Collaboration is still key

By Charles Lewis

Share this story

Executive Editor Charles Lewis was the keynote speaker on May 28, 2020, for the presentation of the TRACE awards for investigative reporting. TRACE helps companies conduct business ethically and in compliance with the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, UK Bribery Act and other anti-bribery legislation. This year’s top prizes went to:

• Renee Dudley, of ProPublica, for a major investigation of “The Extortion Economy,” in which businesses supposedly aimed at helping the victims of ransomware are actually fostering the practice by secretly paying off the “kidnappers” and feeding the incentives in this increasingly problematic subset of cybercrime.
• Asaad Al-Zalzalee of the New World electronic newspaper, for the important and engaging project “Schools of Illusion.” This story documents widespread corporate fraud that is depriving “a lost generation” of Iraqi youth of the education they need to rebuild their country.

Hello everyone! Thank you very much, Alexandra, for your generous introduction and most important, for making all of this possible — the TRACE Prize for Investigative Reporting these past five years.

Thank you also to the outstanding judges for these esteemed prizes, and congratulations to our distinguished, honored awardees from the United States and around the world.

It’s great to be with all of you today, albeit remotely, in these strange times in which we are living.

Roughly three decades ago, having abruptly quit CBS News “60 Minutes” as correspondent Mike Wallace’s investigative producer, in 1989 I founded a nonprofit, investigative reporting organization called the Center for Public Integrity, based in Washington, D.C. At the time only the third nonprofit, watchdog news organization in the U.S., I knew almost nothing about the nonprofit world, had no management, financial, or fundraising experience, and I also understood the bleak reality that most new entrepreneurial ventures fail.

Fortunately, numerous honors and awards (including the Pulitzer Prize) and 30 years later, the Center is still going strong, its offices two to three blocks from the White House. It is now only one of 250 nonprofit news organizations in the United States!

In September 1992, I was invited to my first international investigative reporting conference, held in Moscow, Russia, just 11 months after the attempted coup d’état of President Boris Yeltsin. Preeminent journalists from around the world had been invited and were in attendance.

An outstanding woman reporter from Colombia, South America, there was still understandably grieving over the murderous explosion in her condo in Bogota that had tragically killed her sister (it had been intended for her, not her sister); journalists from India and Great Britain had recently been imprisoned for allegedly violating the Official Secrets Act; a woman reporter in South Africa had seen her friends and sources there murdered in the streets. The keynote speaker was my former boss at ABC News in Washington, Carl Bernstein. And the very first night we had all arrived in Moscow and were getting acquainted, and celebrating in a local bar late into the night, when a stray bullet was shot through the front window, literally two feet directly over my head. We were in the Wild, Wild East.

The journalist there whose global experience had the most compelling resonance for me was Phillip Knightley, the internationally renown, London-based author and reporter who eloquently and indelibly stressed the paramount need for competitive, lone-wolf investigative reporters to help each other with information.

Back then, before the World Wide Web was in massive use and daily practice, as Phillip eloquently observed, a freelance reporter in London or anywhere else requesting advice or assistance from another journalist in the world could only communicate via a “snail-mail” letter or fax or a costly long-distance phone call. But with the imminent prospect of these new, online technologies and their great potential, he exhorted us all to be less competitive and squirrely and to loosen up and start cooperating, collaborating and sharing more information with each other across borders.

What he said and how he said it really resonated with me — indeed, it was an epiphany of what was suddenly possible, and I realized my small, scrappy Center for Public Integrity had an amazing opportunity as a well-intentioned, nonprofit, muckraking entity with growing investigative credibility to not only collaborate with other journalists, but to also become a convener of both quality substantive journalistic content and the best and the brightest reporters in the world. It was a wild and crazy idea.

One other thing was quite obvious to me — that despite the technological advances, commercial news organizations generally would still be too competitive and parochial to think that way, or to initiate some sort of “Kum ba ya” content collaboration with muckrakers throughout the world. To me, that was an exciting, entrepreneurial opportunity!

After five long years of steeping the idea and the logistics and the costs required, in 1997 I told the Center for Public Integrity’s Board of Directors, “I have become convinced that the Center can play a critically important convener or facilitator role to investigative journalists around the world.” And that year, the Center’s newest project, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, was born.

The past two decades, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has conducted 34 major international investigations across oceans and the world, and thus far has won 65 awards, including the 2017 U.S. Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for its “Panama Papers” investigation, which involved 11.5 million records and exposed offshore companies linked to more than 140 politicians in over 50 countries, including 14 current or former world leaders. It also revealed how associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin secretly shuffled as much as $2 billion through banks and shadow companies around the world.

Perhaps most remarkable and unprecedented about the epic Panama Papers project, however, is the year-long, discreet and embargoed investigative collaboration between roughly 400 journalists and more than 100 news organizations in 76 countries and all six inhabited continents throughout the world!

The present and the future of investigative journalism in three words is: collaboration, collaboration, collaboration.

Thank you!

Charles Lewis, an investigative journalist for four decades, is a tenured professor and the founding executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University in Washington, D.C. A former producer for ABC News and CBS News “60 Minutes”, he founded two Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit news organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. A best-selling author/co-author of six books, he was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1998, received the PEN USA First Amendment Award in 2004, and was awarded the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence in 2018.