ETHICS UPDATE / Elephants in the room: When it comes to editors and ethics, the enemy may (sometimes) be us

Charles Lewis, one of America’s top investigative journalism authorities, will speak at ASBPE’s May 10-11 National Conference in Washington, DC. At the request of the Ethics Committee, he shares in this article some thoughts about ethical issues that have grown from his own experience.—Roy Harris, Interim Committee Chair

I am honored to be the keynote speaker at this year’s American Society of Business Publication Editors B2B Media Success Conference May 10 at the National Press Club.

Investigative reporting is, I believe, the most difficult, time-consuming and potentially expensive type of journalism. Per story or series of stories, it generally takes more time and thus costs more money than nearly all other types of journalism with the possible exception of foreign reporting. And if the subject of the investigation is not local, state, federal or foreign government-related, but instead involves a publicly-traded or private corporation, there is a very real additional reporting risk from extremely costly civil litigation and even pre-publication legal threats.

Indeed, it is not coincidental that most investigative reporting is about government agencies and officials – as opposed to corporations and their executives. The former cannot sue news organizations for stories they don’t like; the latter, companies and their execs, can. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, historically and generally, advertising or subscriber-dependent news organizations have been reluctant to expose corporate wrongdoing.

Regarding the commercial news media, of the first 90 Pulitzer Prizes awarded for public-service journalism, very few of them involved corporate abuses of power, according to Florence Graves, founding director of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University and before that, founding editor of award-winning Common Cause Magazine. The most unusual and remarkable exposé of corporate misconduct using electronic stock-trading charts, algorithms and probability analysis that won the Pulitzer Prize in recent years, as noted by Pulitzer’s Gold author Roy Harris, was the Wall Street Journal’s “creative and comprehensive probe into backdated stock options for business executives that triggered investigations [and] the ouster of top officials.”

The case of tobacco

There was no more dramatic example in the last half century of how difficult it is to investigate powerful corporations than between 1988 and 1996, in the case of tobacco. On four separate occasions during those eight years, America’s largest tobacco companies pressured CBS News 60 Minutes (two separate stories, in 1988 and 1995) and ABC News Day One and Turning Point executives and producers to kill–and in one case even apologize on air for–heavily reported, produced and [in three of the four cases] broadcast news stories about the deadly effects of smoking.

I was co-producer of one of those 60 Minutes tobacco stories, entitled “Tobacco on Trial,” in 1988. Meanwhile, between 1976 and 2008, newspapers and magazines cumulatively took in $10.9 billion from cigarette advertising. And overall during that period there was a paucity of aggressive, Profiles-in-Courage-style news coverage of that industry.  Meanwhile, during those roughly three decades approximately 12 million people in the U.S. died prematurely from smoking-related illnesses.

Similarly, beyond tobacco products, corporate manufacturers of asbestos and lead paint, and companies that emitted coal dust and various types of deadly toxic chemicals, for decades have systematically misled the public–including the news media–about the lethal dangers connected with their businesses. And as a profession, we journalists must acknowledge that generally speaking, investigative news coverage of these industries also was laggard and late. And thus, so too were truth and accountability.

Making a compromise

Ethically, there are other onerous situations we in the media encounter. For example, when I was a producer for Mike Wallace at 60 Minutes years ago, I was asked by the powers that be at the show–indirectly but unmistakably and repeatedly–not to mention by name a particular, well-known American corporate titan and billionaire businessman in my story segment script. Why? Because he was one of CBS News 60 Minutes creator and executive producer Don Hewitt’s best friends. That was not a good enough reason for me and indeed, it was also certainly not a journalistic reason. But while I found the situation offensive, I also realized, regrettably, that the story would never air unless I compromised in some small way. So I proposed, and everyone agreed, that we would show his face on screen (with his team of other company executives) from a Japanese newspaper advertisement photo. And we also would mention his famous company’s name on the air, but not his actual name. The morning after the story segment aired–reported and narrated by correspondent Mike Wallace and later nominated for an Emmy Award–I quit 60 Minutes, breaking a four-year contract. Mike and others thought I was having a nervous breakdown or worse; Don just asked me if I wanted more money. Neither was the case, and months later, I started the Center for Public Integrity from my home.

I don’t regret at all what I did. But decades later, I also certainly realize that the “nuclear option” of abruptly quitting and breaking a contract is not the only way to handle potential internal censorship issues. Sometimes negotiating with an editor-in-chief or other respected editor in a newsroom can bring about an acceptable compromise for all concerned. And even at 60 Minutes, a year before my abrupt departure, I saw an instance in which several of the editorial/production staff, led by respected correspondent Morley Safer protested the heavy-handed actions of the Executive Producer towards one of the staff producers (yours truly, as a matter of fact), and it worked – the problem went away! I was surprised, astonished and deeply grateful. Senior street cred, reason, and the wisdom of a small group of respected, like-minded professionals moved the situation from ludicrous and unfair back to the acceptable status quo.

That’s not always “the way it is” in a newsroom, certainly, but when it happens, everyone wins.

Charles Lewis is founding executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop and a professor at American University in Washington, DC. A veteran investigative journalist, he is also the founder of two Pulitzer Prize–winning nonprofit news organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. He is the author or co-author of six books, most recently 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity (2014).

Please share this page with your friends and colleagues.