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.