother’s Keeper program was, at times, transformational, it was eventually ended and she was transferred to the fateful C Block building where it was known that trouble was brewing. On Feb. 1, 2017, inmates at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center took four corrections department workers – including May — hostage inside one of the facility’s buildings.

Wielding sharp instruments, inmates were demanding education “first and foremost,” a “rehabilitation program that works for everybody,” and a comprehensive look at the prison’s budget and spending.

The day-long hostage standoff ended after state police stormed the building, rescuing May and her fellow workers, and finding Sgt. Steven R. Floyd, a 16-year veteran of the Delaware Department of Correction, unresponsive. Floyd was later pronounced dead.

“Everything I had worked for so hard was taken away,” May said.

In the aftermath of the riot, May retired, and at first, her days were isolating and wrought with tremendous PTSD and depression. When she looked back on her career – one filled with compassion for others – she saw that it was met with unprecedented resistance. For the next year and a half, May retreated to her Hockessin gardens, but nearby, an opportunity that was tailor-made for her was popping through the soil in nearby Wilmington.

Local entrepreneur Ajit M. George began to consider how the community could find methods to fight the recidivism epidemic facing this nation while simultaneously addressing other serious threats like water pollution, environmental damage, unemployment, poor quality produce, and food deserts.

Part of the solution to the problem lay in hydroponic vertical farming, and so George created and founded Second Chances Farm, which will be an indoor vertical farm that hires exclusively men and women returning to society after serving their time in prison. All crops and produce will be fresh, organic, nutritious, completely free of pesticides and herbicides, and grown within 150 miles of anywhere it is available for consumption, seriously cutting down long-haul shipping costs and pollution. Since it is indoor and light and temperature controlled, it will be fresh and available 365 days a year, no matter what the weather brings.

On July 24th, 2018, the founding members of Second Chances Farm had lunch with May, and after a long and passionate discussion about the concept of Second Chances, May was asked to join the team.

May immediately became a valuable member of the Second Chances team as the Restorative Justice Program Coordinator, where she now handles all programming related to re-entry, therapy, and other employee related issues. Second Chances will be the first vertical farm in Delaware, and the first vertical farm anywhere to exclusively hire men and women returning from prison.

For the farm, it is a chance to not only provide jobs for those returning from prison, but also to harness entrepreneurial skills and allow farmers a chance to become compassionate capitalists and business owners.

For May, it is the next, serendipitous chapter – a second chance — in a career that has been spent advocating for the second chances of others.

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To learn more about Second Chances Farm, visit www.secondchancesfarm.com.

December 7th is National Letter Writing Day

Originally published on TEDxWilmington.com

Alessandra Nicole for TEDxWilmingtonLive, Photograph by Joe Del TufoSome of you here know that I lost my grandmother in February and that we had been pen pals for more than twenty years. What you may not know is that our relationship deepened 100% because of that paper letter exchange. She was severely hard of hearing growing up and my memories of her are peppered with the sound of her hearing aids screeching from feedback because she had them turned up so high. My five cousins had siblings they fought with and through it learned to speak up for what they wanted and to be heard when it counted. I was a sensitive only child that was intimidated by all of that, and thus my grandmother knew my cousins better than she knew me for many years, because I was so quiet around her and we didn’t know how to reach one another.

When I went away to college and she sent me the first letter there, suddenly I had a way to fully communicate the all of me. Our relationship became very vibrant and rich through an exchange that finally allowed me to be fully seen and heard. And, being six states away, having a letter come through the mail to me felt like getting a message in a bottle. Sitting with it in my hands felt like a hug. Seeing her handwriting and reading it with her voice in my head felt like a kiss on my homesick heart.

I think about children today who only have email at their fingertips; an oxymoron because what do they actually touch? When communication is via popcorn text message and Instagram photo caption and emotions are summed up by animated gifs and emojis, how much authentic communication is actually happening? But what I really think about are the sensitive children who are having trouble connecting with others in their very family and are missing out on developing connected and meaningful relationships, are missing out on being truly seen and heard, are missing out on bonding with another generation of their own family.

I invite you to celebrate National Letter Writing Day with me on Friday, December 7th and write a letter to someone near or far in your life. It could even be to someone who lives right under the same roof as you! I’m talking a letter, not just a card, on a piece of paper, more than two paragraphs long. Fold it up, seal it up in an envelope, put a stamp on it, and send it through the mail. Tell me about it, if you want. pen@paperletterexchange.com

Letter writing causes even the busiest and most frenetic of minds to slow down and think through concepts and thoughts with great consideration. According to an article published by the Guardian, “Pens and keyboards bring into play very different cognitive processes. ‘Handwriting is a complex task which requires various skills – feeling the pen and paper, moving the writing implement, and directing movement by thought,’ says Edouard Gentaz, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Geneva. ‘Children take several years to master this precise motor exercise: you need to hold the scripting tool firmly while moving it in such a way as to leave a different mark for each letter.’

Operating a keyboard is not the same at all: all you have to do is press the right key. It is easy enough for children to learn very fast, but above all the movement is exactly the same whatever the letter. ‘It’s a big change,’ says Roland Jouvent, head of adult psychiatry at Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. ‘Handwriting is the result of a singular movement of the body, typing is not.”

Letter writing helps develop and reinforce vocabulary and language skills, creativity and humor through metaphor creation, and delivers dopamine to the nervous system that lasts much longer than hearing a text alert or seeing a red heart indicator on an app. Letter writing has been described as natural ritalin and natural prozac. It also helps one deal better with difficult times. And receiving a letter to read: the same. The connecting from the brain to eye to hand to pen to paper is a cognitive one that delivers a host of long term benefits in the act itself, and when practiced regularly can even become spiritual, meditative, divine. You are present and therefore become a channel between the subconscious and conscious, letter writing is a cleansing therapy and a zen art. And once all of the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits are added up.. there’s more.

Letter writing helps a mentally sharp ninety year old widowed man who can’t walk anymore and has been left to exist the rest of his days in a dismal nursing home feel alive, seen, heard, thought of, cared for, and like he matters. It helps a quiet woman a third his age connect to him and ask him all the questions about his countless adventures through life. It could help a child gain insight into world history and geography and economics and politics and all things romance. It could help a parent connect with an estranged daughter and make amends. It could take a new romance to the next level. It could help a prisoner feel like a person who counts again. It could help a child grow into a special bonded relationship with a grandmother that will shine on in her heart which will spill onto all those around her long after the ashes have been laid to rest. I’ve seen it all happen.

Those conversations, even if they are not cross generational but peer to peer, will never have the same quality in the context of an Facebook message or a Snapchat story. They will hardly have the lasting power and the artifact quality. They will hardly have the gravity, the connection, and they certainly will not do much to develop the cognitive, educational skills, and deliver the long term positive physiological benefits to which letter writing lends itself. Handwriting letters does something the keyboard and tapping letters on a smartphone touch screen will never, ever be able to do.

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See Alessandra Nicole’s TEDx talk HERE.

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