New Site Chronicles Greatest Investigative Reporting

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Robert Siegel talks to Charles Lewis, a professor at the American University School of Communication, about an online multimedia project called "Investigating Power." The project documents the careers of notable journalists since the 1950s. The goal is to make sure the techniques, sensibilities and editorial standards of the craft don't become hieroglyphics.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Journalism covers a multitude of jobs, from writing advice columns to covering wars, but investigative journalism occupies a special place. It is the most complex discipline within the profession. It entails poking your nose into places it's not welcome. It often requires the skills of a detective, the nerve of a charlatan, and the persuasive powers of a seducer.

Well, now there is an online site, called Investigating Power, that promises, in the creator's own words: to be the first comprehensive visual history of some of America's greatest moments of fearless independent journalism, and how they changed the course of American history. Thankfully for us, it's also an audio history.

And with me is the man behind the project, Charles Lewis, professor of journalism at American University and a former CBS "60 Minutes" and ABC News producer. Hi.

CHARLES LEWIS: Hi. How are you doing?

SIEGEL: Tell me about this project - why you're doing it, why you're doing it now.

LEWIS: Well, I've been working on a book for about eight years - my family is wondering what's happening here - and I realized I need to talk to some of these great journalists 'cause I was being somewhat critical of some reporting in recent years. And I realized I had a sense of what the context was, but I had actually not ever sat down and really understood and studied what they did.

And so I decided if I'm going to talk to them, I'd better record it - 'cause many of these folks were in their 70s, 80s, 90s. And in fact, two of the folks have died since. So it started out as an innocent thing just for the book, to help me understand. And it became something much larger.

SIEGEL: It's a new genre. It's a big, online archive where we can hear and see these interviews with all kinds of reporters. And some of them are - obviously, Woodward and Bernstein, and Dana Priest, from the Washington Post. These are terrific reporters.

I want to talk about one in particular: your interview with Seymour Hersh, and how he unveiled the My Lai Massacre, the slaughter of hundreds of people in Vietnam. Ultimately, Lt. William Calley was convicted of killing 22 people. But Hersh describes to you - as he was covering the Pentagon, he got a tip about hundreds of people being shot somewhere in Vietnam. He had nothing. He didn't even have a name of anyone involved.

SEYMOUR HERSH: I was in the Pentagon one day. I'm chasing the story out of nowhere. I know I have this tip, but I have no lead on it. And I see a guy that had been a colonel when I knew him in '66, '67. He had gone to Vietnam. And so, we're limping along and I'm walking down the corridor with him. I said, so what are you doing now? What's your assignment? He said I'm working for the chief of staff. Gen. William Westmoreland was then chief of staff

And I said, so tell me - I said - what's this about some guy shooting up a bunch of people? And he stopped - one of those magic moments - and he said, let me tell you, Hersh - he said - that guy Calley, he didn't shoot anybody higher than this high. He just shot little kids. He deserves everything he gets.

And, you know, I didn't say Calley, wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HERSH: I'm sure I said oh, OK - or whatever, you know. But I had a name.

SIEGEL: He had the name of Calley. You could say that was luck, but you could also say it was really good reporting. He knew the people whom he could ask.

LEWIS: And he tracked him down, but he ends up at Fort Benning, Georgia. Through force of will - which only Sy Hersh can do - somehow maneuvered himself onto the base and actually found him. They were kind of keeping him in a discrete place; actually, off-base, it turned out. But his tenacity, it takes your breath away. I think he went - Salt Lake; he went to Los Angeles; he went to Benning. And then he put it all together.

And the most interesting part of the story is, 30 news organizations did not want to publish this story. And probably one of the most important stories of the entire Vietnam War, from 1962 to '75, is his story, and he was here in Washington.

SIEGEL: Yeah. He got it literally, as you say, flying all over the country; literally, knocking on door; ultimately, getting the guy in the mailroom who knew where the letters for Lt. Calley went.

LEWIS: He keeps getting to the wrong person, but they keep telling him a little bit more. And he goes from one barrack to another. And, I mean, it is a great story about a freelance writer doing something wonderful and important.

SIEGEL: Now, here's a different kind of reporting when you have in the archive accounts of the Civil Rights Movement. Much of what transpired was out in the open. It was clear and obvious segregation. But you also include an interview with Moses Newson, who worked for the Tri-State Defender; I assume it was a black paper.

LEWIS: Right.

SIEGEL: And he was covering the trial in the Emmett Till case. Till was the black teenager who was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. Newson is African-American, and he had to go out looking for witnesses. And he did so at some risk.

MOSES NEWSON: I was going along as the pool reporter. So we changed into clothing, and put on some of the kind of clothing that the people who work on the plantations down there would have been wearing. And we backed out in these woods trying to scare up witnesses, you know. And then I got to thinking, you know, they don't convict white people down here for killing black people.

SIEGEL: Pretty scary assignment.

LEWIS: Extremely scary. They couldn't even carry a notebook like white reporters, for fear they'd be seen. And they had to dress down so they would not look like they're out-of-towners. And he was in the Freedom Rides - where they fire-bombed his bus a few years later.

But that trial was the first time, I believe, in the history of the Civil Rights Movement - and one of the early times in America - where black reporters and white reporters sat together, covering something in the South. And of course, that was the same year Rosa Parks did her thing in Montgomery. And a young preacher named Martin Luther King emerged the same year.

But we forget that there were 2,000 black newspapers. And the white press, the white Northern press, had not really discovered civil rights. The New York Times didn't have a bureau in the South before 1947. So this was a seminal moment when things were starting to come together, and we started to see ourselves in a way we didn't want to see it.

SIEGEL: In the online archive - Investigating Power - that you've assembled, there are stories of news organizations standing by the reporter when he's got something that's going to prove very controversial. You have examples, also, of reporters who don't find the management standing behind them.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the state of investigative reporting today? And should we think of, say, the heyday of Woodward and Bernstein and the early days of "60 Minutes" - where you worked - as the golden age of investigative reporting?

LEWIS: I think there are two golden ages, probably: The McClure, with Lincoln Steffens, around the time of World War I; and the second golden age probably was the '50s to the '70s - at the moment. I'm hoping there will be a third golden age.

One of the reasons I wanted to do this was for the world to realize how important this journalism is, but also how difficult it is, how long it takes. Time and money are related here. If you have somebody on something for four years, you're paying their salary for four years to watch it. And I want us to realize that we must have this function in our democracy. We have no choice. If we want to continue to exist as a people, we have to be informed.

And so there's been things about journalism, of course; there's books and there's museums, and all kinds of things. But I thought it had to be on the Web so the world could see it easily. And that was the idea.

SIEGEL: Charles Lewis, who I should say, also was the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, and now has created the online archive Investigating Power.

Thanks for talking with us.

LEWIS: Thanks for having me.

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