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.

Three chili peppers, some rocks, a honeybun and three cigars

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 11.55.53 AM

Words and Photographs By Alessandra Nicole, As appeared in the spring edition of Landenberg Today, April 2015

filming of White Deer, Photo © Alessandra Nicole 2014

Three chili peppers, some rocks, a honeybun and three cigars. Four white plates containing these objects were lined up on the hardwood floor in front of a fireplace in a cozy Landenberg apartment all awaiting their screen debut and their sacrificial destiny — on the strikingly cold and misty Saturday morning when I performed in a music video, on assignment from Landenberg Today.

I was greeted at the door by the broad Cheshire Cat smile of writer/film director/musician /Renaissance man Chris Malinowski, who was creating a music video titled “White Deer” that would soon serve as part of the soundtrack for his latest film, “Yes, Your Tide is Cold and Dark, Sir,” which has been screened at several festivals around the nation and is now available through Amazon on DVD.

I stepped through the doorway of his cottage, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, that simple step forward was as good as signing my name on the dotted line of a contract issued by a distant and unknowable Supreme Creator. Stay with me here.

After returning Malinowski’s smile, I very shyly offered my own to a small group of five other women, all strangers. Gathered to one side of the virtually empty living room, they were completely clad in black just like myself, as Malinowski’s email a week prior had requested. On the room’s other side, a man with a camera adjusted a rig, holding it belted firmly around his waist.

Filming of White Deer, Photo © Alessandra Nicole 2014

In the rain, still others were positioning a large light just outside of a bank of windows that led into the living room. A flick of a switch and Ahh: Instantly the cold, misty Saturday morning was transformed into the fantastical mind trickery that was a perfectly realistic sunny afternoon. The “sun” streamed luxuriously across the floor of the room and the women flocked toward it, smiling.

I knew little about Malinowski, beyond his unapologetically gregarious and dramatic stage performances (at times in full makeup) at the Deer Park Tavern in Newark, with his band, The Collingwood. As frontman and lead guitarist, he seemed to be a man possessed. His eyes would roll back into his head in an inner-lighted bliss.

A well-known fun fact about Malinowski is that his favorite place on earth to visit is New Orleans, and that not only does he bask in the well-known undercurrent of ・voodoo・ central to the core of the city, he channels it, often, in his creative work.

For me, it wasn’t the most absurd thing to agree to show up to the set of a music video. Years ago, I was an art student at a college in Savannah, Ga. There, I found myself participating in courageous filmmaking and acting projects, convening with my fellow students in basement coffeeshops until the small hours, fleshing out their visions. We all worked tirelessly on film shoots, propelled forward by the natural electricity of inspired artistic discourse and execution.

After college, I was a production designer on several short and lengthy projects, grim horror stories, high-concept dramas and dark comedies. I lost hours and days without realizing it while in production.

In Landenberg, I was totally in my element.

Filming of White Deer, Photo © Alessandra Nicole 2014

The six of us sat cross-legged on the floor around the white plates. We held hands. Malinowski sat in a wooden chair in a corner of the room with one more statuesque and masked woman standing at his shoulder. We fumbled with our ill-fitting masks, offering one another rolled bits of paper to keep the masks from chafing our faces.

Someone pressed ‘Play’ on a boombox that sat on the floor by the door, and suddenly, the room was filled with the haunting, melodic sound of Malinowski’s guitar on the track “White Deer.” It was the first time I heard the tone of the song, and the first time I would get a real feel for what our director was looking to achieve. The song was played with saturating volume, the tempo slow, and it cast a spell over us. I am a hyper-aware introvert and holding hands with a stranger of the same sex was a hyper-real experience on its own, but I barely noticed the camera hovering around us.

Filming of White Deer, Photo © Alessandra Nicole 2014

At first, we were to sit as still as possible. Severals takes were made. In between, we smiled, and fixed one another・s hair and masks. I was in the company of extraordinary women; it was as if the setting and the music had peeled off our earthly bodies and we were these radiant young souls. The more vulnerable and transparent one of us became about a wrinkle or an ill-placed strand of hair, the stronger we became, and the greater we were as a formed circle.

When I stole looks across the plated offerings at our knees to the ladies facing me through the ill-aligned holes in my Zorro mask, I saw our manufactured golden sunshine creating angelic halos around their heads. Something quite special was happening to us. Soon, we were on our feet, dancing in slow motion, hands waving around.

Malinowski coached us in that the footage was going to be slowed down so that we would appear to be in slow motion, but I felt that it was already happening, in that way you feel when you are aware that you・re going from merely buzzed to full-blown drunk. Although we were all clearly sober, time was slowing in the most peculiar and special way.

There was one part to the shoot left. Alhough it was raining, Malinowski asked if we would be willing to go outside and dance in the elements. I looked to the other women, and it was a universal understanding that this was the perfect evolution of the day — to ground our collective heightened spiritual experience by dancing in the rain in the cold Landenberg afternoon.

A few of us removed our shoes and decided to dance barefoot. We ran outside and gathered at a tree behind the cottage, and without any external music guiding as at all, we danced together, slowly, beneath an overcast sky while rooted to the earth beneath our tender feet. The more I trampled the frozen world beneath me, the more I felt vested by the women around me, and existence itself, to stay vibrant, new, open.

a frame from

a frame from “White Deer” by cinematographer Robert James Stuart

I left the set of Malinowski’s music video feeling transformed. His cottage and his song provided the backdrop to such a special synergy that I will not easily forget. It’s wondrous when you’re open to brand new experiences to begin with. My own reaction to life prior to this had been one of isolation, but to meet creative women who are all on the same stage, was like seeing the glow of a lighthouse after having been at sea for too long, and getting to dance with that beam of light.

I want to live in that light, to bask in that light.

Still from

a frame from “White Deer” by cinematographer Robert James Stuart

Alessandra Nicole is a writer and photographer. Her essay, “Like a Ballerina in the Air,” appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of Landenberg Today. To learn more about her, visit www.alessandranicole.com. Other published essays include: “Sunlight, Held Together by Water,” which appeared in Fall 2014’s edition of Kennett Square Today magazine, and “Requiem for a Tree,” which first appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of West Chester and Chadds Ford Life magazine.

To view the “White Deer” video, visit: The Collingwood: “White Deer” Official Music Video, on YouTube.

Alessandra's article in Landenberg's 10th Anniversary edition, spring 2015

page 3 of Alessandra's article

Landenberg Today Magazine, Spring 2015

Like a Ballerina in the Air

Landenberg Today Magazine Landenberg Today Magazine

After putting her pursuit of a pilot’s license on hold for more than a dozen years, a writer/photographer returns to the air over Landenberg and beyond, and falls in love again with the memory – and sensation – of soaring through the skies

Like a ballerina in the air

By Alessandra Nicole
Contributing Writer

I have always believed that there is something so strong yet so vulnerable about flying in a small plane. I am in love with that duality; it’s like both cursing gravity and knowing you’re also at the mercy of it, so when I arrived at the New Garden Flying Field on July 25, on assignment from this magazine to write about my return to flying, I knew that I was about to re-live that duality.

For there it was, waiting for me. A flawless shiny red 1946 Fairchild 24.

The first flight I ever took I do not even remember. I was a colicky infant coming over to the United States from Germany with two new parents who reported that I cried for the entire eight- hour flight.

When I was 16, my father and I flew to Miami from Philadelphia the week I graduated high school. I was glued to the window the entire time. I had never seen clouds from the top before; the sight of such impacted my portfolio for art school; as a direct result the experience married my obsession with Degas’ graceful, blue-bathed ballerinas and the ethereal cloud shapes through which we flew on the trip to Miami and back.

When I was in my early twenties, I held a job in Washington for three years as a federal contractor that required me to fly to just about every major U.S. city a week at a time. The constant travel at that age felt glamorous, and every Monday morning for me was filled with prickly anticipation at my next big- city destination.

But the first flight that overtook my heart was one I experienced while attending the Savannah College of Art & Design. I had begun contributing some of my photography to a local entertainment newspaper. On one of my assignments, I found myself in the belly of a large military plane headed to Fort Bragg, N.C., along with 100 Green Berets. They were required to routinely take what’s called a “Hollywood Jump” to maintain current parachuting status, and I photographed them as they stepped one-by-one off the back of the cargo opening and floated out over the beautiful patchwork quilt of farms below.

On the return to Savannah the pilots had me join them in the cockpit for the flight, and from there I was absolutely hooked. It felt like glorious magic watching the pilots guide such a tremendous machine through the air. I loved everything about it, the banter of the pilots on the head sets, the communication with air towers, all the dials and instruments, the updrafts that would put butterflies in my stomach, and the feeling of defying physics to some degree ― the thrill of some form of anarchy against nature.

Years later, on my commutes from my office in southwest Washington, D.C. to my home in Delaware, I would regularly pass a tiny airport outside of Annapolis on Rt. 50. It had a large banner advertising their flight lessons. In late summer of 2001, I was intrigued enough to find my way to the landing strip and go up in a small twin engine airplane to see if it was something I’d like to further pursue.

The experience I had in Annapolis on my hour long first lesson that August afternoon was a total delight of the senses. Being in a small aircraft was completely different from being in a large cruising commercial airliner. It felt personal. It was intimate, delicate, highly technical; an elevated experience in a spiritual sense. I felt like a ballerina in the air.

When we landed again I was absolutely over the moon about the flight. I wore an enormous irrepressible grin for hours, even days afterward. I signed myself up for lessons immediately; I couldn’t wait to learn more! I couldn’t wait to feel like I was levitating again. I wanted to see the mosaic of homes and hills stretch out to the horizon, to see sun spill across the Chesapeake Bay in endless throngs of glitter beneath me. I was looking forward to the prestige of mastering a unique skill unheard of in my family and social circle. My first lesson took me into the air and taught me about using my heightened sensitivities to feel the changes in the air mass around me and gave me confidence in my innate desire for finding balance within the given atmosphere amidst all of it’s unpredictable changes and excelling through the elements. I loved it in the sky.

A few short weeks later in September, however, two commercial airplanes were redirected from their flight patterns and were flown into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, another flew into the Pentagon, and still another crashed in rural Pennsylvania. The world was in shock. Things were never to be the same again. Life as we knew it as Americans was changed forever.

My life changed, too. I was a handful of blocks away from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, when they were attacked. The magnitude of witnessing such a thing deeply changed my own life’s course. My small flight school was closed for federal audits as our nation’s government sought to learn more about who was taking lessons on simulators for domestic commercial aircraft. The greater Washington, D.C. area shifted into a mode of sheer fear and daily panic, heightened security measures were implemented all around. The day’s color-coded terror alerts were discussed over our morning coffee. My own job subsequently got very busy; many of my co-workers refused to fly for a long time and I, still being willing to go up in the air, was assigned a great deal of travel. The goal of working to earn a pilot’s license would be put on hold indefinitely.

Today, I am a professional photographer, and more than 12 years after my last seat in the cockpit of an aircraft I was given the opportunity to climb back in. As I made the tranquil, picturesque drive to New Garden Flying Field to meet with it’s manager, Jonathan Martin, I felt nervous to the point of nausea. My heart was in my throat at the anticipation of the experience. I parked the car, fumbled clumsily around for my camera bag, took a great big deep breath, and trekked over to the landing strip, where Martin met me with an encouraging smile. There, he revealed his stunning and fully-restored 1946 Fairchild 24. My nervousness vanished. An enormous irrepressible grin – one that had accompanied me on all of those past flights years before – had returned.

We flew Martin’s red vintage plane over Landenberg and out to the Chesapeake Bay and chatted about how we each fell in love with aviation. The Fairchild 24 is a cozy craft with 4 seats, crank windows, high wings, and an inverted (upside-down), self lubricating 200hp engine. Martin’s plane hadn’t flown since 1952, and, as the third owner in 2011, the Fairchild 24 was his second total aircraft restoration. I could tell it was restored lovingly. “Truly a labor of love,” said Martin, “Wanna fly it?”

“Yes!” I gasped. Very gingerly I took over the flight.

The Fairchild handled like a Danseur noble with complete aplomb. It was a smooth, steady, responsive: a gentleman of the sky. We took a course out over Havre de Grace, saw the Cecil County Fair from above, and saw the sun spill it’s treasure over the vast Chesapeake Bay once more. I was captivated. I fell in love all over again.

After some time I relinquished control to Martin who curved us around back toward New Garden. “Wanna land it?” asked Martin.

“Oh- No, no thank you!” I exclaimed, suddenly very nervous.

“Aw, come on. It’s the most important part! Take-off is optional but landing is mandatory,” he laughed. Indeed! He vectored us in for a landing in the grass right next to the landing strip.

“This old plane prefers to land in the grass. Easier on the rubber.”

New Garden Airfield was originally built by the duPont family and was sold to New Garden Township in 2007. Jonathan Martin, who has had a special place in his heart for New Garden Airfield since he was 12, was asked to join the Township as manager of the airfield in 2008.

I was elated to learn that Martin along with Court Dunn, a pilot with a teaching background, have been very enthusiastically heading a young aviation program for the past 5 years. The Future Aviators Summer Camp was established in 2009.  This first year they had 28 campers and every year the program has grown and now attracts children from all over the US.  This year they have 130+ campers registered for this summer!

I told Martin that I wish I had been exposed to aviation from the small aircraft vantage point much earlier on in life and that these young people are fortunate to have access to such a thrilling program. I believe Martin is responsible for inspiring and changing the trajectory of young people’s lives in a very positive way. It would be an honor to know that at the end of your day through your passion for what you do you implemented a program that has impacted the lives of young people in such a horizons-expanding manner. I believe exposure to small craft aviation sets a young person up for the ability to dare to achieve worthy things in life.

The return to the cockpit was such a spirited and emotional one for me. The return to the wide open skies in that gentle and elegant way was a return to myself. I left the experience feeling a decade younger and I text messaged one of my friends with shaking hands, “There is something so strong yet vulnerable about flying in a small plane. I had all but forgotten the wonder of it.” Moments later he responded, “Strong yet vulnerable? You’re describing yourself! Welcome back.”

published: http://www.landenbergtoday.com/magazines/ltfall14/index.html?page=48