In 1989, when newspapers were still thriving and the internet hadn't taken shape, Charles Lewis, a producer of 60 Minutes, quit to launch The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit dedicated to investigative reporting. Lewis thought that 60 Minutes was tied into the corporate politics of CBS and its' advertisers and started the center as an impartial group beholding to no one. Twenty years later, the center's commitment to unearth corruption and to investigate malfeasance has assumed greater significance as newspapers and magazines fade and close. Lewis, who is still involved in the center in an advisory role, was prescient.
The Center for Public Integrity (www.publicintegrity.org) is "committed to transparent and comprehensive reporting both in the United States and around the world," says its mission statement. On a budget of $4 million in 2009, it has a staff of 35 people, of whom 27 are journalists, editors, and researchers. Its role is to tackle the complex stories that take months to research that traditional media can't or won't devote the time to do.
"Our role is to feed journalism with meaty projects, share data, and serve our watchdog role," says Bill Buzenberg, executive director of The Center for Public Integrity. Filing Freedom of Information requests to the government can be very complex and can take months to complete, which is why the center has an attorney on staff specializing in this area. For example, a ground-breaking article on the center's website uncovered every governmental contract in Iraq, revealing that Halliburton was the largest contractor in Iraq and had secured most of its contracts without bids.
The center has several criteria for choosing stories: Foremost is exploring investigative stories that root out corruption that no other newspaper, website, or radio station is doing. With limited resources, the center doesn't want to duplicate what NPR and The Washington Post are already reporting. Issues must entail "something that can impact policy, law, or people's understanding," Buzenberg says. Hence the center often focuses on the environment, business, or finance. Exemplifying its stories is an investigative article that launched in November 2009 on "The Global Climate Lobby" and how its efforts are trying to derail CO 2 and climate legislation.
Because of the economic recession, the center is stepping up its emphasis on finance and business; it recently hired two reporters from BusinessWeek. Its Paper Trail blog, easily found on Page 1 of its site, explores many of the center's financial investigations, and its Research section shows how it conducts its investigations.
Uncovering corruption is its reason for being. One much publicized article revealed how lobbyists were paying for travel excursions by legislators. Interns from Northwestern University's journalism program copied each receipt on a duplicating machine in a government office; then the center's researchers compiled information on a spreadsheet of every trip taken by legislators and their staff over the last 5 years, a time-consuming and laborious process. Research showed that in 1 year, lobbyists paid more than $55 million in trips for legislators (many to Paris) that didn't seem related to governmental affairs. As media moves faster and faster, fueled by the internet, the center can take 6 months to a year to research a story, Buzenberg notes.
When the Bush administration denied that it was determined to launch a war on Iraq, regardless of whether it discovered weapons of mass destruction, the center uncovered 935 statements by the administration that linked Iraq to al-Qaida. The article proved that the Bush administration had orchestrated this war.
Yet the center is nonpartisan, and it questions corruption perpetuated by Democrats or Republicans. When the Clinton administration was allowing its major funders to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom, the center documented how the privileged and well-heeled were rewarded for their largess to the Clinton coffers. Its exposé into John Murtha, the powerful Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, detailed his $100 million in earmarks based on the $1 million given to him by supporters and noted that 16 of his former aides are now lobbyists. "We're looking at Obama just as we did Bush," Buzenberg declares.
The site had a modest audience of 1.5 million individual users last year, but it augments its readership because its articles are republished on major broadcast and news outlets such as NPR, CNN, major news networks, and The Huffington Post online. An article on the worst offenders of subprime mortgages ran on the center's website and on the front page of the Financial Times. Moreover, the center has a relationship with AP, which can choose which articles it publishes. Hence, the center is a major supplier of investigative stories for mainstream media into complex corruption scandals.
The center also offers $60 annual membership. It has about 2,000 members who receive special news alerts on the latest center stories. The center's website is only beginning to become interactive with its users; Buzenberg admits it could do a better job at this.
The demise of many newspapers has led to the emergence of several nonprofit, localized nonprofit websites such as MinnPost and Capital News Connection. The center met with 20 other muckraking websites at a conference center to see how they could work together toward common goals.
Despite its many breakthrough stories, maintaining a nonprofit that relies on support from foundations and individuals is a much tougher proposition in recessionary 2009. Indeed, Buzenberg spends half his time on editorial tasks and half of his time on fundraising. Someone has to keep the coffers filled to pay for that team of journalists doing the digging into corruption and malfeasance.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.